Amtrak is trying something new. No, it didn’t turn a profit or decrease late arrivals. But it will begin offering writing “residencies” on selected long distance lines.
I love trains and wrote on how trains offer a “poetic” way to see the world a couple of years ago for TAC, so naturally I think this is a great idea.
Details have not been released yet, but The Wire reports that Amtrak will favor writers with a strong social media presence. Last night, Julia Quinn, Amtrak’s Director of Social Media, got on Reddit to give a few more details and answer questions. Quinn noted that the company will set up on online application form soon and that “residents” will be selected by a panel of individuals “from Amtrak and the literary community.” Writers of all genres will be allowed to apply.
The idea for the residencies came about when novelist Alexander Chee told PEN America that he loved writing on the train and wished “Amtrak had residencies for writers.” This made the rounds on Twitter and ended with Jessica Gross—who asked Amtrak on Twitter “How much momentum do we have to gain for this to become real”—doing a “test run” for the passenger rail service on its New York-Chicago line.
Gross traveled with her brother and wrote on the experience at The Paris Review. “Writing requires a dip into the subconscious,” she writes, and a train provides a space that is both public and private. Moreover, there is a comfort in being surrounded by fellow travelers while “ensconced” in a sleeper cabin, where a writer can plumb her “secret desires” and “fantasies.” Gross also suggests that a number of writers like working on a train because it provides them with, in the words of critic Evan Smith Rakoff, “a set, uninterrupted deadline.”