Amanda's week-one critiques

  • Amanda
Posted: Thu, 07/11/2019 - 11:40pm

Terrific work, gang! I'm excited by our group this term.

I encourage you to read beyond comments on your piece, which is why the critiques flow in one file like this. Seeing other writers' tics and strengths can be a great learning tool. And, as always, thinking critically about prose strengthens your own skills. So take some time to skim through your comrades' feedback too.

Just a quick word about the critiques. I line-edit, i.e.; interleave comments – the good, the bad, the ugly and the follow-up reading links – right into your manuscript. Few editors provide feedback this granular, except at the highest levels. Mostly you'll hear "great" or vague comments like "needs zing" that aren't very diagnostic. In this class, we try to dig down: does a piece feel slow because of too many passive verbs? Or an overload of introductory subclauses? Is the culprit a thicket of long sentences over the 25-word cap recommended for modern journalism (the average reader loses 5% comprehension for every word over that limit)? 

Always, always my critiques should be taken as serving suggestions, not rules. My job is to help you evolve *your* style towards a more nuanced, polished and hopefully saleable state. Not overwrite it with mine. Towards that end, I'll ask a lot of leading questions! But I'm also happy to talk through specific problem-spots.

Not all advice will curl your toes. And that's fine. A good thing, even. Evolving an authorial voice is all about conscious choices. Not just telling a story – blurting it out – but crafting and honing it. As long as you have a good reason for breaking a rule, I'm all for it. Feel free to share your rationale with me via square brackets and italics (not considered part of the word count, obviously). This class is a conversation, not a monologue!

One final thought. Modern travel writing strives to avoid jargon. But behind the scenes, authors speak in shorthand – a lingo – like every profession. You'll see such terms peppered through the lectures and the critiques. For obscure words or topics that merit more exploration, I'll often link to external articles (optional reading, but recommended, especially if I highlight the same issue week after week). Should you need more cues, try Merriam Webster or Wikipedia: the best place to start researching, worst place to stop).

To view a link without losing you place, hold down command (Mac) or control (PC) as you click. This should open up another tab on your browser. You can also save documents by going to File> Save as Web Archive.

Enough yammering. Enjoy! Amanda


Unleashing Your Inner Redneck


Hello Alex,
What great use of dialog and characters! And the depth of your knowledge — and appreciation — for the area is fantastic. The love really shines through in the piece.

That said, it almost feels like you have three different stories here.

  • A memoir about going home
  • A parenting essay
  • A Charleston roundup

Part of me feels like "yes, use ALL the crayons in the box," because the mix is both fun and informative. But this piece would be more marketable in the travel space if you either tease apart the strands or else stick with the melange, but make the voice a bit more uniform. (You really kicked into a high round-up gear there at the end and it's very well done. But the shift from first-person yarns and redneck jokes to second-person service journalism feels a little discordant. So if you want to keep all the elements together, maybe think about an "if you go" type sidebar?)

I'm excited to have your talent in class. Can't wait to read more!

Cheers, Ax

I met her over canteloupes in the Bi-Lo on Edisto’s [unless you're writing for a very local audience, I'd gloss where Edisto is!] main drag. We’d gotten to talking, the way women do, about the sorry state of these canteloupes, the price of real estate, and the challenge of teenagers –hers were grown now but she sympathised. [At 32words, this exceeds modern journalism's recommended sentence cap. Studies show that readers lose 5% comprehension for every word over 25 in a sentence. Be especially mindful of long sentence at the outset. Harder to understand and more lulling in nature, they can easily put folks off the story. ] Mine [comma] surly, was glued to Netflix, while the sea twinkled and beckoned outside her bedroom window.

“I hear you,” said my new friend Caroline. “Thought about taking her out on a boat?”

Where would I get one, I asked.

“Call Captain Harry, he’ll fix you up, give you a ride around the creeks, get her off that IPhone iPhone right quick.”

Meeting at Steamboat Landing two days later, Harry Demosthenes wasn’t what I expected – not a grizzled old Greek with black sailor’s cap but an educated family man, with an environmentalist wife and two little kids.

My daughter wasn’t what I’d expected either [good use of a parallel construction to segue]– after five minutes skimming along the creek through surrounding marsh, she switched from churlish to charming. For all his charisma, Harry didn’t account entirely for the change – I’d seen it before when I forced her to walk with me in the woods at home –shout-out to Richard Louv. [I'm not a parent and totally missed the reference there, as many child-free readers might, I suspect. Maybe consider glossing it, a la "Shout-out to Richard Louv, author of  Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. You sure hit the nail on the head there, buddy!"]

As Harry steered us out of Steam Boat Creek and into the wide Dawho River where it meets the Wadmalaw, [proper names are powerful, but be careful about packing too many close together (unless that's absolutely necessary. Here I'm not sure it is...)] he pointed out wildlife – oyster mounds on muddy creekbanks, stopping to pull up crab traps and their dancing occupants, pelicans above, dolphins below, then rounding the tip of Edisto and coming ashore at Botany Bay to walk the deserted shore and choose a sheltered spot to warm up in. [Again, great material, but trim into shorter sentences, ideally under 25 words each for maximum clarity.]  That’s when the wildlife preserve’s manager came by, [I'd shift this, so it doesn't interrupt the appositive clause sitting beside its antecedent] renowned for her crankiness, she came by and gave an ecosystem mini-lecture. My daughter lapped it up.

There’s [An early editor warned me against anchoring sentences with "It's","There are" and variations on these themes: 90% of the time, she said, a more precise noun and verb are stronger. I didn't like the woman, but she was right... Maybe play around with this!] probably not a North American alive who hasn’t heard of Charleston, or seen pictures of its restored plantations and cobbled alleyways, or read about its rich blueblood families. [Sadly, I bet there are many. A surprising number of Americans can't find the Pacific Ocean on a map. Maybe rephrase this, so you're focusing more on the iconic aspects that make Charleston famous and aren't distracting people with a generalization they might take issue with, causing tension and distraction?]

But the reality is quite different and just below the surface of every Southerner – no matter how many St Cecilia Balls he’s they've [I'd run with a more general-neutral term here perhaps] attended – lies a little bit of redneck. Maybe not quite the depiction in Jeff Foxworthy’s 12 Days of Christmas with “two hunting dogs, 12-pack of Bud, five plaid shirts and parts to a Ford Mustang GT.” [I really like this quote, but wonder if it would flow better elsewhere. Because you've got a couple of reversals in a row here and it might be good to smooth that out...]

But [Guard against starting consecutive paragraphs — or sentences — with the same, word unless you're doing this purposefully for a rhetorical effect called an anaphora.]  from my experience living in Charleston for five years, there's a little country in everybody. While they may not know the words to “every Tanya Tucker song,” [I'd probably pull that out of quote and just let the lyrics allusion stand. Folks who get it will enjoy the wink and nod. Those who don't clock the reference will just take it at face value... and won't be left wondering who or what is being quote there or whether you're using apostrophes to flag irony, etc.] they sure do love hunting, fishing, speeding around in boats, driving Jeeps fast on the beach, holding “crab cracks” with a roaring fire and plenty of beer and margaritas on hand.

Personally, I can only take about half a day of traipsing through historic homes, buying cheap souvenirs at the Market [maybe add a few more enticing details there like "one of the nation's oldest open-air markets?"], or baking at treeless Fort Sumter before shucking my dress for shorts and tee, packing a cooler with cold beer, boiled peanuts, and KFC, and pushing off the creek bank in a Jon boat. [You have great material here. Slow down a little and break it into bite-sized morsels so we can savor it!  (I know some literary traditions, especially in Europe, favor longer, more ornate sentences. But they really do cause readers to struggle, especially in this era of information overload! Before that gets too depressing, though, bear in mind that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was written to a 13th-grade level. Writers can do a lot within the parameters of clear, simple prose!)]

At least the Captain Harry experiment worked with my daughter – I suspect it would work the same on any tourist.

It doesn’t take much to unleash your inner redneck, or country boy [maybe swap in a gender-neutral term here? ]  if you prefer. You could start by renting a 1971 Ford Mustang – for $250 a day -- from Lennel and Mark on Hilton Head ([This is super-granular, but I usually eliminate the "http://www" bits and also final backslashes for a cleaner look – unless the outlet's style is different.]

Or you could just book yourself a 1950s-era beach house on Edisto, complete with faux-wood paneling, linoleum tables, and outdoor “showers” jerry-rigged out of lead pipes and a showerhead. It invites feet on tables [a great revelatory detail] and plenty of beach reads, a genre that more than a few local authors have contributed to.

You could also stay in a cabin at Edisto State Park – the park even holds classes in how to catch crabs (See Crab College Crab catching [Humans are hard-wired to seek novelty, which is why word repetition can lull readers. Maybe mix up your phrasing to help keep folks riveted here?] is not only a way to fish, but a form of entertainment here. All you need are chicken necks and some string, and a working knowledge of tides and where to go. In my five-year southern sojourn, I spent many hours in silent contemplation on a wood dock, splinters working their way into my arse while sitting still to avoid casting a shadow or scaring off the crabs, perspiration trickling between shoulder blades, holding a string suspended into the dark tidal creek water with a raw chicken neck tied to its end.

Stay tuned for Teenage Experiment #Two: catching crabs OR the care & feeding of my daughter’s inner redneck.

To Bend and Break


Hey Celeste,

This piece has some absolutely breathtaking turns of phrase. In particular, you excel rich imagery and playful allusions. Great stuff!

As we discussed by email, this isn't just any old treehouse builder, but the famous Pete Nelson, who just wrapped a decade of filming "Treehouse Masters." So while I'm always with Natalie Goldberg — who said "give things the dignity of names," in her seminal 1986 book Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within — that applies doubly here. In fact, I'd even capitalize on this as a timely angle. Folks mourning the show can still connect with Nelson's massive talent at Treehouse Point! (And also, what's next for him? )

I agree with Alex's excellent advice about structure: get us invested in the main characters and action more immediately, and prune back any non-essentials off-property.  Remember that travel essays needn't follow a perfectly linear format. Sometimes it's more effective to lure the reader with some suspenseful, evocative scene –a  technique is called "in medias res" – Latin for "in the middle of things". Then you can flash back to the who-what-when-why in the nut graf (I'd keep the "where" in the first 25 words: you can never count on the headline you write surviving the editorial process – or even clearly mentioning the destination).

Your ending is just plain lovely! You weave together several strands beautifully and have a resonant "kicker" that rewards readers for getting to the end. My only suggestion there: when you change the snowman's narrative, does your own "not feeling the romance" POV shift at all? If so, can you maybe take us on that interior journey, showing us how Treehouse Point delivered in an unexpected way, before finishing on that great final line? Readers love an essay where the narrator evolves.

Really lovely work this week. I look forward to more of it this term!

Cheers, Ax

The treehouse builder walked through old-growth, moss-hung forest near Fall City, Washington, [unless you're writing for a VERY local outlet, I'd orient readers with "25 miles east of Seattle," then you can get more granular later.] when a shaft of moonlight illuminated a majestic Sitka spruce, inspiring him to build the Temple of the Blue Moon.[Nice material. For publication, I'd break it into two sentences, as studies show that readers lose 5% comprehension for every word over 25 in a sentence. Sad, but true...]  It was t[An early editor warned me against anchoring sentences with "It's","There are" and variations on these themes: 90% of the time, she said, a more precise noun and verb are stronger. I didn't like the woman, but she was right... Maybe play around with this!] he first treehouse he constructed at Treehouse Point. [maybe explain this is an aerial B&B?] Ours was the sixth, marketed as the retreat’s honeymoon suite, a snug, two-story cedar dwelling named The Burl because it curled around its host tree’s trunk. I reserved The Burl months before for our first wedding anniversary. [I love this so much! So romantic!] But tonight, in snow-covered February, I jolted awake as the treehouse shook like a derailing locomotive, [excellent strong simile] a long-lasting shudder that threatened to wrench us from the side of a 300-year-old Douglas fir. [good precise details]

The snow storm broke two days after an earlier blitz dropped 21 inches on the Olympic Peninsula, [why is the peninsula important here, since the story's set in the cascade foothills? Maybe run with something more generic here that doesn't steal focus from the destination, like "an earlier blitz had piled snow up to 21 inches in western Washington" or somesuch?] a blast so big the Seattle Times called it Snowmagedden. [Snowmageddon with a final "o" is the more usual spelling (riffing on Armageddon).

] While we traveled west over the Cascade mountains during the lull between storms, yesterday’s blizzard stopped most traffic. We drove on deserted country roads, passing shuttered businesses with hand-scrawled signs taped to front doors. ["]Closed due to weather.["] Only one other couple, a Cirque du Soleil aerial silks dancer with purple hair and her partner, made it to Treehouse Point, where later that night, a crash broke the silence.[I feel like the drama is almost an aside here. This is a big moment and possibly a good candidate for an in medias res lede, as you mentioned via email!]

The snow, too wet and heavy, dumped from our mother tree’s branches, landing on the roof a few feet above our bed, muffled booms like bowling balls wrapped in down-filled quilts. [Again, great material, but perhaps trim it into shorter sentences. At 31 words, you're losing 30% of readers with this complexity...] I imagined the headline.[colon] Treehouse plummets; old couple lost in Snowpocalypse. Unable to take comfort that my husband quickly fell asleep after each impact, I resorted to plotting escape, a wild pajama-clad scramble [great detail!] down the ladder and across the bridge to the lodge. 

My Anxiety felt vindicated when I opened the door in the morning.  Snapped trees and branches littered the ground, one large trunk splintered across our damaged bridge, another blocked the driveway in a mass of downed power lines. We picked our way through debris to the lodge, only to be shooed [nice vivid verb] back to our treehouse because of a CO2 leak. We shivered. No power, no running water, no flushing toilets. [Excellent, you've masterfully employed a classic literary device called an "anaphora": purposeful repetition of a word or short phrase at the beginning of successive verses or clauses. It packs a lot of punch!] All roads home closed until further notice.

It wasn’t the romantic getaway I envisioned the evening before, when snowflakes fell as big as cat paws, [fantastic imagery] and branches, bent from the weight of wet snow, created arched alcoves and frosted grottos. [beautifully vivid!] We threw snowballs with no thought of danger, unaware that hours later broken trees would scatter like bones in a flooded graveyard.

Trees at higher elevations bend without breaking because they adapted to heavy snow over millions of years. Pine and spruce bend or fold branches to shrug it off. Other evergreens close branches like umbrellas to shed weight and spring back after snowstorms.  But these trees, only 30 minutes from lowland [We have some steep hills in Seattle, but you could even go with "sea-level Seattle" for additional contrast here!] Seattle, weren’t used to snow, and this storm was an anomaly. They succumbed. 

My husband and I were an anomaly too, not the typical young couple [maybe consider taking out the "old couple" headline mention above, so you don't rob this reveal of its oomph?]  celebrating their first wedding anniversary. I was 52. He was 63. We had six kids between us, three failed marriages behind us. We were two broken, wrinkled people [so my impulse is to say "be kinder about yourselves" but I can see the literary value of the contrast here... and how you're foreshadowing the whole "break not bend" concept] who went out on a limb [awesome tree allusion!] to fall in love, trust one another and marry. Now our anniversary trip had morphed into a survival exercise. What kind of omen is that, I wondered.

A knock on the treehouse door let us know it was safe to return to the lodge, where we found a roaring fire in a stone fireplace. The only guests left, we settled into two soft leather chairs that faced one another. We whittled [another great woodsy allusion] away hours by candlelight, roasting marshmallows over the fire and making s’mores, while playing long games of Scrabble. We donned reading glasses and poured pored over books from the floor-to-ceiling shelves. Then we took a soggy walk before the sun set. 

When we reached the nearby Raging River, soaked to our knees from melting snow, we stopped to build a snowman. It wasn’t big, only waist high, three snowballs, pinecones for buttons, eyes and nose, and green cedar boughs for hair. We found a short stick for his mouth. 

“He looks sad,” I said, looking at the straight, horizontal line across the bottom of his face. 

“Here,” said my husband, [Perhaps ID your husband or give him a nickname or epithet. He's a character here — avoiding the "Ken and I school of travel writing, blasted in the seminal piece Roads Not Taken but he's reduced to just being part of a couple.] taking the stick and snapping it in half before handing it back to me. I pressed the two shorter pieces onto the snowman’s face. A v-shaped smile, kind of quirky, definitely hopeful. 

“I like it,” I said, smiling back. 

Sometimes it’s ok to bend, and to break.


A Romanian Surprise

Bonjour, Jenny,
What a terrific piece. You deploy dialog, action, humor and fun phrasing masterfully! The story also had a great flow and incorporated facts gracefully. It educates without being labored or pedantic. I'm such a fan of that style, as a reader and as a writer!

Keep an eye on verb tenses, as you wander between past and present a bit here. Sometimes that's necessary, like when explaining your detour. But if the story's unfolding in the present tense, keep it firmly anchored there! (I won't flag every instance, but I recommend you do an editing sweep to tidy things up! Reading the material aloud can help you see it freshly and find problem-spots). I'd also encourage you to smooth out name-conventions for consistency... and maybe find out the name of the bee-keeper's wife, if possible, since she has a speaking role here!

You're off to a terrific start. I'm excited to see what else you'll write this term.

Cheers, Amanda


“Be careful, Jenny. The police might arrest you for carrying hashish,” said says Zoltán, [did you get his surname (or can you email or call to find out?). Readers respond best to fleshed out characters and names help them keep track of who is who. Also, more exacting editors will demand information like this – and often contact details to check stories. So always get those details in your notebook or backstop the reporting once you're at your desk. In addition to being good practice, it also honors the people whose stories we tell!] my host at the farm stay. Upon hearing my scandalous dry cough and fleeting mentions of honey, he insisted that I meet his neighbor, Gecse László. [So I love a good in medias res lede, especially one with humor and suspense. But I had to read this a few times, because my brain kept spinning into weird cul-de-sacs like "is it dark, crystallized honey that looks like hash?" Then the shoe dropped: you have a cold and sound like you've been smoking! But of course! (That said, it might not hurt to play with the phrasing a bit. If you could separate the cough and honey ideas more, I think it might be more clear...)]

I’m in Zălan, a small Transylvanian village in east-central Romania. [you put the story on the map high up. Excellent!] It was [this subject-verb combination can work well as a rhetorical device, but make sure you're employing it purposely. Often a more precise noun and action can add more color.] never part of my 14-day solo trip in the country, but a last-minute detour had led me to a lovely home: a Romanian family of four, two dogs, and a brood of farm animals. [Maybe slow down and split this into two sentences? I know some literary traditions, especially in Europe, favor longer, more ornate sentences. But for modern journalism, try to keep them under 25 words. Studies show that readers lose 5% comprehension for every word more... People's attention spans are ever-shortening, so why make the wrestle with constructions proven to tax the average intelligence?] I was playing with the pets, when my eager host announced: ["]We have a surprise for you.["]

After dinner, Zoltán, his seven-year-old daughter Lorin, and I walk over to the neighbor’s house. The sky is a lovely shade of bruise, [I first ran across a similar description in... Henry Miller, I think, and I've deployed it occasionally ever since. About half the time, editors ask me to rephrase and make things more cheerful. But it's a wonderfully powerful image and worth trying to get in!] and the street – not more than 10 houses – is empty. The only sound I hear is a rapid clac-clac-clac from above. I look up, a stork towers in its nest. We finally stop at a wooden gate, and an old man opens the door.

Gecse László [here you not only got his full name, but nailed the accents as well. That's respectful and lovely!] turns out to be the village beekeeper.

Already in his 80s, Mr. László’s [I'd make the name conventions specific for the main characters. If the bee-keeper gets a full name and an honorific, I'd do the same for the farm stay host. One, consistency is good and two, it doesn't imply some sort of hierarchy of respect. Not that I think you were being prejudiced here. Many guides and hoteliers operate on a first-name basis and it's easy to just duplicate that. But if you're gonna do honorifics, go all-in like "The New York Times" style and avoid any tension about implicit bias!] all-white hair is carefully parted on the side, slicked with pomade. ["]Ooh, he looks like Pinocchio with white hair, ["] [House-style varies, but most don't italicize interior dialogue — they just offset it in quote marks.] I thought. His wife, whose face lights up when she smiles, pours us some pálinka, Romania’s traditional fruit brandy and favorite welcome drink.

“How did you become a beekeeper?” I ask in between sips.

“It was after the war,” he shares, “I didn’t know what to do, so I started helping my uncle take care of a few hives. First, it was just a hobby. Forty-seven years later, I still love bees.” [Fantastic use of dialogue. As Tom Swick points out, "What can you know -- and feel -- about a place when you don't meet the people who live in it?"]

When it comes to Romania, most tourists think of castles and Dracula. But it also has one some [flora and fauna are two things and the terms are plural to boot, so I'd use "some" here to counterbalance that.] of the world’s most diverse floral and fauna, including 3,700 plant species, 50% (around 6,000) of brown bears in the European Union (EU), and more than 700 kinds of bees. [Maybe break the bees into another sentence, giving it more weight and seguing back into the flow of the honey storyline? (Also, I got very curious: is this a high number? It seems like a high number. Is it trending up or down, perhaps, which might introduce a timely angle — something that can be especially useful when breaking into new markets!]

In fact, a 2018 study from the European Commission revealed that Romania is the biggest honey producer in the EU. So I’m thrilled to meet a man who was among the 23,000 beekeepers who helped produce 31,000 tons of honey last year. [You're weaving in precise, well-sourced facts very fluidly. Bravissima!]

“May I buy some of your honey, please?” I ask.

Before I knew it, honey products were in front of me: 1/4 kilo of raw propolis, a kilo of raw pollen, one jar of honey, a bar of beeswax, and 25ml of propolis tincture. All for 120 Romanian Lei (about €25 or US$28). Back in Paris where I live, these would cost at least 4x more. I had to quickly google [I'd run with "search." Otherwise you need to initial-cap "Google" (companies can be really fierce about genericization eroding their trademarks...)] if I can bring honey products back to France. No general restrictions if you’re travelling within the EU. [I'd run with roman text and quotation marks here] Yes!

If not for the language barrier and Zoltán translating everything, I would’ve told Mr. László that I have a thing for bees. At home, my pantry has at least five kinds of honey, from trusted local producers, of course. I collect wooden honey dippers from my travels. And recently, I’ve discovered the most wonderful thing:

[I'd snug this passage up into the previous paragraph for grammar and also flow reasons.] A solitary bee is building a home in my bedroom. I still marvel how Beyoncé the Bee found an old roll of plastic book cover. In a room on the second floor. And decided to make a nest. See what happens when you leave windows open? [How charming! I had no idea this was a thing... but apparently they're power-pollinators and are quite safe around pets and kids. Details like that might be fun to share, if you wind up with a higher word count!]

“He wants to show you something. You’ll see where all this came from,” says Zoltán as he points to my souvenirs on the table.

We follow Mr. László to the back of his house. Suddenly, rows of colorful boxes greet us. [in the house?] Even in the dark, I see pastel-colored hives – stretched like a choo-choo train for as much as space allowed.

“Meet my bees – they’re sleeping now – in 300 beehives,” says Mr. László says proudly. [This should be "Laszlo says" (unless followed by some appositive clause. Here's a great way to check: replace the name with a pronoun. "Says he" is obviously wrong.]

“Three hundred?” I ask in disbelief. I had never seen so many beehives in one place.

Zoltán translates as the beekeeper explains: “My bees and their honey are special. They travel in caravans across Transylvania. Two weeks here, two weeks there… They make honey from some of the best wildflowers and virgin forests in the world.”

“Do you still get stung?” I probe. [nice sting/probe allusion there!]

“All the time,” he chuckles. “But I’m used to it.”

Back in the house, the his wife ["the wife" evokes a certain type of outdated sexist grump for me. Maybe switch up the phrasing here?] tells me to mix a drop of propolis tincture with a spoonful of honey. ["]Your cough will be gone in no time,["] she said.

I reach for the bag of raw propolis. They [maybe add more context here like "each resinous chunk resembles a brown rock" or somesuch?] look like brown rocks, each the size of a fist.

“Is it just me, or this looks like dried poop. [question mark] Or, wait a minute…”

“Definitely hashish,” Zoltán teased.


Aaron: Tokyo Mindful Commute

[I have a long-standing, on-again-off-again interest in all things mindfulness (currently Anodea Judith’s teachings on the chakra system of life-force energy).


Recently, I have started to scribble about mindfulness as my next big adventure.


Hope to write my way into a deeper understanding - and find my voice in the process.


At the same time, at least in these early days, I can’t ignore that this inner trip is launched from a place which, even after all these years, is still not capital-H Home (that’s still Toronto).


I was thinking of Tokyo Mindful Commute as a blog post more than a feature, since that seems to me the right “level” so to speak, though I’m curious to hear what y’all think - about this post, and direction in writing :-)


Thanks in advance!]

Hi Aaron,
I very much enjoyed this, but agree it might be better as a blog post or maybe a literary piece. I feel like it would be a hard sell for a travel outlet, as most readers won't ever commute in Tokyo, unless you pushed harder on the personal essay front and showed how *this particular* commute's changing you.

Right now, you're just sort of applying the mantras of mindfulness to commuting. But you're not sharing much of your interior journey — and how it's being reshaped by these experiences. If you could dig deeper there and make the ending realization more specific to Tokyo, the piece could work as a travel memoir. (I really love the commuter/cell imagery, but it could apply to any mega-city.)

The dreamy tone here is fun and I wonder if you could lean in there too, maybe writing the whole thing in second-person like a guided meditation. (Yeah, I know... I know. My loathing of the second-person is legendary. But it could be really cool here in a McSweeneyish way!).

Overall, you're onto a good thing here. Just take it beyond the "experience + mindfulness cue," maybe. Get more raw and revelatory; let's see you fight to stay mindful and triumph! Or maybe turn the material into a fake-prompt humor piece that ultimately reveals something bigger and deeper about Tokyo! Right now you're sort of weaving between the two approaches and not sticking the landing as magnificently as I know you can!

Cheers, Ax

Tokyo Mindful Commute: the daily ride to enlightenment



I live in Tokyo, where life in this weathered, spanky-new, [I've more commonly heard "spanking new"] ugly delicious, workaholic megacity tips from inspiration to over-stimulation. [My inclination would be to lean into the parallel construction more... maybe like "weathered-shiny, ugly-delicious."]


It can be hard amid the sensory overload to remember where you are going, let alone who you are.


So, why stay?


Because this ancient castle town/postmodern world-class city [maybe slow down and unpack this more? Packing it all in before the context-bearing verb risks confusing readers] continues to reveal its layered histories. In rust and stains, pipes and wiring, weathered tile and concrete, glass and steel, “the [thirty-] eight million stories in the naked [mega]city” emerge. [So this is either a nod to the June Brides or a show that went off the air in 1963. Either way, I'm uncertain readers are going to get the allusion smoothly, especially as it requires two square brackets to work. Maybe consider cutting or reworking this?]


To cope, I settled in West Tokyo, a semi-rural suburb roughly halfway between the mountains and the city.


[I'd combine this with the paragraph above. Short graphs are a powerful device, spotlighting certain ideas. But too many close together — a definite risk in this piece — cause the device to lose its punch...] Weekdays, I join the press and shove of the 14.5 million passengers daily who use Greater Tokyo’s transit systems to shunt in and out of the city.


A little mindfulness helps.


Even at 4:30am, the neighbourhood stirs to life. Delivery trucks rattle sliding doors and windows in their frames. Garbage crows greet the rising sun. [Chronologically, you're bouncing around a bit, going from the commute back to waking. Maybe approach this in a more linear fashion?]


The new workday has already begun. 


Take your place [why the sudden shift from first to second person? It feels a little distracting to me (especially as I'm curious about your experience, but unlikely to ever duplicate it. So, for me, it creates a weird tension like "don't tell me I'm lining up like a salmon! I don't commute!"] on the station walk with the other black-suited salmon swimming upstream. [nice imagery]


Pass the crows — don’t make eye contact [from what I gathered on my all-too-brief trip to Japan, the Crow War is real. But unless your target audience is all Anglophones living in Japan, you might want to slow down and explain this a bit more. Otherwise you risk raising an unanswered question: why isn't it safe to make eye contact with these birds?] — hard at work on the neat piles of garbage hopefully [maybe go with "optimistically" here, so it doesn't sound like you're hopeful people stashed their trash? (Or if you are, maybe be more explicit about that?)] stashed under bright blue nets. Watch for the zippy little cars and yellow-plate work trucks short-cutting through residential neighbourhoods, taking corners blind and running lights and crosswalks.


Nevermind. [I don't quite get this line. It kind of evokes "nevermore," which is a fun corvid allusion, but why shouldn't people watch out for traffic?]


Use this time to expand your awareness, to include the slap of footfall on cement, the first sweat of the day breaking on the brow.


Note the sharp tang of the pepper tree in the local park, [great sensory detail beyond sight!] the spill of desiccated Japanese camellias in the gutters, the whirr of cicadas in the green-blasted shrubbery.


Nigh the station, [this phrasing feels more archaic than your usual voice and thus comes across a little stilted. Maybe rethink?] the 6am gong from the local shrine resounds as a commuter local from Shinjuku rumbles through like an emissary from the Big City. Moments later, a gaggle of shift workers, club kids, and hostesses pass in the opposite direction, making their weary way home.


On the platform, there’s are already people in line for the 6:08. Office workers and labourers in baggy pants pool at one end of the platform, in the blue-purple spray of light from the suicide (prevention) lamps. [fascinating detail] At the other end, the first two cars of the overcrowded train are reserved for female passengers only.


Standing room only already. Trundle through the ‘burbs. At this hour, the train is a nursery, or morgue, of dark blues and blacks, heads tilted against the glass or leaning on an adjacent shoulder, mouths agape. ["Nursery" makes me think of something loud. So maybe just run with morgue?] Sometimes a whiff of halitosis; the occasional fart. All else is silence.


At Takadanobaba, the tenth busiest [tenth-busiest] train station in the world, join the great sea-change of commuters transferring to the Yamanote Circle line. From here, Tokyo’s main hubs [en-dash] Shinjuku; Shibuya; Shinagawa; Tokyo Station; [en-dash for the interjection, scrap the semicolonare linked in a perpetual loop.

Pass through Shinjuku, the busiest train station in the world, following the sage advice to “just be in the moment.” Don’t get inadvertently swept out of the train car: there are over 200 exits from this station;[WOW. Great revelatory detail] 3.6 million passengers pass through daily. Get [I try to avoid accidental innuendos, which can distract readers, and thus would probably change this to "hop" or something] off now, and you may never get on again…


At Shibuya, the second-busiest, have a care for your fellow travellers. They dash pell-mell through the station, briefcases and umbrellas akimbo, stampeding up and down stairs, across platforms, and slamming into already over-stuffed trains. Think, How can they be so selfish? Wonder "how can they be so selfish," as you swerve suddenly or collide with yet another one of these station chargers. 


Remember to practice loving kindness not just for yourself but others, and feel sympathy for these platform bombers. Imagine living like that, dropping your dignity on the tracks [nice phrasing] and running your guts out day after day to make a two-minute connection window .  Just to spend even more time on another train overstuffed with other commuters running even more late than you. 


To smartphone junkies [smartphone-junkie. A hyphen connects two or more words, which work together to describe something and precede it. Here's a simple test: Would one make sense without the others? If not, you need a zippy hyphen linking the pair (unless the first ends in "ly").] blocking the stairs, the escalator, the platform, the aisle, on the other hand, [I'd relocate this and maybe move the context-bearing verb way up in the sentence for more clairty too] show no mercy.


As you pull into Ebisu, 53rd busiest in the world (just ahead of Munich Central), and your destination, breath through the blowhole in the top of your head. Your mind has joined with the cosmic consciousness of this great, heaving, beast of a city. All us commuters circulate like backpack-toting blood cells in the veins and arteries of rails and station, roads and sidewalks. [lovely]


You have arrived.


Just remember: the journey is the destination.