by | Apr 22, 2018 | The Writer's Life, On writing | 14 comments

S Lee Manning:  I’m trying to write on a flight to Los Angeles to visit my daughter. It’s a six-hour flight, and I’d planned to get a lot done. The best laid plans – yada, yada. We’re four hours in. I’m currently wedged into a seat where my elbows almost touch those of my neighbor, a nice young woman, but I don’t want to get too intimate. I was going to go over some notes and start revising some scenes. It seemed like a good way to spend six hours when I don’t have Internet access, and

yes, I know you can pay for limited Internet access on a plane, but I’m cheap. The notes are in a folder on the floor under the seat in front. To get them, I’d have to fold up my laptop, put up the tray, lean over, without banging the laptop, my neighbor, or the guy in the seat in front. And even if I managed to get hold of the notes, the laptop takes up the entirety of the tray, so I’d have to juggle notes on my lap without dropping them on the floor or my neighbor.

So instead of working on my novel, I’m writing this. No notes required. I was going to write a post about how I interweave real world political figures and the imaginary world I create, but I decided I’d rather whine about flying. Have I mentioned that I don’t like flying? I even wrote an imitation Dr. Seuss poem about it:
I hate it when we take off.
I hate it when we land.
I hate it when I’m sitting.
I hate it when I stand.
I do not like it with a fox.
I think I’ll wind up in a box.
You get the idea.
So now let me wax poetic on the ever-shrinking seat size. I’m tall for a woman, 5’9”, which is an average man’s height, and I’m cramped. My husband at 6’2” has his knees jammed against the back of the seat of in front of him – and that’s before the passenger in front decides to decline his seat. Motive for murder? “I’m sorry officer, I was already in pain and then he pushed his seat back – so I smothered him with the in-flight pillow – which took a lot of effort considering that the pillow’s the size of a not particularly large napkin.”

I don’t remember it being this uncomfortable from when I flew back in the good old days of the 1990s – and my legs haven’t grown since – well, since before the 1990s. I look at the young people on the flight and realize with sadness that they’ll never know the joy of sufficient legroom on a flight – not unless they want to pay for it. Which leads me to…

Every time I check in for a flight, the airline offers me extra legroom to upgrade to Economy Plus for a mere $89, or sometimes $189 – per person. Did you know that sitting in a cramped seat on an airplane is a risk factor for deep vein thrombosis? Have I mentioned that along with being a hypochondriac, I’m cheap? Of course I have. Probably several times. So, okay, I’m a walking stereotype. But in the battle between hypochondria and cheapness, cheapness generally wins. I’d rather sit here and complain and plot suits against the airline than pay an extra $200 or $400 each way for what the airlines should be providing – sufficient room to stretch your legs.
Or figure out a cheap way to stretch my legs and avoid deep vein thrombosis: which is why my husband always wants an aisle seat, and for a long flight, I also like the aisle – so we chose seats on opposite sides of the aisle – which is also why I’m rubbing elbows with a nice young woman instead of my husband.  He’s close enough I can hold his hand on takeoff and landing; we can pass snacks and drinks back and forth, but otherwise we’re on our own. Every person who passes on the way to the bathroom inevitably bumps into my arm or my shoulder. Sometimes they apologize, but mostly they don’t. On the good side, I can periodically stick my legs out into the aisle, wave them around, and trip people.
Me, stressed on a plane.

It used to be on cross-country flights, you were served a meal. It wasn’t great, but it was something to keep you from eating the in-flight magazine. It maybe didn’t taste much better, but usually there was cake or cookies. The meal took up time, and making fun of the food was entertaining. Or you could order a kosher meal. It was usually a step up from the regular airplane food. I knew non-Jews who pretended to be orthodox just to get the kosher food.
Now, all you get is a can of soda and some pretzels – if you’re lucky. The air flight attendants handed out pretzels to some of us, but not to others. I’ve been puzzling over who was chosen and why. Maybe it’s just another life lesson, to teach us the randomness of good things – except that I don’t even like pretzels all that much. I just feel I deserve pretzels as much as any other passenger.
I know some people like to write on planes, and I’m trying to understand why. Do they fly first class? I could write in first class, maybe, I’d have room for notes and books, maybe two laptops. I’d have good snacks, and access to all the coffee I want – another thing I can’t get on a plane. Would I feel bad about the people in economy who were deprived even of pretzels? I like to think I would.
The pilot just announced that we’ll be touching down in half an hour. Tomorrow, I’ll have a table, my notes, snacks, and a lot of coffee. While my daughter’s at her job, I’ll be working on the novel – in between exploring West Hollywood. Today, to my surprise, I wrote an entire blog post in an hour and a half. So maybe writing on a plane isn’t impossible after all.

So what about you? Can you get anything done on a plane?
Don’t Miss a Thing!



  1. Gayle Lynds

    Ouch! I have the same thing with flying these days, planning to get a tremendous amount of work done … and then reality sets in. I'm particularly fond of your comment about considering eating the magazines. You really captured it, and it all made me feel a lot better to know for certain I'm not alone!

  2. Robin Burcell

    I do a lot of writing on planes. Sometimes it works out better than others. For instance, thinking I'm going to get all my edits done on a transatlantic flight, only to discover that the chargers I was depending on in our premium economy seats were for cell phones, not computers! Ran out of juice. Like you, I'm cheap. But I have finally come to the conclusion that for long flights–anything over 4-5 hours–that extra 100 or 200 bucks is worth every penny. (Esp if I'm flying solo.) And yes, always an aisle seat if on regular flight–which means paying the 15 bucks to Southwest for Early Bird boarding! (Other advantage is you don't have to wait 20 minutes for everyone else to get off the plane. If the flight is short enough, I'll even suffer in a middle seat to sit up front as long as my bag can fit in the overhead! I've found that in my (mumbles something about age and health), comfort is important.

    The other thing I did was bought an 11" macbook air. This after using a 9" Acer for traveling, which the keyboard was too small, but once you get used to it, not bad. The Air was a good compromise. It's the perfect size. Not too big, not too small. I always carry on a long sweater and prop the computer on it on my lap (as opposed to the tray) and use the excess sweater to cushion my elbows from the arm rests of my neighbor/s. Because I'm not using the tray, I can easily get into the bag at my feet. And the final thing is a bottle of water bought after getting through security, as I don't want a drink on the tray next to my laptop. (And when the people in adjoining seats get their drinks passed over me, I always move my laptop out of the line of fire. I've had drinks dumped on me as they were passed over to them. Turbulence doesn't always give a warning–nor do people who can't grasp a plastic cup.

    A friend, Allison Brennan, uses an iPad and a portable keyboard. But I like having the entire computer.

  3. ABEhrhardt

    I'm going to be doing several long flights in May – and have no intention of doing anything but sleeping on the plane to arrive as rested as possible under the circumstances.

    The ONLY good thing about being handicapped is getting on first – thanks for the warning about SW.

    IF I can't sleep, everything is on the MacBook. I gave up paper files long ago. I carry lots of packages of 3M orange earplugs – the difference in sound is amazing. 6 hours of plane noises are too many.

  4. Karna Bodman

    Oh S. Lee — we can ALL sympathize with every good point you have made about being uncomfortable and jammed in these days. (I did like your poem though!). The most important thing is that you arrived safely. They tell us that airline travel really IS the safest mode of transportation — but that doesn't erase the flight jitters that many of us experience. In fact, I always wondered why the building that arrivals and departures is dubbed THE TERMINAL. Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  5. Chris Goff

    Robin's comments about the beverages spilled on them came right on the heels of my reading the article on the crazed passenger flying Delta from London to Salt Lake City. Maybe she was crammed into too small a space for too darn long, but really–running up and down the aisle, tipping over a beverage cart, pouring coffee all over other passengers, attacking the air Marshall and ending up in handcuffs with a psych eval awaiting her upon touchdown. Makes me wonder how I'm going to fair on my flight from Denver to Munich in May. Can anyone spell Xanax?

  6. S. Lee Manning

    I am reminded of experiments with rats – where they basically lose their minds and begin to die when crammed in too small a space. For Denver to Munich, Xanax definitely sounded like the way to go.

  7. S. Lee Manning

    I understand that statistically flying is the safest mode of transportation, but that doesn't change the sheer terror of flight for me. Maybe it's the heights – I'm acrophobic. Maybe it's the lack of control over my fate. And maybe – because it's such a miserable experience, I have nothing pleasant to distract me.

  8. S. Lee Manning

    You're lucky you can sleep on planes. I'm usually too uncomfortable.

  9. S. Lee Manning

    I also tend to hide my computer as drinks pass over me. I also park my drinks on my husband's tray when he's traveling with me. And, I agree that comfort is important – but I'm still too cheap.

  10. S. Lee Manning

    I try to bring snacks, but somewhere over the middle of the country, I run out and then start eyeing the in-flight magazine. Every time, I swear I'll plan to bring enough food, and every time, I don't.

  11. Jamie Freveletti

    I fluctuate between paying for economy plus and winging it– and I usually end up paying. One thing you can do is when you get to the gate go to check in and ask if there are any emergency aisle seats left and if so can you switch. (More often than not they unblock those last). They're bigger and they have the advantage that the seats in front of you aren't allowed to recline. Although most are only middle seats, I always accept and often they don't charge me. But on really long flights I pay for economy plus or above. I keep an eye out for sales on first class and sometimes have flown RT first for less than economy plus, but there's no way to tell when that will happen and the rates change daily. In any event, I rarely get any work done during flight. It's just too distracting an environment for me.

  12. Lisa Black

    You're way more dedicated than I am to attempt to work on a plane–it's so miserable to fly now. My must-haves are earplugs, iPod/smartphone, crossword puzzles (I cut them from the paper and keep them binder-clipped to a small vinyl folder) and a book. But the silver lining to being crammed in like clothing racks at an outlet store is being out of cell phone range from every other being in the world. It's as if I've been given permission, for a couple of hours, to ignore everyone else without being thought rude, to go into my own little world and stay there for a while.

  13. S. Lee Manning

    I like the out-of reach feeling. It's why I fool myself into thinking I'll get some work done.

  14. S. Lee Manning

    It makes sense to pay for longer flights, but I'm usually not flying alone. It also makes me angry. They'e removed maybe four inches from the length of the seats – and I resent giving them more money because their business plan is to make me so uncomfortable I'm willing to pay to upgrade.