How I travelled back in time to the steam era—and took thousands of readers with me

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The power of creative nonfiction is awesome. It’s a relatively new, and rarely used, genre of literature. Essentially, it’s applying the principles of fiction writing to nonfiction. Some people call it narrative nonfiction. More than a literary genre, I found it to be the vehicle by which I could realize my fondest dream—to travel back in time to the middle of the 20th century and witness steam locomotives operating in daily service.

Everyone seems to have a place they want to visit—a dream vacation spot, a nature preserve in Africa, the place where Uncle Teddy was wounded during the war. The exotic, the primitive, the urban, the rural. The place where they speak other languages, eat other food, practise other customs. None of that mattered to me, though. The locale I wanted to visit was so near, but yet so far. It was somewhere between a ten-minute walk and half a day’s drive away, geographically speaking. The kicker was that the distance—linear, spatial distance—wasn’t an issue. The problem was that I wanted to travel back in time.

Are you like me in some ways, where you subconsciously set an objective that you can’t possibly achieve, perhaps as a way of incurring self-defeat? My desire to visit the steam era of the 1950s in my own backyard seemed to be that very phenomenon at work. It couldn’t be done. You cannot physically travel back in time. You can look at old pictures, read old accounts, talk to people who were there. But you have to be content with that.

If that had been the end of my dream, I would have been a depressed boy (and man). Fortunately, though, once I acknowledged that I could not travel back in time in reality, a new possibility presented itself. What if I could do so in my imagination? Better still, what if I could recount the experience to other unlucky persons such as me, who longed to take the same journey but faced the same impossible reality? And suppose you, dear reader, contemplated the same possibilities?

Enter the genre of literature known as creative nonfiction. For that matter, enter the profession known as writing.

In my improvisational comedy classes at Second City in Toronto during the late 1980s and early 1990s, we practised an exercise in imagining. It went something like this. We all laid down on the floor, on our backs, and closed our eyes. Then we pictured and imagined specific things in sensory detail. It could be anything—a carnival, a quiet evening by the lake at a cottage, a walk around the block. The phenomenon of self-hypnosis works this way.

For us in that improv comedy class, it was a discovery exercise. Observe something in your imagination (say, the Ferris wheel at the carnival). Go closer (in your mind’s eye). Hear, see, smell, feel the environment. Notice a popcorn vendor. Go closer. Taste the popcorn. Hear someone’s voice calling you. Turn your head to see who it is. Notice that it’s a clown, beckoning you closer. Go closer. Notice that the clown’s face is someone you know. Look into that face.

And so on. The process can become scary, in a hurry. It can become exhilarating, exciting. It can become sad. It can become a lot of things. The point of the exercise is to explore. The point of the exercise is also to realize that you can create anything in your imagination. And, while you can safely or regrettably pull yourself away from the experience, while you are there it is as real as reality. Subconsciously, your brain doesn’t know the difference between a real and an imagined experience.

Some years later, I connected the dots between the improvisational comedy workshop exercise and my dream to travel back in time and see the steam locomotives in my hometown of Barrie, Ontario. That desire—to travel back in time—led to my becoming a writer. The degree to which I imagined the experience of travelling back in time was the degree to which I realized my dream. And the degree to which I documented that imaginary experience and applied the principles of writing creative nonfiction was the degree to which I achieved success as an author.


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