You Didn't Grow Up With Trains
Or, Experiences aren't universal (and that's good)
There has been a lot of conversation going on in the literary world for several years now about the importance of diversifying the stories on our bookshelves. Anyone who has talked to me about workshopping writing in the last year or so has heard me go on about Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping by Matthew Salesses which is all about how the current models of writing craft and the writing workshop fail marginalized writers and how cultural expectations inform storytelling. The author talks about all this much more eloquently and intelligently than I can here, so I highly recommend reading it.
Because this blog post is about trains.
Many times, when we have these conversations about diversifying fiction, the focus comes down on the things we can label, classify, and put in a box: race, gender, sexual identity or orientation. These are imperative parts of the conversation, but it can get lost that, on the base of it, we’re talking about a diversity of experience. As a racialized person or gender minority, you have a different experience of the world. But your experiences might also be challenged if you grew up in poverty, or if you’re a trauma survivor, or if you’re a member of a religious community, or have some other aspect which falls outside of the cultural “norm”.
Or, for example, if you grew up in a small town with a whole bunch of active train routes.
I grew up in an, at the time, small, blue-collar manufacturing town which was at the nexus of a lot of trains. Not passenger trains, either. Mostly commercial freight trains, the ones you can watch go by for twenty, forty minutes or more from one end to the other. It wasn’t until I moved to Ottawa and met people who grew up all over I learned not everyone had entire school assemblies or public service announcements during popular television shows about train and rail safety. I have one such PSA seared into my brain of a teenager jauntily stooling down some tracks listening to his bright yellow Walkman. We hear the music along with him as he dances, until we see the bright light of a locomotive peaking over his shoulder, a loud horn blast, and a cut to black. Never listen to music while you walk the tracks, was the message. If you can’t hear the train, you can’t avoid it. It was hammered into our heads: In a challenge between you and a train, the train will always win.
This has become a bit of a running joke in my friend and writing groups now. Some don’t understand why anyone would walk down railroad tracks in the first place. The short answer is in a small, underdeveloped town, the tracks and the rail bridges were the quickest way to walk anywhere. They always got plowed in the winter, they cut paths through dense forest, and the rail bridge was way closer than the car bridge. If someone drove up to an intersection and saw the railway lights flashing, people would speed up to “beat the train”. If you didn’t, they were going to be watching freight cars flash by for at least twenty minutes. Unfortunately, that meant a lot of people (and cars) got hit by trains. So, we got assemblies and PSAs on local cable.
However, it’s also become a handy shorthand when talking about our writing. When a critique partner challenges something in a submission, we can explore what made them highlight that section. It might be the way a character interacts with their family. It might be the way a situation unfolds. It might have to do with a different approach to narrative than expected. Sometimes, this brings up an important point about what is or isn’t working in the story. However, sometimes, it’s integral but unique to our story, so we shrug and say, “Well, we didn’t group with trains”.
No experience is universal and that’s what makes the world as diverse and exciting as our bookshelves should be. Trying to fit another person’s experience—whether that’s of small-town train proximity or how they express their own cultures—into the box of how literature, craft, and stories have “always been” does a great disservice to the stories we get to share and experience ourselves. Part of what makes consuming fiction great is experiencing another person’s world—be it realistic or fantasy. Why ask them to conform to your experiences and reality? It’s also worth reflecting on the stories which have always been the ones which get told and have therefore constructed this “literary canon” by which everyone else has always had to try to fold themselves into for the sake of so-called relatability, likeability, believability, marketability, or simply the comfort of the perceived majority.
We miss out on so much by limiting the stories we consume to the familiar.
You may not have grown up around trains, but I bet now you want me to tell you all about how to ditch off a railway bridge when jumping into the river far below is just as dangerous, right? I don’t recommend it, but, c’mon, it’s a little badass.
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