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Writing on Airplanes

I am an author, but I also have, as most of us do, a very busy job. You know, the one that pays the bills. So when people find out that I am an author who has two published books they invariably say, “How do you find the time to write?” On reflection, I wonder about this myself. Before I started to write I had the same 24 hours as I do now, which I seemed to totally fill up doing other stuff.

The answer, of course, is you just do it; while eating lunch, while commuting to work, in the evenings after work, and on weekends (writers can be really boring company). Also, in my particular situation, I spend a lot of time on airplanes. When I take the time to explain this to a non-writer, however, I can tell by the look of pity in their eyes that they consider this a life spent unwisely, “Poor guy, all you do is work.” Is writing ‘work’? To me (when the muse is present) the process of writing is more like a visit to another world, not the ‘w’ word. I wake up in the morning wondering what my characters are going to do today, and I won’t find out until I start writing.

Every writer will have to find their own times to write, adapting their writing habits to the unique conditions of their daily work lives, like the kangaroo rat who has adapted to the harsh conditions of their unique environment (they live in the driest deserts of North America and get their moisture from the seeds they eat rather than having to drink water). “No water? I’ll eat seeds. No time to write? I’ll write while I commute.” Personally, for the last ten years I have been working in China, the last three of which I have been living in Hong Kong. As I am not brave enough, I do not drive here, which I find is a boon to my writing time. I commute via public transportation rather than drive myself, which gives me time to write. If I was still living in Southern California’s personal-car-based environment without a commuting option, however, I would be up the creek without a keyboard. But, like the kangaroo rat, I am sure that I would have found another time to write.

Now, to the writing on airplanes part, as the title of this blog promises. Almost every week I am flying to some third-tier Chinese city or another which, until our Real Estate Department had decided that has retail potential, I had never heard of. I have been to more obscure Chinese cities than most Chinese. However, a three hour flight is a gift to a writer. True, the seat is cramped and the tray table is smaller than your laptop, but when the muse graces you with her embrace you are transported to another time and place and you do not even notice. No interruptions by calls or e-mail is another element that makes the inside of your flying metal tube an ideal time to write.

For those of you who do not fly on Chinese airlines, a word about flying in China is in order so that you understand the difficulties sometimes involved. Firstly, Chinese flights are always (not exaggerating) delayed. Anyway, not complaining, more time to write. However, flying in China can at times be very frustrating, and this is not conducive to writing (the Muse only visits this writer when he is in a calm state of mind). Much of this frustration is engendered by the airlines themselves and their management style, only doling out mysterious general directives, crumbs of information stingily given on a “need-to-know” basis. No information is offered on when we are going to leave and why we are not leaving. There is a lot of guess work, therefore, on the part of the flying public, which sometimes creates near-riot situations and frustrated people losing all control, on their way to becoming the stars of a YouTube video under the heading ‘Chinese Airport Rage’.

To illustrate this, I will relate one incident that occurred when I was flying between Shenzhen and Zhengzhou. I was seated in the airplane in the middle of a group of ruddy-faced farmers from Zhengzhou coming back from a holiday. They were joking with each other, laughing, and happily eating chicken feet and salty tofu from Styrofoam take-away bins. These were not frequent flyers, and evidently not accustomed to the fact that it is very common for flights to be delayed in China. Typically, for a quick getaway once the pilot gets the “go” signal to taxi out from the gate, in China the airline will load the passengers onto the airplane and will then wait on the tarmac, sometimes for hours, before the pilot gets clearance to leave the gate.

The difference in this particular case was that until the airplane got rolling, for some reason, the air conditioning would not work. In the U.S. the pilot would have gotten on the intercom and in a likable, Midwest drawl sounding a bit like Jimmy Stewart would earnestly say, “Well folks, we got a bit of a problem here…”, and would proceed to explain what the problem is and how long it might take to fix it. Jimmy Stewart, however, was unfortunately not piloting this particular flight to Zhengzhou. No information was forthcoming about what was wrong or an estimated time to fix it. The farmers from Zhenzhou were now no longer in a happy mood. The jovial banter had turned to agitation.  One farmer took a leadership role and became very vocal. He galvanized the group. He was an instigator of unrest. Yes, he was seated next to me.

I have found that when Chinese do reach their breaking point, they breakdown in a big way. The yelling is almost always accompanied by the pointing finger. My seat-mate was now standing, pointing his finger wildly at the stewards and stewardesses and screaming with all the lung power he could muster. His fellow Zhengzhou minions followed the lead of their new demagogue and were ready to overpower the airplane staff and take over the flight, or at least get back to the lounge where there was ample air conditioning and more Styrofoam-encased treats.

The airline staff were now also pointing their fingers back at the angry farmers, with me in the middle of them, and were yelling loudly back at the Zhengzhou group. However, there still was no Jimmy Stewart and no forthcoming information as to our departure time or A.C. situation. Would I be mistaken for one of the group when the mace was broken out? In the U.S. the air marshals would have already had this group cuffed by now. Would the next day’s China Daily headlines read ‘American farmer from Zhengzhou arrested in riot on airplane.’? Luckily, at this time the plane started rolling to get in line for take-off and the air conditioning kicked on. Everyone calmed down; riot averted.

However, may your flights be not so eventful, and your muse seated next to you. I have been able to write the majority of two novels while soaring above 3,000 feet. Put your tray table up and shut down your electronics? You’re kidding, are we there already?