How to Write Like a Hobo

My attraction to hobos started in 2004, when I was eighteen.

Hobo from the Great Depression

I was writing a short story about a lady who falls for a business man who is really (spoiler alert!) a hobo living in the CNN Center in Atlanta, GA. At the time, I had a throbbing crush on then presidential candidate John Kerry. I imagined him carrying a red and white rucksack and having artful spots of dirt on his killer cheekbones.

I’m not trying to romanticize — or romance — hobos, but they do have unique qualities we can use in our everyday lives. Hobos were travelling laborers during The Great Depression. They rode the train to work in different parts of the country. They were not bums. They had jobs.

Over time, it became illegal to ride the rails for free. The need for hobos in the labor force also diminished. Their tent cities along the railroad, called hobohemias, were no longer allowed to stand. Mainstream America began to think hobos lived an inappropriate lifestyle.

I say all that to tell you that hobos – real, imagined, and fetishized — made me a better writer. Some hobos were writers: poet Edwin (Buzz) Potter hopped trains in the 1950s for labor jobs and adventure, eventually becoming editor of The Hobo Times. At their best, hobos embody free-spirited living. Through leisure, you can work on your creative side better than if you are pounding your head on a desk at your computer.

Here are my top 5 tips to incorporate hobo values into your creative process:

1) Dress like a hobo in winter. You will need a puffy jacket, preferably in velour so you can get crumbs stuck in it (see tip 2). You will also need a scruffy black beret, as if Mary Tyler Moore threw her hat into the air and it got crumpled in an air vent before falling back down. Sit with your laptop in a public place, wring your hands, and mutter to yourself. Keep writing on your laptop, eating a falafel perhaps, and muttering, “This is shit,” making sure you tell passersby you mean your writing is shit, not your falafel. Continue this process for 45 minutes.

2) Stuff chips into your mouth. Be consistent. Pick one kind of chip. My favorite “thinking crisp” is the Frito for its thickness, satisfying crunch and sturdiness in onion dip.

3) Take a long walk — incognito. Combine steps 1 and 2. I’ve walked from my house to Harris Teeter, bought a bag of Baked Cheddar Cheese Ruffles and ate out of the bag while I walked home. My sister was driving on the road at the time and saw me walking down the sidewalk. She later told me she didn’t recognize me. That’s the kind of reaction you want: complete anonymity.

4) Take a nap.  I’m not going to tell you how or why your brain reorganizes itself when you sleep. I’ll just say dreaming about Javier Bardem making you a strawberry milkshake will get those neurons firing by the time you wake up. Or you’ll just want a strawberry milkshake. Either way, you will be aroused.

5) Don’t sit on the couch and watch “Sex and the City.” Hobos don’t watch TV. I know it’s weird to include a don’t in a list of dos, but I had to say it. One time, I was sprawled on the couch, listless, skipping between seasons six then three then four of “Sex and the City.” This, children, does not make you a great writer. All you will get is the ability to do a killer impression of bed-hopping Samantha Jones. Everything you say will sound oddly sexual, such as, “Oh, I ate alllll of the Fritos in my bag.”

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2 thoughts on “How to Write Like a Hobo

  1. The story of me seeing you walking is very true. I thought to myself, “I thought we lived in a nice area, I guess we managed to attract some homeless people? Oh wait. That’s my sister.” I thought about picking you up, but I didn’t want all those chip crumbs in my car.

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