This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.


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Talking to strangers on cross-country trains and planes really is anathema to many of you.

I’ve heard your horror stories. Trapped for hours beside the passenger who bores you to within inches of hari-kari or murder. 

My experiences generally have been the diametric opposite.

I’ve heard some amazing stories and life secrets from complete strangers.

Over the years I have written up or mentally filed away dozens and dozens of such encounters. 

Many have found their way, one way or another, into my creative endeavors.

For you see, I’m not just a sympathetic listener. I’m a writer.

And I’m convinced everybody has a story worth hearing.

I am also a card-carrying, professional parasite

We writers are parasites.

That may sound harsh but it’s true. We sift and sort through other people’s lives (not just our own) so that we can write about them – or be inspired by them – in fiction or non-fiction form. 

Ideas are everywhere. Most pass through us because they simply don’t resonate.

But the few that do are blessings for a writer. We take them home, write them up and hoard them as if they were precious metals.

Which, in a way, they are. From these raw ideas we forge our work with an authenticity that simply cannot be faked.

Over the years I’ve found some of the best such ideas have come from conversations with fellow long-distance travelers.

Traveling for fun and profit

Which is why I find cross-country and overseas travel so stimulating.

People on shorter commuter runs just want to get home or to work. On longer trips, especially holiday-bound, folk are more relaxed, more open to casual conversation. I know I am. 

Of course, there is no way to predict or to ensure that you are seated opposite the inspiration for your next award-winning novel. But it’s usually worth a try.

So how to begin?

First, I try a casual remark. Something without substance to test the waters. 

You can almost immediately determine if they will be responsive. The people with a story worth telling will always respond with a kind of positive energy. It’s hard to describe. They may not even immediately appear co-operative.

Indeed the most talkative fellow passengers may have nothing of immediate value to share. The trick with them is to let them run out of steam. So you only half-listen. Only then their true story, the one they’ve been hiding behind all the smoke and mirrors, will begin to emerge,

The psychology of feeling free to tell a complete stranger our inner most secrets is a fascinating one. This stranger is never going to see me again so why not tell all? 

Ethical concerns

* Do I need to identify myself as a writer?

If they ask, I tell. I usually joke that I’m on a reconnaissance mission.

If they don’t ask, I’m just another passenger. If they want to talk, great. If they don’t, that’s OK too.

* What about the ethics of snooping into another person’s life?

Well, nobody is twisting anybody’s arm. Everything that is said is shared willingly, freely, in a public (albeit confined) space. There is no expectation of confidentiality (unless specifically invoked). Also, consider they may be embellishing or lying. In which case there can still be a worthwhile story but not necessarily the one they’re telling. Your BS Detector must be on at all times. 

* What about the ethics of using any story obtained under such innocuous circumstances?

Did I mention we writers are parasites?

Also – by the time I’ve made notes afterwards of the salient ideas that resonated with me, the person who told me their story would hardly recognize it. It’s like that children’s game, “Whispers”, wherein a child in long line in a circle whispers a joke to the next one and so on. By the time it gets back to the first child the joke is hardly recognizable although its essentials remain. For me, these “travel stories” are the same. By the time I get around to incorporating them into my work, they will be completely anonymized.

In the unlikely event the story is so good and needs to be told in full as is with the storyteller as an integral part, I immediately reveal my identity and ask permission to follow up. Should they decline I respect their decision.

But most of the stories I hear are never used by me like that. They just provide the basic ideas or inspirational springboards for my fiction and non-fiction projects.  Perhaps more importantly, they also provide the core of authenticity for any concepts I choose to develop.

So how do I do it?

I genuinely enjoy talking to people. (Well, most people, most of the time). People sense that. And I am a good listener. Most people find such a combination irresistible if they have a story they are yearning to tell.

People love to talk about themselves. Given the ideal opportunity they will. That is the beauty of a cross-country flight or train journey. You have time. Given time plus your willingness to listen many passengers will reveal their own hidden story of their own free will. You just have to guide them to it, gently but attentively, then wait patiently and listen.

A story at random….

One young woman turned out to have won an important scholarship to a prestigious university abroad. She seemed happy but when I asserted her family must also be thrilled she fell silent. My “Spidey” sense told me therein lay “the” story she really wanted to tell me. In time I circled back to it. I could tell she wanted to tell me something but still wouldn’t. Some time later I circled back to it again. By now I had earned her confidence. 

Long story short. She had come from a part of the world where girls were not thought of as highly as boys. To her family she just didn’t count. Somehow, without any encouragement, she had made something of herself academically – so much so that here she was! None of it mattered to her family. Nothing she could do impressed them. They did not care what she did or where she went. But she had never let it stop her.

As she told me this, there were no tears, just resigned acceptance and a deep sadness. But it touched me in a way that has always stayed with me. So, here I am today, referencing it in a work of mine (this post) that it directly inspired…

It was a story that has also inspired me indirectly in my work too. Her courage to go it alone was uplifting. And it always reminds me that things are rarely what they seem or ought to be. Families especially so.

The young woman had never told anyone else “her” story. She seemed greatly relieved and thanked me for listening. I’d like to think it did her some good telling it.

In that instance, and many others like it, I feel less like a parasite and more just like a decent human being.

Surely it is possible to be both.

The takeaway

You never know from where inspiration will come. 

I believe that everyone has at least one good story worth hearing. So the next time you are traveling a great distance, instead of immersing yourself in your MP3 player and ebook, why not take the time and try conversing with your fellow passengers?

You may not only find authentic inspiration but also a memorable connection with another voyager on this journey we call life.

Got a specific question for a future column? Now you can contact the author directly. Emails may be posted unless otherwise proscribed. Contact: thebornfreelancer@gmail.com

POSTED IN: Features