“Train time is found time”: Amtrak offers residencies for writers
by Emma Aylor
This past week, the idea of writing residencies on Amtrak trains took off. On the 19th, Jessica Gross, Amtrak’s first writer-in-residence (for a few days, anyway), published a short essay on her experiences on the Paris Review Daily, and Alexander Chee tweeted about his own upcoming trip:
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
On Friday, The Wire picked up the story, and spoke to Amtrak’s social media director, Julia Quinn. Quinn calls the residencies “an idea dreamed up by Amtrak fans and customers . . . We would’ve never known until really in the last 48 hours what type of response a program like this would warrant, and we have been pleasantly surprised.”
It all started the day after Christmas, when Gross tweeted about her agreement with an idea Chee stated in his December PEN Ten interview: “I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers.” Later the same day, Amtrak responded:
— Amtrak (@Amtrak) December 26, 2013
A few days later, Amtrak reports in their January blog post about the residency, Gross was on the Lake Shore Limited, Chicago-bound. (Their headline reads “Tweet Lands Writer Best Workspace Ever,” and I can’t disagree.) In the accompanying interview, Gross spoke about the “feeling of supra-earthliness” she felt in departing everyday life for a few days, a feeling amplified by her choice of the top bunk. She also posited an explanation for the effectiveness of the residency: “I think it’s a combination of the set deadline—the end of the train ride—the calming movement, and the company of strangers.”
Commenters on Amtrak’s post had a few ideas of their own. One wrote,
I get so much done on the train. It’s fantastic. Something about the background noise and the ability to have a people view whenever I look up from my screen.
(Basically, it sounds like it’s like a better version of the coffee shop “residency” of Saturday mornings.) One commenter even specified genre-specific inspiration:
Poetry is all about rhythm. And so are trains, of course. Maybe that’s why I’ve written some of my best poems on trains.
Another waxed nostalgic:
This is the single best thing I’ve heard of Amtra[k] doing since I took the Zephyr east when I was 10 years old in the sixties.
Amtrak plans to continue an informal, Twitter-based “application” process, the Atlantic Wire reported: it’s a “social media born-and-bred program, with writers and Amtrak reaching out to each other initially on Twitter, and then going from there.” (On Sunday they asked that Twitter applicants use the hashtag #AmtrakResidency.) Julia Quinn, Amtrak’s social media director, says that the current plan is to “engage with writers several times a month.” The program will not be “pay for play,” Quinn also explained:
We want to keep this [as] open as possible.
After all, she pointed out, it’s not as if Amtrak is “at a lack of places to send people.”
If Gross’ Paris Review Daily essay is any indication, the program is as much a success for writers as it is beneficial for Amtrak’s image. In her “thirty-nine hours of transit—forty-four, with delays,” Gross found comfort in the safety and certainty of her time there:
These reasons are all undergirded by a sense of safety, borne of boundaries. I’ve always been a claustrophile, and I think that explains some of the appeal–the train is bounded, compartmentalized, and cozily small, like a carrel in a college library. Everything has its place. . . . There is comfort in the certainty of these arrangements. The journey is bounded, too: I know when it will end. Train time is found time. My main job is to be transported; any reading or writing is extracurricular. The looming pressure of expectation dissolves. And the movement of a train conjures the ultimate sense of protection—being a baby, rocked in a bassinet.
She also felt that her fellow passengers were a sort of “anchor to the world . . . We’re all okay here; we’re all here, here.” Some of the trip’s pleasure, though, lay in the way home, as Gross describes in a recollection of a childhood trip on the same Amtrak line:
Here are my scattered memories of that trip: a sleeper cabin shared with my brother. we slept in bunk beds; my dad slept across the hall. Dinner in the dining car; delight in the compactness and efficiency of our little cabin. A desire to live on this train—but, underneath that, a comfort in the knowledge that we wouldn’t, that the trip had an end, that we would leave, that we’d be home.
I agree with Gross on this; though there’s a kinetic excitement to the setting out, there’s also something to the coming home. Taking Amtrak’s Northeast Regional from my temporary home in New York to my family home in Virginia last summer, I experienced the reverse of my trip north. Where I had been jittery with anticipation, I was, southbound, a little weepy, watching more and more magnolias pass as I came closer to home. I wrote, and it wasn’t any good, but the experience was all.
Emma Aylor is a former Melville House intern.