By Stephen Jay Schwartz

I’m on a plane again, heading west, Southwest Airlines, Denver to L.A. Last week it was Phoenix to L.A. The week before that, Salt Lake City. Albuquerque. Minneapolis.

Next week Seattle. Phoenix. Vegas. Portland.

Traveling for the day job. My willingness to travel is what makes me marketable, employable, desirable to the employer who would need an experienced traveller. I know the ins and outs of airports, I’m George Clooney in Up in the Air. I know what to wear and how to pack and what line to choose when entering security and where to find the hand sanitizer when I need it. I know where to look for my books if my books are there to be found and I’ve even found them, once, on the shelves of a bookstore at San Francisco International, the day before Bouchercon.

I’ve travelled most of the U.S. and Canada. Sales jobs, running the country or a region, meeting the reps, seeing the sights. I don’t let it go to waste, these paid-for trips, these lonely journeys flying alone and away.

I’ve worked New England three times and each time I force a sales rep to drive me to Lowell, Massachusetts, so I can sit beside Jack Kerouac’s grave. When I worked New Hampshire I took a side trip to Thoreau’s home where I swam Walden Pond end-to-end. I made my New York rep take me to Niagara Falls so I could call my wife and say, “Happy Anniversary, babe!”

I had an idea to write a short story about turkey hunting, so I called my Alabama rep and set a date to make sales calls during turkey hunting season. We spent a day in the woods above Huntsville and I got all the research I needed. When I worked Oklahoma City I had my rep take me to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building where I walked the memorial and cried like I child. I did the same with my rep in Manhattan, staring at pictures of the lost and dead on a chain-link fence circling the empty pit that had once been the Twin Towers. On another work trip, years before that, I spent three days driving a rental car through Amish farmland in Ohio after the grounding of the planes. It was another world; probably the most peaceful place on Earth at the time.

I worked Nashville, visiting the Grande Ole Opry after hours. I hit the local bars to get a taste of Southern music. I did the same in New Orleans. And in Austin. And in Memphis, where I also visited the home of the King. I worked the Midwest and visited the St. Louis Arch. The Petrified Forest. Fargo, North Dakota. The Mall of America. Navy Pier. Mile High Stadium. The Indianapolis Speedway. Boys Town in Omaha. Georgia O’keefe Museum in Santa Fe. The glaciers of Kalispell. Powell’s Bookstore in Portland. Pike Place Market in Seattle. Pikes Peak in Colorado. Alligator Alley in Florida. Pier 39 in San Francisco.

I’ve seen America on the company dime.

I’ve been put up in some nice places, too. The Waldorf Hotel in New York City. The Palmer in Chicago. The Peabody in Tennessee. The St. Francis, San Francisco.

And the airports, I’ve seen them all. LAX and SFO, Bob Hope International (Burbank), Sea-Tac (Seattle), Denver International, Dallas Fort-Worth, Atlanta, Houston, JFK. From the big hubs to the dirt runways. I’ve sat in just about every plane Boeing makes, from the comfey 777 to the fifteen-seat prop plane that took me from Boise to Butte, riding turbulence all the way.

I keep thinking I’ll do some writing in those airports, with all the time I spend waiting. Instead, I stare at the myriad human activity around me. Business men and women sitting cross-legged on the floor, tied to their laptops and iPads, guarding electrical sockets like eggs in the nest. College boys and girls traveling to destinations of youth, their eager, earnest energy cutting a path through the rest of us. Toddlers hop-scotching cracks in the tiles, their effervescent eyes open to everything they see, arms outstretched, hands waving, smiles enlarged with loud sing-song yelps that become screeching tantrums on the floor. Young parents happy and gay then suddenly stressed beyond imagination, tugging at their hair, doing deals with neighboring parents for an extra diaper or a few drops of Benadryl. Babies in their carriages or slings, sleepy eyes blinking, mouths suckling plastic nipples. Tough guys and gals with tattoos on their arms and bluetooths in their ears. Mousey house-wives reading every shade of gray. Elderly couples holding hands, some content, others quietly sparring, using words weighted with years of resentment. Retirees in a group, clutching tubes containing fishing poles for their trips to the Great Lakes or Montana or that small island off the coast of Nova Scotia.

I’ve found that I can’t write in the airports because I’m too busy watching, which, in truth, is a form of writing-to-be. Observation is the author’s greatest gift.

I try to write when I’m on the road and at times I’ve managed it well. But the temptation to sit and listen is often unbearable. I’ve sat in so many cafes – in Columbus, Ohio, in Boise, Idaho, in Baton Rouge, in Missoula, in Omaha, in Boston, in Tallahassee – and eavesdropped on conversations that held me breathless. I’ve heard tales of grief and stories of inspiration. I’m determined to write a book called, Overheard in Cafes Across America, a cross between the works of Charles Kuralt and Studs Terkel. Something I’ll do on my own time, since my agent already advised me to write something else.

There’s no doubt about it, my travels as a salesman have benefitted my work as a writer. It’s a strange push-me-pull-you relationship I both love and detest. No matter how hard I try I seem stuck to this life. It’s like my writer-self knows that it grounds me. I’ve spent days in cars with salesmen crossing one end of a state to the other, all the while peeling back the layers of their lives, learning how true human character works, that individuals are messes of irrational thought governed by reflections on personal experience. Everyone comes with baggage and their baggage defines them. Their depth is deep and circular, and infinite. This I learn not from books on how to write good character, but from observing real people in action. Through observation I’ve learned that the human condition is complicated and universal, that our differences are many, but all can be bridged by attempting to find common ground, somewhere, somehow. And when I bridge that gap, when I see the world through the eyes of someone so different from me, from a turkey hunter, perhaps, then I can write that character from the inside out.

My day job is not for everyone. I’m employed largely because I can hold up under the weight of changing time zones, cancelled flight schedules and car rental conundrums. I can take being thrown under the bus, into the firing squad of emergency sales meetings or a Colosseum of frenzied customers. I manage because it funnels into the molten pit of my writing.

I need the job and the job needs me. We have a symbiotic relationship. I’ll bitch and scream about having a day job, but inside I know the truth. It’s not the cash. Or the health insurance. Or the expense account. It’s the perspective I get when I watch, observe and participate. Life in the air is what grounds me.

26 thoughts on “WEST BY SOUTHWEST

  1. Richard Maguire

    Wow, Stephen! What a brilliantly writen, fascinating post. I loved it. Thanks for a great read!

  2. David Corbett

    I'm with Richard. Wonderful post, Stephen. I particularly loved this:

    "…individuals are messes of irrational thought governed by reflections on personal experience. Everyone comes with baggage and their baggage defines them. Their depth is deep and circular, and infinite. This I learn not from books on how to write good character, but from observing real people in action."

    Having just written a book on character, this was sobering. Good thing I put in a chapter on how to use yourself and the people in your life to deepen and anchor your character work.

    But I love the observation about irrational thought governed by reflection on experience. What allows us to break free of that past, if anything — the irrationality? Or is that just one more aspect of the prison of circularity?

    I know, I've wandered into the deep end of the pool, but you got me thinking. I'm writing an article on the limits of what a character can do before she seems "out of character," and I'm finding it a bit like fingering smoke.

    Who's to say when a character — or a person — has lost the capacity to throw you a curve, do something you never saw coming? (This dovetails with what Zoë write yesterday, about Tony Scott.)

    Regardless, I think you touch on a sneaky little truth. The key to all creativity — and all understanding — is: Be aware.

  3. Zoë Sharp

    Fabulous stuff, Stephen. I always think I'll write more in airports, but I end up people-watching too.

    Love the pix of the SouthWest jet with the bi-plane shadow.

    Just lovely

  4. Kent Morgan

    Please tell me what you got your rep to show you in Fargo ND. Vist the Roger Maris Museum in the mall? Not many high points in that city..

  5. Gar Haywood

    Terrific post, Steve-o. It's great to hear you've found your groove, employment-wise.

    Nobody can say you aren't the equal of a pizza ever again.

  6. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Kent – listen, just SEEING the town of Fargo was enough for me. Just telling my film school pals that I went to the town immortalized by the Cohen Brothers made the trip worthwhile!

  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    David – you picked my favorite quote from the post. I knew it would appeal to you. I love how you say that trying to define the limits of what a character can do before she seems out of character is like "fingering smoke." That's a great visual and an accurate way to describe the process. As much as I love working on character, as much as I feel it's the absolute crux of the story, it's the part that eludes me the most. What I'll say on my deathbed – "Plotting is easy. It's character that's hard."

  8. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Alex – you know more than anyone, except maybe Heather Graham, what it is to be a traveling author. Enjoy Australia!

  9. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Zoe – yep, when I was looking for images that one just popped out – that shadow says it all.

  10. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Gar – that pizza joke is still my opening line for most of my sales meetings. It's a good thing I've got thick crust.

  11. Diana Raab


    Fabulous post allowing your readers into your new world. Great visuals and truths here… I understand the Impulse and desire to write while traveling and being torn between the page and the observational mode… Either way you are sucking it in– consciously or subconsciously…. As you well know all our life experices make us more powerful writers and you my friend are already there… So we can only imagine what will seep for your veins in the future.

    Thanks again do sharing and happy belated anniversary!


  12. Rie Langdon

    I was lucky to have parents who traveled everywhere with us kids, so I've been to most of the places you describe (though our accommodations were state campgrounds and definitely not the Palmer House). My kids are now that age, so I took them on a cross-country expedition this summer, Denver, Cheyenne; NYC to DC, Detroit and Chicago and then home, to show them just a little of their country and some of the fascinating and amazing places in their own back yard — and of course to show them what you've stated so brilliantly, above, that people can be so wonderfully different and yet the same, wherever you go.

    We traveled so much this summer that here at home, I keep wondering why the beds aren't made and why they haven't brought us fresh towels yet… but more than that, your words make me want to get back out on a plane and go!

    P.S. That image of the elderly couple and the years of resentment… that's like a book right there. 🙂

  13. twist

    Lovely description of fellow travelers; will be in my mind when I fly out later this week. Don't shelve the "Overheard" book–you have the ear and eye to write it well! Next time you're in Denver, let me know. We aren't Fargo, but I'm sure we can find something here that will interest you. 🙂

    Bon voyage–

  14. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Diana – from one observer to another, thanks! Looking forward to seeing you tonight at The NewerYork Literary Carnival!

  15. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Rie – tell me about it – it drives me nuts that I don't have an invisible hotel maid tidying up my apartment when I leave for the day. Almost wants me want to spend my entire life on the road. I do wish I could take the family on more of these trips, however. Makes it real hard to enjoy the travel. I'm glad I took the family to Ireland and Scotland when I could.

  16. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Twist – oh, I would've loved to visit with you in Denver! I didn't know you lived there. What a great town. I grew up in Albuquerque and skied places like Purgatory in Durango all my early years. Denver is one of the few places I can see myself inhabiting.
    I do want to do the "Overheard" book someday, but I'll have to go back to all those cafes again because I didn't take a single note.

  17. Lisa Alber

    Wonderful, Stephen. I could feel myself in an airport, anywhere, waiting and watching, poised. I love the poised feeling: I'm about to leave, take off, experience something new! Even if it's only for a weekend. I admire your positive attitude, because, man, you're traveling a lot!

  18. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Lisa – I do like airports because it's time unaccounted for. Time lost in the cracks. No one expects you to get anything done because they know you're "in-between" things, you're traveling, you're indisposed. It's Twilight Zone time. I'll take as much of that as I can get.

  19. Sarah W

    Everyone beat me to everything I wanted to say and said it better, so: Simply beautiful.

    (please tell me you're pitching a book of essays by An American Traveler somewhere, or would consider it)

  20. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Sarah – I would love nothing more than to be the very dark travel writer we've all been waiting for.

  21. KDJames

    Stephen, you have such a remarkable talent. Not just for writing, although that talent is outrageous, but for living and listening and observing. For seeing both the ordinary and the extraordinary. Please start at least taking notes for that book. Maybe even a few pictures to jog your memories. Because you can't go back.

    Speaking of pics, thank you Zoë for pointing out that shadow. I kept looking at the picture and thinking, damn, something is wrong here. Obviously, my powers of observation are lacking.

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