Writing The Friendly Skies: Diverting Writing Exercises While In Airports And Airplanes
I’m often most comfortable when in transit. The sense of possibility and potential I experience while in-between has inspired me to frequently wander. Typically my travels involve a car, my favorite CD mixes, and a tattered Atlas. However, on the occasions when an airplane is required to reach a destination, I’m reminded of the innumerable writing opportunities available while inside airports and airplanes.
These exercises can be conducted using a laptop or with a pen and paper. Or, if you prefer, using colored pencils and sketching paper. Whatever medium you are most comfortable using while in transit and awaiting—or experiencing—the “friendly skies,” remember that these exercises are merely suggestions. It’s possibly you would much rather write about an aspect of airline travel I have overlooked. Moreover, depending on the length of your flights and your other responsibilities—such as children, significant others, and so forth—you may not have the luxury of writing copious amounts while in transit.
The first writing exercise is to imagine you are headed to a vastly different destination with the items you have packed. In other words, if you are flying to Alaska in early October, imagine you are instead headed to the Virgin Islands with a suitcase full of sweatshirts, wool socks, and a stocking cap. Next envision how you would respond to this ill-suited wardrobe in this unexpected destination. Pick a specific item or two of clothing and write for ten minutes about trying to be a tourist in the new location while wearing unsuitable clothing.
Next write about being a TSA agent who can see the carry on items as they are being scanned. Let your imagination go as you imagine viewing absurd and unlikely items such as unicorn horns or magic potions. List ten unlikely items you would see as a TSA agent and then include these in a silly poem. The idea of this exercise is to think WAY outside the box while exploring more whimsical territory.
What do you like to do while passing time at an airport?
While you are waiting at your gate, take the time to carefully observe another traveler. Notice what this person is wearing, how they are standing, whether or not they are listening to music with earphones, or if they look overly tired, unhappy, or peaceful. Take ten minutes to describe this person with as many specific details as possible. If you think the woman looks like she is sixty years old, write this down. If the man has a brown stain on his Minnesota Twins sweatshirt, write this down. The main purpose of this exercise is improving your observation skills.
Another worthwhile writing exercise is to silently think of possible names for the travelers who walk by. You can do this exercise in several different ways. The first approach is to think of names which seem possible for this person to have. In other words, a woman in her late seventies more likely to be named Betty or Mary than she is to be named Brynn or Raine. Another approach is to give the travelers incongruent names. This may mean you name three extra tall and blonde men Pedro, Frederico, and Jasper. Or else you could venture into the realm of giving the travelers names which seem fantastic and perhaps make you think of the names from fantasy book series by authors such as J.K. Rowling or J.R.R. Tolkien. For example, you may see a slender, elegant woman in her fifties and name her Ella of the Enchanted Waters.
Another writing exercise involves finding an otherwise unassuming individual—such as a quiet, older woman or a slight, bearded man reading a book—and invent a fictional existence for them which is exotic and unlikely to be remotely true. This may mean you determine the subdued older lady reading her Good Housekeeping magazine three seats from you is actually a spy for the F.B.I. whose expertise has led to the capture of thirty dangerous criminals. At home you might think she has matching dishes with floral designs, yet she actually has a vault with two dozen guns—and she can expertly operate every one. If this sounds morbid to you, you could also make her an international opera star who has performed for the queen of England on three separate occasions.
One witness protection story
If you are uncomfortable creating a fictional existence for someone you do not know, consider an alternative explanation for why you are traveling. Perhaps you are still in love with your high school sweetheart and off to meet them again for the first time in twenty years. Or else you are in the witness protection program and the name on your driver’s license is not the name you were born with. Perhaps you are also unemployed and discouraged, and you decided to add a plane ticket to your almost maxed out VISA.
Once you are on the plane, settle into your seat before starting the writing exercise in which you list adjectives relating to airplane travel. This list could include speedy, exhausting, exhilarating, expensive, and beyond. You have the option to keep listing adjectives until you run out of ideas. However, you could also stop listing them after five or ten minutes. Afterwards look at this list in order to see if there are any overarching themes. Are these adjectives mostly positive or negative? If you are aghast to discover many of them are negative, perhaps you will find it helpful to do the exercise again and to be mindful to list more positive items.
Another option is to write about the pilot and co-pilot. Even if you don’t know what either of them look like, you are free to write about what either pilot or co-pilot dreamed about being when they grew up. You could also write a short dialogue which you imagine could be unfolding in the cockpit. Moreover, there is the option of writing far-fetched dialogue. If I were to take this route, it might look something like this:
Pilot: So, do you think I’m less of a man if my wife wants us to get a pink bedspread?
Co-pilot: Absolutely not. Pink is, after all, the new black.
Pilot: Good point. I think you would look good in pink. Some men do.
Co-pilot: Maybe. I prefer pale purple myself. It seems more masculine somehow.
Pilot: I cannot blame you. By the way, have you seen the new episode of “Desperate Housewives”?
Co-pilot: Not yet, so don’t tell me what happens. The suspense is killing me. I’ll watch it when I get home.
Finally, while you are in flight, look around at the other passengers and think about why they are traveling. Try to be as realistic as possible in this assessment. You may be able to obtain a few clues if you overhear them mention visiting family, a significant other, traveling for business, and so forth. If they aren’t talking, however, you will be forced to speculate. One benefit of this exercise is it encourages you to think about the details which are essential to a story. In other words, it’s possible a conflict—whether the desire to see someone special, or the desire to get out of an uncomfortable home situation—has inspired their current motion. At the very least, you are able to think about what motivates other people, and this may yield great returns the next time you sit down to write a short story or novel.