In October 2015, my friend Elizabeth and I went on a cross-country writing train trip from Montreal to Los Angeles in five days. Here are some stories, insights and musings that came from that adventure.

Have you ever seen a sunrise from the train? It’s astounding. I sat in bed, knees pulled up to my chest, holding onto the last sunrise I’d see on this trip for a bit longer. I thought I was an early riser, but Elizabeth beats me by an hour sometimes. It was our last morning on the train and I wanted to experience the rest of this sunrise with her while I could. So I threw on my clothes and meandered through the dining car expecting to find her in the Observation car. But to my surprise I found a smiling and very awake Elizabeth sitting in a dining car booth with a couple so cheery and magnetic that even that early in the morning I couldn’t resist it. I slid into the booth and introduced myself. At this point in the trip the plethora of breakfast items that had once existed had run out one by one, but my trusty frosted flakes were still available. I ordered that with my tea and had probably the most significant conversation with strangers I had had on this trip. As I’ve mentioned meeting strangers is part of being on a train trip. Having meals in the dining car means you are seated with people you don’t know. And this last breakfast we met an incredible couple, Steve and Carol Kaye.

 

Birdman I: Focus on the eyes

Steve, we learned, is a nature photographer. They were just returning from a Hummingbird photography conference in Sedona, AZ where he was the MC (And…. we are hooked. You can’t help but meet interesting people on trains!). Elizabeth and I noted how hard it must be to photograph hummingbirds. He smiled. He smiled in a way that reminded me of my grandfather who was an amateur photographer, teacher and writer.

 

Photo my grandfather took years ago.

 

Steve also smiled in that way that wise people do when they are about to tell you something that will send your mind to outer space.

“How do you take pictures of hummingbirds?” I asked.

“You have to focus on the eyes,” Steve said.

Don’t worry about anything else, he said. Just focus on the eyes.

Focus on the life. Focus on the windows to the soul. That’s how you capture the beauty. That’s what we do in writing isn’t it? Look for the heart. The person. The real person. Focus on that. Focus on the eyes. Works in life too doesn’t it?

Check out this blog entitled Too Close by Steve Kaye. I particularly liked this one.

 

Birds II: Find your Signature

“You need your signature.”

This was next piece of advice Steve Kaye gave about taking pictures of hummingbirds. I took that to mean you need to find what makes the photo yours. You need your signature. When you see the picture through your own eyes, your own perspective will show on the print. Your portfolio will be cohesive and have a through line.

I very much related to this as a writer. Writers hear so much about voice. “Voice is what we look for when we are reading manuscripts,” agents and editors say. This can be a frustrating piece of advice to new writers especially. Because voice isn’t something learned in a workshop necessary. Voice, to me, really is what Steve was talking about in that train car. When I read a book by an author I love I know their voice. It is a hard thing to describe. It seems so abstract. It’s not how you put words together exactly (although it affects that) as I imagine it’s not the technical way you compose a shot or develop the film. It’s nothing that can be taught really. It’s allowing the way you see the world to come though your words or pictures. Voice is what you are drawn to in art even if you didn’t know it I think. Every time I sit down to write, as cheesy as this sounds, I take a deep breath and think: Tell this story the only way I alone can tell it. And I tap right in.

 

Birds III: Listen for the laughter

Steve and Cathy very clearly have a loving, wonderful relationship. It was so nice to see. They have been married 47 years and still look at each other with those adorable in-love looks. Elizabeth mentioned she was getting married in 2016 and that I had just gotten married the year before. We asked for sage advice. They giggled sweetly and looked at each other.

Cathy said, “Listen for the laughter.”

Oh I love that advice. Where there is laughter there is love.

And she also said, “Support each other. Always.” Again. Exactly right I think.

Steve said, “Talk. Talk. Talk.”

Also perfect. When I feel things are off in my relationship this is always the answer. Talk. Communicate. Get in harmony. Accept who you love for who they are and listen.

“We met in college,” Steve said. “When I went into that dormitory full of people, there was only her.”

So sweet. What a perfect last morning breakfast conversation before we went home to our men.

I stepped off the train, feeling ready for life to begin again. Focus on the eyes. Find your signature. Listen for the laughter. Jump in. Let’s go.

 

To learn more about Steve Kay visit his website.

 

Another picture taken by my grandfather.

 

To see the “other” Elizabeth’s posts about our trip visit her website.