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Amtrak launches writer residency program, thanks to Twitter

“It’s that kind of deep thinking that the train is particularly good for.”


Sarah Weber


Novelist Alexander Chee confessed in an interview in late December that his favorite place to write is on a train. The author of The Queen of the Night and Edinburgh mused to PenAmerica, “I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers.” He soon found he wasn’t alone.

New York City-based writer Jessica Gross seconded the idea, and tweeted at Amtrak.

How much momentum do we have to gain for this to become real, @Amtrak@zseward

— Jessica Gross (@jessicagross) December 26, 2013

Surprisingly, the tweet actually caught Amtrak’s attention. The romantic work of writing seems a perfect match for the old-world method of travel. Outside the bustling hubs of activity around New York City and Washington D.C., train travel becomes less about the daily rigors of commuting. Out under the open skies of the Midwest, the prairie and mountain states, rail travelers get a panoramic view of the American landscape. They chug passed soccer moms picking up dry cleaning in the suburbs and through sleepy mining towns untouched by time except for the decay. Later they might look up from their keyboards to find themselves surrounded by acres and acres of perfectly tended corn, or wind-swept fields dotted with cows.

Each scene, each curious nugget of someone else’s life, bubbles with narrative possibilities. Travel by car and you’re tethered to the wheel. Your mind can wander only to the extent that you can still brake for a stop sign. And flying fails to give you time, proximity, and, frankly, the elbow room, to ferment an idea or character arch. But train travel lends itself to work and to daydreams, and to the imagining of richer verbs.

That’s why Gross jumped at the chance when Amtrak offered her a free test trip traveling from New York City to Chicago. She spent 44 hours on the trip there and back and later published a story about the journey in The Paris Review. In a follow-up interview with Gross published by Amtrak’s blog (part of the deal for the free trip), she suggested other writers give working by train a try.

“Don’t be too ambitious with what you plan to get done: Allow for time spent gazing out the window, letting ideas work themselves out in your mind. It’s that kind of deep thinking that the train is particularly good for, and that can be more difficult to achieve in the interstices of busy day-to-day life,” Gross said.

Thanks to her tweet, that may become possible for even more writers. Amtrak appears to be moving forward with its preliminary writer-in-residence program, offering a trip to the man who started the conversation.

I can announce my @Amtrak writer’s residency dream came true, thanks to them– am set for a trip from NYC-Portland, OR in mid-May.

— Alexander Chee (@alexanderchee) February 19, 2014

While the writers involved in the budding partnership are thrilled, Amtrak is also soaking up a great deal of good will as a result.

We are thrilled by the response surrounding #AmtrakResidency. We’ll keep you posted w/details. In the meantime, we love hearing from you!

— Amtrak (@Amtrak) February 22, 2014

H/T The Wire | Photo by Gene Bowker/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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