Subterranean Writer’s Block Blues

Having trouble putting pen to paper (or fingers to keys)? Believe it or not, taking the subway might offer salvation.


DECEMBER 2, 2020

Can you cut someone’s throat on the downtown B train at 96th Street and get rid of the body before you reach Columbus Circle, four stops away? Absolutely. I guarantee it. Even better: you can do it faster than if you were at your desk.

I made this discovery while banging my head against the brick wall of a particularly bad case of writer’s block. I’d tried all the usual tricks: getting up from my desk and staring down into the street to watch the garbage trucks, checking the fridge to see if the cold pasta was still there, eating the cold pasta. Nothing worked. The problem I had at the time was not the throat-slash-and-body-dump mentioned above (a task now laughably simple), but a more basic and intractable problem. I needed a diamond thief, but I couldn’t nail it. Then suddenly …

I was on my way home from a workout in Midtown and had just gotten on the E train when she sailed into my head fully formed: a Russian femme fatale with elvish ears and cold gray eyes and a heart that longed for Jesus. I hauled out my iPhone and quickly thumbed her into Pages before I forgot:

Slav Lily believed in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and Earth, and in Jesus Christ his only begotten son, but she also believed in a Glock 42 Slimline subcompact.

That was just between Fifth and Seventh Avenues—a single stop! I rushed off the train and hurried downstairs to the uptown B, and kept on writing.

Seventeen ounces with the six-round clip fully loaded. She wore it strapped inside her T-shirt, concealed by a short red leather jacket. You couldn’t leave everything to God.

All that in the time it took to get to 96th Street. A total of 84 words. I counted them on the way home, stumbling down the sidewalk in a haze of wonder. Back at my desk, I pasted the paragraph into Word, and by the time I’d put her in a church, sharpened her ears into Spock-like points, and given her someone to kill, I had 150 words! Writing fiction is basically a 300-word-a-day ditch dig, and I’d just got halfway there by writing on the subway.

I’d tried all the usual tricks: checking the fridge to see if the cold pasta was still there, eating the cold pasta. Nothing worked.

After tossing off the music for the Messiah in 24 days flat, Handel is said to have recalled: “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself.” While trying hard not to hate Handel, I’d always wondered how that felt. Now I knew. Think about the subway. No garbage trucks. No fridge. No cold pasta. What’s left? Writing is what’s left.

The next morning I shot out of bed, swallowed three black coffees, and set off for the subway to see if my breakthrough had survived the night. In the giddy weeks that followed, I tried many routes. B train to Coney Island. M96 bus to Lexington Avenue and uptown 6 train to Pelham Bay Park. Even the Broadway 1 train down to the Battery, and onto the Staten Island Ferry.

Some routes were good for writing and others were not. But you don’t have to try them out, because I’ve done it for you—I’ve found the route to beat all routes. If you take this simple advice, you will never suffer from writer’s block again. I should charge for this, but I’m giving it away for free.

Here you go: the A train to Far Rockaway. That’s it.

Think about the subway. No fridge. No cold pasta. What’s left? Writing is what’s left.

The A train is the best writing train in New York City. It’s exceptionally noisy, so you’re cocooned by the din. Nothing can penetrate the armor that encases you. If somehow a garbage truck made it onto the A train, you wouldn’t even hear it. I logged my production once. Here’s what I got.

B train from 96th to Columbus Circle: 98 words. Change to A and keep going. The story I was working on was not the Glock-in-the-bra story. Thanks to the A train, I’d already finished that book and was on the sequel. The scene that morning was a plane chase. The good guys were in for a nasty surprise. As the A train roared south through the bedrock of Manhattan, their fate spilled out in a torrent. I’m not saying it was irreproachable prose, but come on! By the time I did a quick check at West Fourth Street, I had another 157 words, and in the 47 minutes between West Fourth and Broad Channel, 200 more!

I staggered off the train in a rapture. The waters of Jamaica Bay sparkled in the sun. I took the shuttle to Beach 90th Street and floated the few blocks to Uma’s, an Uzbek surfer-dude café on Rockaway Beach Boulevard. I sat at the bar and rewarded myself with an order of plov, the national dish of Uzbekistan. I loved the Uzbek people. I loved the plov. I loved the 455 words.

We don’t know exactly what Magellan felt like when he finally got around Cape Horn. He didn’t have a phone to write it down on. But I think I can speak for him. He felt great. A world-shattering discovery does that for you. My final count for the day was 953 words. O.K., they didn’t all survive. The glow of the plov wore off, as it must, and in I went with the cleaver. Still, when the butchery was done and I’d rinsed off the blood, I had almost 600 words.

I feel sorry for the scribblers holed up across America in remote writing cabins in the woods. A prey to silence. It’s easier in New York. Grab your phone. Strap on your mask. Hit the A train.