Written in the Sky
How flying unlocks a writer’s imagination
I once wrote an entire short story on an airplane. I flipped down the tray table and flipped open my laptop, and that story was right there, curled up as whole and alive as a cat.
That I wrote that story so easily I thought of as a fluke at the time. An accident, a great unearned fortune belonging to the set of glorious fables that includes the apple falling on Newton’s head and the day Hemingway wrote not just one but three entire stories. That I felt myself a conduit, vibrating with the force of that story’s current, I thought unrelated to my location in a window seat on the starboard side of an airplane high above the pixelated farmland.
I was new then. I never called myself a writer or had thoughts about how to be a writer. I was years away from publishing my first book. But now, on the other side of a novel and a play and at least a seat-back pocket’s worth of stories and essays, I can say something about why flying is so good for writing.
Like an omniscient narrator, I have a diffuse awareness that pays as much attention to inanimate objects and atmospheric factors as it does people. This awareness proves rich and useful when I can pull it into a story, but it also locks me out of the headspace I need to write at all. At home, on land, it takes extraordinary effort to put myself in an environment with severely limited and strictly predictable features, but that’s exactly where I find myself on a plane.
Nothing in front of my eyes but that flat gray surface. No one I know around me. Probably no one will talk to me except to ask if I want a drink, and if so, what I want to drink—questions easily answered. My body is in transit from here to there, and my sole mission is to keep it in its seat. If necessary, walk it to the lavatory and back. Out the window, the sky is helpfully blank, or helpful with a B-roll of spectrum and clouds, nothing I will be required to respond to or manage. I can even pull the little shade on it, on the whole world.
Thus constrained—physically buckled in and mentally absolved of peripheral actors—I often feel a valve open in the deep creative mind. Whatever is in there feels like stretching its wings, taking flight.
At home, I’ve tried to create a similar space of sensory deprivation. I write in a dark closet—specifically with my laptop on the top shelf inside a dark closet, which is at least not on the ground—but what’s missing is the motion. Even if the motion of air travel is, for most of the flight, imperceptible, you know it’s happening. Something is already happening, which is exactly how a story should feel, even when nothing seems to be happening. That’s when you know you’re flying.