Writers get all aboard Amtrak’s train residency program


Answering to writer Alexander Chee’s twitter pleas, Amtrak has launched a still-unstructured writers residency program. Photo by Flickr user jpmueller99

There’s something romantic about train travel. The stillness aboard as the landscape swiftly changes outside your window, passengers and places coming and going along the way. For many, those cramped train cars come with extra room for creativity. When writer Alexander Chee said in a recent interview that trains are his favorite place for his craft, he mused that Amtrak should offer up residencies for writers in need of a creative space.

Chee’s Amtrak residency idea launched a thousand ships, er, locomotives on Twitter, with writers petitioning for Amtrak to make his dream a reality.

“I still like a train best for this kind of thing. I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers,” Chee told the PEN literary advocacy group, in the interview that started it all.

Writers in the Twittersphere took it from there.

“How much momentum do we have to gain for this to become real, @Amtrak? @zseward” said New York-based culture writer Jessica Gross.

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

— Jessica Gross (@jessicagross) December 26, 2013

Delightfully, Amtrak obliged, and sent Gross on a free “test-run” residency on a sleeper train from New York to Chicago.

.@zseward @jessicagross We’d need a test run. You two up for a trip to Chicago and back?”

.@zseward @jessicagross We’d need a test run. You two up for a trip to Chicago and back?

— Amtrak (@Amtrak) December 26, 2013

In a piece published by the Paris Review, Gross wrote an ode to train travel as she made the round-trip trek.

“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,” wrote Gross during the 44-hour ride.

Now Amtrak is working to turn the residencies into an established program, sending writers on free trips across the country to take that “found time” to create.

As we work on a formalized entry process, we ask that u use #AmtrakResidency to show your interest. We don't want to miss you!

— Amtrak (@Amtrak) February 23, 2014

And writers are clamoring for their chance.

“@Amtrak Why’m I drooling over the #AmtrackResidency? Because there’s nothing like the steady thrum of a train to keep the words flowing!”

@Amtrak Why'm I drooling over the #AmtrackResidency? Because there's nothing like the steady thrum of a train to keep the words flowing!

— Laura Anne Gilman (@LAGilman) February 24, 2014

As for Chee, his trip is scheduled for mid-May—and he’ll have plenty of time to write on his residency-in-locomotion from New York City to Portland, Ore.

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

Why are trains so conducive for writing?

“I think it’s a combination of the set deadline—the end of the train ride—the calming movement, and the company of strangers,” Gross said in an interview with Amtrak following her trip.

And she slept well too.

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