Sidetracked but Not Derailed

I have a passion for railroad trains. As a child, when I was tucked into bed at my grandparents’ house, I loved to listen to the distant choo choo of passing trains. As an adult, I enjoy living on the wrong side of the tracks, where I can hear the call of the trains’ whistles while I work.

Railways have been a thing since the seventeenth century. They’ve been in use in the United States almost since the country’s inception. But for the first two hundred years, the cars were drawn by horses. In the early nineteenth century, John Stevens of Hoboken, New Jersey, came up with the idea to combine a locomotive with the steam power that was being used to propel ships along American rivers, and it was game on.

The things we love always seem to find their way into our writing, whether we mean them to or not. I often find myself sneaking train metaphors and imagery into my writing without realizing it. Train terminology has made its way into our everyday language, too.

For example, the Online Etymology Dictionary gives us the origin of the word sidetrack:

sidetrack (n.)

also side-track, ‘railway siding,’ 1835, from side (adj.) + track (n.). The verb meaning ‘to move (a train car) onto a sidetrack’ is from 1874; figurative sense of ‘to divert from the main purpose’ is attested from 1881.


Originally, a sidetrack was a short length of track to which a train could be diverted for purposes of loading freight or so another train could pass. But the 1881 figurative use of the word has stuck. Today, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the verb sidetrack as “to turn aside from a purpose.”

Derail also has its origins in railroad jargon, but comes to us from the French language:

derail (v.)

1850 (Dionysius Lardner, ‘Railway Economy’), in both transitive and intransitive senses, ’cause to leave the rails or run off the tracks; to run off the rails or tracks,’ from French dérailler ‘to go off the rails,’ from de- + railler.


If a train is derailed, it is a much more serious, permanent, and catastrophic departure from the train tracks. Like sidetrack, the word derail developed a figurative meaning. Today, Merriam-Webster defines the verb derail as “to obstruct the progress of” or “to upset the stability or composure of.” Again, a much more serious tampering, with potentially permanent results.

The Redwood Forest Steam Train at Roaring Camp, Felton, Santa Cruz County, California.


Writer, why am I talking to you about trains? Because I’ve been thinking about trains as I work my way back into manuscript revisions.

I decided at the beginning of summer to set aside work on my book for a month, in favor of catching up on some other things and finishing a few projects that were hanging over my head. It’s hard for me to focus on writing when other things are pulling at me. And it’s never a bad idea to give a manuscript a rest, so you can revisit it with fresh eyes.

Once I was in a better place, I was thrilled with the idea of getting back to my book without anything hanging over my head. I woke up early in the morning and headed straight to my keyboard, free of anything else that I felt like I should be doing. But then, life happened, as it always does. Over the past several months, my day job became increasingly demanding. I worked a lot of extra hours–long days, evenings, and weekends. I found myself skipping over my early morning writing to get a jump start on my day work. I really hate having things hanging over my head.

I let myself get sidetracked from my writing.

But Writer, that’s no way to live for any length of time. I’ve found myself feeling anxious and a little blue. I like my day work, I really do–I help people, and it’s rewarding in a real world sort of way. But my family and writing and working with writers are the things I’m passionate about; those are the things that make my life worth living. If I don’t have a balanced mix of all of those things–if I consistently allow my day job (or any one thing) to get the biggest share of me–then I’m not a happy person.

I like being caught up on my work–like I said, I find it difficult to focus on writing when I’m not. But there’s always something to pull us away from our writing, am I right? I can say that just this once I’ll skip writing and start work early, but it can become too easy to do that again tomorrow, and then the next day, and then the next. It’s a dangerous mindset to sidetrack the things we love too often or to feel that we must do all the other things first, before we can sit down to write. The most important things should come first if we are going to live the lives we were meant to live.

Let’s face it. Things come up. We’re going to get sidetracked from writing now and then. That’s okay if it’s an occasional thing because, on a particular day, because of particular circumstances, something else has to take precedence. But let’s make a promise to one another, Writer: we may get sidetracked now and then, but we will never be derailed. We will always get back on track.

My Happy Place

I haven’t been to Monterey for more than three years now, but I’m dreaming of it lately, and I hope to get back to visit soon. Monterey is the place in the world that feels most like home to me. It’s the place where I feel most like myself and where I feel most inspired to write. I want to talk to you about Monterey because it has contributed so much to the way I write. I credit my time in Monterey County for my passion for place in my writing. I’m wondering whether there is a place in your life that helped to create the writer you are, too.

Visiting Cannery Row always spirits me back in time, not only in my own life, but in the lives of my ancestors and others who were drawn to this place, like John Steinbeck. You don’t grow up in the Salinas Valley without having at least a little something in common with Steinbeck. My family emigrated to Monterey County from Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl, just like the characters Steinbeck wrote about in The Grapes of Wrath.

My grandmother Rubye never read a Steinbeck novel, but she came to California from Oklahoma as a child, and the language was in her bones. She once wrote this in her journal: “My first schooling I ever remember was in Moss Landing, California, and we lived in a very little house and our bedroom went out over the water. When the tide came in, it was so very cold and we would watch [the ocean] down through the big cracks in the floor. The little house was back behind Johnny’s Fruit Stand. My father and brothers, Grover and Peck, picked apricots, and my mother and sister Pete cut them to dry in a shed. … After the jobs ended, we put our mattresses, pots and pans on top of two old, open touring cars and headed back to Oklahoma.”

Eventually, my grandparents moved to California permanently. My mother went to high school in King City, where Steinbeck’s East of Eden is set, and I was born there. As children, my siblings and I visited both sets of grandparents in Soledad, the setting for Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. We played on the banks of the Salinas River, just beneath the Soledad overpass, in the same spot where George and Lennie have their last talk.

Salinas High School, where John Steinbeck graduated in 1919, and
where my girlfriends and I hung out to meet boys in the 1970s.


I read my first Steinbeck books in junior high, The Pearl and The Red Pony. I went to North Salinas High School. Steinbeck went to Salinas High–they were our rivals in football, but we drove slowly past the school when we cruised Main Street, or we hung out on its grassy lawn if we were on foot. I was a young mom when the film version of my favorite Steinbeck novel, Cannery Row, premiered in Salinas, complete with red carpet, flashing cameras, and Hollywood movie stars.

Someday, I hope to spend a month writing in John Steinbeck’s Writer’s Studio or Cottage, both of which are available to rent on Airbnb. It is one of a handful of things on my bucket list.

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream,” Steinbeck wrote. “Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches,’ by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,’ and he would have meant the same thing.” (The opening paragraph of Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (1945).)

Cannery Row is my favorite Steinbeck novel not only because of the story, which stands alone, but because I am intrigued by the very real characters behind the story, including Cannery Row itself. Cannery Row is more than a setting. It became the title of the book for a good reason–it easily takes its place next to Doc as one of the main characters in the novel. Steinbeck was passionate about place, too.

John Steinbeck’s Writer’s Studio in Pacific Grove, California


Steinbeck was also passionate about people and marine biology. The character of Doc is based on Steinbeck’s real-life friend, Ed “Doc” Ricketts, a marine biologist. The friendship and marine science work of Steinbeck and Ricketts are well-represented today at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and throughout Cannery Row.

“And it is a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious, most of the mystical outcrying which is one of the most prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable … that all things are one thing and that one thing is all things–plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.” (From The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck (1951).)

Steinbeck incorporated all the things he was passionate about into his writing. Those things make his writing transcendent and evocative. Capturing a sense of place in your writing is just one way of adding texture and layers to your stories. Pay attention to the ways your favorite writers incorporate place and setting into their stories. Think about the places you love, and take a crack at describing them in such exquisite detail that you give your readers the gift of experiencing them, too.

Be the Brando

About ten years ago, I decided to watch all the Academy Award winners for Best Picture in order, starting with Wings (1927), a silent film with a plot reminiscent of Pearl Harbor (2001). Wings stars Clara Bow (the original “it girl”), Charles “Buddy” Rogers, and Richard Arlen. It features an early screen appearance by a young Gary Cooper.

What was most fascinating about watching the films in order was seeing the gradual evolution of elements like plot, special effects, cinematography, technology, even opening and ending credits. I watched movies go from silent to talkies, from black-and-white to technicolor, from war to peacetime. I enjoyed seeing the early careers of then-unknown actors who are Hollywood icons today.

But 27 film-years into the history of cinema, I sat down to watch On the Waterfront (1954), and my mind was blown by the sudden leap in the quality of acting. I’m talking, of course, about Marlon Brando. Brando was a noticeably better actor than those who had come before him, and he stood out among a cast of great actors in On the Waterfront.

I’m not the only one who thought so. Al Pacino had this to say:

“You know, today when you tell young people about [On the Waterfront], the response isn’t quite the same about it. But you have to understand, this was in that period, a revelation. It was a breakthrough. His acting on screen was different than we’d all seen. So playing with him in [The Godfather] was… it was a little unnerving.”


Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront


Why was Brando so good? I’m guessing part of it must be a natural talent for acting. But he also studied his craft intensely and was committed to being the best actor he could be. He made it his job, even before it was his job. He didn’t skate on his innate talent–he worked at building on it.

Don’t get me wrong. Other actors in On the Waterfront studied their craft, too. Karl Malden studied acting at The Goodman School, part of DePaul University in Chicago. He’d won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role three years earlier, for his work in A Streetcar Named Desire (also starring Brando), and he was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his work in On the Waterfront. Lee J. Cobb ran away from home to Hollywood at the age of sixteen and studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse. He was also nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his work in On the Waterfront. Rod Steiger studied at the Actor’s Studio in New York. Perhaps my favorite thing about Steiger is that he was critical of Charlton Heston’s views on gun control long before the issue was in the mainstream.

As far as I know, Brando’s co-star, Eva Marie Saint, never studied acting formally–she learned on her feet, which is just as valid a way to learn as any. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for On the Waterfront and won numerous acting awards throughout her career, including the King Vidor Memorial Award in 2004 at our local San Luis Obispo International Film Festival. Saint turned 98 years old on the 4th of July and is the oldest living actor to have won an Academy Award. She remains active in the film industry–in 2018, she presented the award for costume design at the 90th Academy Awards.


Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire


Marlon Brando had been nominated for Best Actor three years earlier, for A Streetcar Named Desire. For the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando brought his stage performance to the silver screen–he’d originated the role on Broadway. Brando didn’t hold anything back in his portrayal of Stanley Kowalski. This was the first time movie-goers saw this kind of acting in a motion picture; before that, such raw and unrestrained performances were confined to the theater. The Academy Award went to Humphrey Bogart that year, for his portrayal of Charlie Allnut in The African Queen, but it made Brando a major Hollywood movie star.

Brando won the Oscar for Best Actor for On the Waterfront at the 27th annual Academy Awards. He was surrounded by talent when he made On the Waterfront. Besides Best Actor, the film took home the awards for Best Motion Picture, Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Eva Marie Saint), Best Directing (Elia Kazan), Best Writing (story and screenplay), Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography (black-and-white), and Best Art Direction (black-and-white). Still, among all the talented people who made On the Waterfront, Marlon Brando stood out to me.

A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront were just the beginning for Brando. I’m a huge fan of 1970s cinema, and The Godfather tops them all. I’m not an actor, but I did play Alice, the female lead, in my high school’s junior class play, I Never Sang for My Father (makeup by David W. Smith). I channeled Estelle Parsons’ 1970 film portrayal, which wasn’t very original or industrious of me. But here are my three degrees of separation from Marlon Brando: I studied acting at North Salinas High School with Lewis W. “Ig” Heniford, a wonderfully kind man, who also taught acting to Sacheen Cruz Littlefeather, a Native American civil rights activist, who in 1973 declined the Academy Award for Best Actor for The Godfather on Marlon Brando’s behalf.


Lewis W. “Ig” Heniford (April 16, 1928-November 26, 2018), my high school drama teacher and one of the coolest and kindest people I ever met.


I’m one of many who think Marlon Brando changed acting forever. Edward Norton once said this about Brando:

“There’s this history of famous actors, and it sort of begins with Brando, because Brando had such an enormous effect on the psychology of men in America. If you look at what I’d call ‘the great generation’ of American actors (Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Gene Hackman, Al Pacino, Morgan Freeman, Meryl Streep), that’s all the post-Brando generation. All of those people, literally all of them, wanted to become actors because of Marlon Brando. He rewrote the idea of what it was and what it could be.”

I’m not qualified to tell you why Marlon Brando was so good, but based on what I’ve read about him, I have a few ideas. He studied and he worked at it. He was brave and took risks. He flaunted convention and scorned public opinion. He was passionate about acting, and he seems to have studied all the things. He didn’t rely solely on his own experiences and emotions. He studied under Lee Strasburg and Stella Adler. He studied the Stavinslavski method for acting, immersed himself in the texts and characters, believed in bringing truth and reality to acting, and was among the first to bring what he learned to film for mainstream audiences.

Marlon Brando was inordinately kind (I love this story about him on Roger Ebert’s website, Brando letter makes the grade), but he could also be self-centered. In an archived interview for the defunct Sabotage Times, “Never Meet Your Hero. Unless it’s Rod Steiger,” Steiger recalls being present for Brando’s close-ups during the On the Waterfront shoot, so Brando had an actor to play off of, but Brando didn’t stick around for his. While I was disappointed to read this about him, it also reinforced to me the depth of his commitment to his own acting.

Brando immersed himself in life, too. “An actor must interpret life,” he once said, “and in order to do so he must be willing to accept all experiences that life can offer.” He devoted himself to acting, he loved it, and reading about him, I get the idea he felt it was his obligation as an actor to be dedicated to his craft. He was ahead of his time because he wasn’t afraid to try new things.


Marlon Brando accepts the Academy Award for Best Actor for On the Waterfront


Let me bring this back around to writing. I believe hard work is going to win out every time. I don’t believe an actor or a writer or anyone has to have a formal education to be successful. There are too many examples of successful people who don’t. There are plenty of ways to go about becoming a better writer on your own: reading well-written books, studying how other writers do what they do, and of course, practice, practice, practice. But neither do I think writers should be shamed for pursuing education, training, or coaching in their craft. Marlon Brando did it. Most actors do it. Athletes do it. Singers do it. Why not writers?

However you learn to write well, I think the lessons I’ve learned from Marlon Brando are these:

  • Throw yourself into your work with passion. Devote yourself to your craft. Make it your job to be the best you can be.
  • Write with abandon. Be fearless. Take risks in your writing. Learn the rules, then don’t be afraid to break them.
  • Don’t worry about what other people think. Be kind. As Tod Goldberg says, “Don’t be an asshole.” But don’t listen to the haters, and don’t be afraid to put yourself and your writing first when you need to.
  • Live life to the fullest. Your thirst for life will feed your writing.
  • Be the best. Be the Brando.