Writing the Rails: The Amtrak Residency for Writers

Railroad tracks photo taken from inside of train out the window.

The view from the window of the Amtrak Lake Shore Limited. Photo by Jessica Gross

Jessica Gross: I am in a little sleeper cabin on a train to Chicago. Framing the window are two plush seats. Between them is a small table that you can slide up and out; its top is a chessboard. Next to one of the chairs is a seat whose top flips up to reveal a toilet and above that is a folding sink, something like a Murphy bed with a spigot.

There are little cups, little towels, a tiny bar of soap.

 My name is Jessica Gross and I’m a writer and the first recipient of the Amtrak Writers’ Residency.

Jessica Gross:  I guess two Decembers ago I was sitting in a cafeteria doing some work the day after Christmas with a friend of mine and came across an interview that the writer Alexander Chee had done with PEN, the organization for writers’ freedom of speech. Okay. So Alexander Chee had mentioned in this interview that he loves riding on the train and wished that Amtrak had a residency for writers, and I and many other writers thought this was an incredible concept and tweeted to Amtrak that we would like to actually make this a reality.

Julia Quinn. My name is Julia Quinn. I am the Director of Public Relations for Amtrak, and my group manages the Amtrak Residency Program. The great thing about social media is that it helps bubble up conversations that you otherwise wouldn't have been privy to. And we reached out to Jessica on Twitter, and said, "Hey, you know, this does sound like a pretty cool idea. We'd love to test it out.".

Jessica Gross:  So I thought it was a joke at first and at the very most thought that it was a publicity stunt or something like that, didn’t know that they actually literally meant a trial run, but luckily I was sitting with this friend-- I can be a little bit risk averse-- and I told him what had happened on Twitter and he said, “You have to go.”

Julia Quinn: Besides luck of the draw, Jessica was one of a handful of folks who kind of raised their hand initially and said that an Amtrak residency program was an interesting idea. She was also willing to travel in the dead of winter, in January. So she was willing to do a quick trip for us, just to kind of test out if writing could actually get done on a train.

Jessica Gross:  I e-mailed Amtrak and picked a train that I had actually been on as a child with my father and brother, The Lake Shore Limited, which is the train from New York to Chicago. My dad is obsessed with trains; he’s what’s called a foamer, a person who foams at the mouth at the sight of a train; this is a recognized group of individuals. So I took this train trip from New York to Chicago, stayed in Chicago for a night and then came back and while on the trip wrote this piece about it.

 A sliding door pulls closed and locks with a latch; you can draw the curtains, as I have done, over the two windows pointing out to the corridor. The room is three feet by six inches by six feet by eight-- okay, wait; let me do that one again-- the room is three feet six inches by six feet eight inches. It is efficient and quaint. I am ensconced.

Julia Quinn: One of the great things about cross-country train travel is it slows the pace of life a little bit; right? You unplug. You read a book. You put the cell phone away. And we thought that just people who enjoyed literature, writers, really would benefit from that kind of unplugged time aboard a cross-country train.

Jessica Gross:  I inherited my father’s obsession, affinity for trains in a slightly different form. So my father seems to be very interested in the mechanics of trains, he really likes old steam engines and I am really interested in train travel as a kind of meditative experience and also a sort of communal experience sitting there with other people. There was no way to grow up with my dad and not inherit any kind of desire for train travel above other modes of transport; that was one of the reasons why I really wanted to take this trip, but in addition to that I just personally really think it’s one of the best places to write. And so I was drawn not only to taking the trip but to taking it with this sort of mission of having time that was completely suspended and just allowed to create whatever I could in that period.

Julia Quinn:   When we were thinking about, you know, "What is it that we want to get out of this. We’re pretty confident in cross-country train travel. We think that once you've experienced it, it really is an experience in and of itself. It's not just about getting where you need to go. It's really about everything that happens from the time you get on the train to the time you arrive. And our hope was that the experience was going to be so great for the writers that they were going to choose to then share their story-- share what type of work they got done, what the experience aboard a cross-country train is like. It doesn't hurt to have highly articulate people riding on your trains and potentially talking about it. But we were very careful in crafting the program itself, that we did not want to make creating content for Amtrak a requirement. We agreed to provide the folks who were eventually selected for the program, unedited space on the Amtrak blog. But it was, again, not a requirement. It was just something that if they chose, they felt like they had a story they wanted to tell, we would provide them a space to do that. It is completely unedited. We just gave them a space. It's their photos, if they chose to provide a photo. It's really, you know, the train travel experience through their eyes,

Jessica Gross:  There were not any requirements from Amtrak. They requested that I post some pictures or tweets on social media, and I ended up talking to them and saying that I was very uncomfortable just for journalistic ethics reasons with having any stipulations or requirements at all and they said, “Oh, yes, of course. Just if the mood strikes you feel free but this is really just a free trip and do whatever you want with it.” And I don’t believe that we discussed the essay at all but it seems pretty obvious material for essay writing to me and I just had my own questions about why the train is such a fruitful environment for writers to work. So I kind of just really wanted to write the essay as my own exploration into that question.

 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. The towel goes on the ledge beneath the mirror; the sink goes into its hole in the wall; during the day the bed, which slides down from overhead, slides up into a high pocket of space. There is comfort in the certainty of these arrangements. The journey is bounded too; I know when it will end.

Jessica Gross:  The fact that it was a trial run of this residency I did not feel any pressure at all because to be honest I thought that it was just totally nominal and not real. I didn’t actually think that a residency rested on what was happening in my experience, and in fact I mean I can’t speak for Amtrak but my understanding of the way events unfolded is that the essay that I wrote sparked a great amount of interest and that was what-- part of what spurred the creation of the actual residency. So in my mind I thought I was just going on this solitary trip and I didn’t feel like there was that much riding on it in terms of the future of this-- of the residency at all.

Julia Quinn: So after Jessica took her trip, she got published in "The Paris Review." And that, then, sparked Alexander, who we had reached out to secondarily after reaching out to Jessica, and let him know, "Hey, we think your idea that you mentioned in the PEN Ten article is a great one. Would you be interested in taking a cross-country trip with Amtrak?", and his trip was a little more aggressive than Jessica's. He was actually going to be traveling from New York all the way out to Portland, Oregon, so about a four-day cross-country journey on the train. When Alexander saw Jessica's "Paris Review" article, he then turned to Twitter and said, "Hey, looks like the Amtrak Residency Program is happening. I am also taking a trip." This happened on a Friday afternoon, and by Monday morning, we had about 25,000 people on Twitter raise their hand and say, "How do I apply?"

Jessica Gross:  I think having a set period of time on the train was-- is very helpful because writing can be very overwhelming and frightening and if you feel that you could just write forever sometimes at least for me it induces a sort of paralysis so to have a set endpoint is sort of liberating. I mean this is just one of many examples in which constraints can actually yield the sort of stability and structure that a flourishing of creativity necessitates. I feel like it’s kind of a truism almost at this point that limitations breed really exciting creativity so I think that the enforced time period is just one example.

Julia Quinn: We had this great opportunity, as an organization. We didn't even have to test the concept. people passionate about train travel had already raised their hand and said they were interested in a program like this, and so I worked internally with my team and other groups within the Amtrak organization to really say, "We need to figure out a way to make this work. How can we launch a residency program?" And so we reached out to the NEA and got some feedback. We spoke with some folks at PEN America. And from the time that Alexander tweeted about the fact that he was doing a residency program, this is all happening in early February, and 25,000 people saying, "Hey, we want to do this," we officially launched the program in early March. So we opened up applications in March. We left the application process open for just over a month and received 16,000 applications. Which, again, it's kind of a happy circumstance. I mean, we knew people were interested. We never knew that 16,000 people would actually go through the application process with interest for a chance to take a residency trip on Amtrak.

Jessica Gross:  Being in the train with other people, that physical containment, is also really relaxing in a way because I do think that writing because it can be sort of scary you need some kind of grounding influence. I mean at least for me when I’m doing the kind of writing I love it’s unpredictable and I feel like the unconscious-- there’s this connection to the unconscious and it sort of flows out onto the page in a way that you sort of have to be ready for and be able to handle, and sometimes I find it easier to do that when there are other people around just to remind myself that I’m actually in the world; I’m not <laughs> on this piece of paper floating out in the ether. <laughs>

Julia Quinn:  16,000 applications was not something that we originally anticipated. So the application process was pretty simple. We had it online. There was a series of short questions that they needed to answer. Basically, why they wanted to take a trip like this, how they thought it would help them finish pieces of work that they were working on, and then, they were required to submit a writing sample. We  probably narrowed down about 25 percent of the applications because people just didn't follow the rules, and we needed to ensure that we were treating everybody fairly. We, then, continued, and the process took us a very long time. So we closed out the application in mid-April, and we didn't actually narrow the applications-- we eventually narrowed it down to about 125. That didn't happen until late June. Last year, we had four great judges. We actually had Alexander Chee, because he helped us birth this program with his great idea. We had Amy Stolls from the National Endowment of the Arts. We also had an editor from Random House. And our VP of Government Affairs and Corporate Communications, Joe McHugh, here at Amtrak participated in the panel.

Jessica Gross:  I did do most of my writing alone in the little roomette. The folding bed retracts so you can actually sit in one of the two seats. It wasn’t that I actually did so much writing in the company of other people but just knowing they were around, hearing people pass by, that was pretty much enough, not distracting, just this sort of bustling reminder that I wasn’t all by myself.

Julia Quinn:  We were shooting for 24. And it happened that we came in right at 24, with a couple of alternates in case people were unable to accept the residency and I was thankful to our judges who donated their time. Because I was extremely humbled when I sat in on  their discussion and how much time and energy the put into really combing through the applications, looking for reasons why one applicant might benefit more than another. And again, we were really just grateful to the judges and then extremely excited at the 24 that were selected. Because when it all kind of shook out, we had a pretty diverse group of folks. We had published authors. We had a graduate student. We had people from all over the country. And so it really worked out about as best as I think it possibly could've for a program that was really birthed in about a month and a half.

Jessica Gross:   And the movement of the train itself is really relaxing.  I feel like babies often fall asleep in the car for good reason;  it’s soothing, not that all writing needs to be hand held in this manner but these are just some of the ideas that I arrived at for why writers like the train

Julia Quinn: We actually did just launch again in November.  The application is open still. It's going to be open through the end of December. The first year of the residency program was just a learning experience for Amtrak. How can we make this a better process? How can we ensure that it is a benefit to the folks who are chosen for a residency? So we've kind of been all eyes and ears, as we went through the first year, to ensure that it was a better program the second go around.

Jessica Gross:  Train travel is extremely romantic; and to be honest I’m struggling to define why although maybe that’s part of the point, but there’s such mystery involved in a way. You’re moving at a really interesting speed. I mean you’re moving quickly enough that the scenery is constantly changing so you’re surprised by what is to come but not so quickly that you miss anything and not so slowly that you become bored. And of course there’s also the fact that this type of travel feels a little bit old fashioned and almost endangered whether or not it really is and I feel like that adds to the romance of it, this sort of connection to generations past even if it’s just a few generations and imagining that you might be traveling in the same way that your grandparents did; that’s sort of a beautiful thing.

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. 

In my world, long-distance train travel is imbued with romanticism—it could be the pace of travel, the sound of the wheels and the whistle, the slight sway of the cars.  It could also be all those books and films with pivotal moments that take place on a train. Where does Anna meet Count Vronsky, after all? All right, it’s really when the train reaches the station; but, it was Anna’s long conversation with his mother on the train that set up the fateful meeting. For train travel, the journey is as important as the arrival.

I’m hardly alone in my attachment to train travel.  In fact, in an interview one writer who so loved writing on trains remarked that Amtrak should create a writer’s residency. Another writer tweeted to Amtrak: “How about it?”  Amtrak said, “Sounds good,” and the Amtrak Residency for Writers was born.

Just beginning its second year, the Amtrak Residency for Writers gives each of its 24 residents the round trip of their choice.  There’s a limit of two long-distance routes each way, and Amtrak works with the writers and its own ticket sales to schedule the writers throughout the year. How have writers responded? Well, 16,000 applied in the first year. But how has it been for a writer taking part in the residency? Why did Amtrak decide to pursue it and how did it all come together?

 Amtrak’s first resident writer Jessica Gross and the program’s director Julia Quinn take us through one writer’s residency and how and why Amtrak set the program in motion.

Find out more about the Amtrak Residency for Writers.

Read Jessica Gross’ essay in The Paris Review Daily, “Writing the Lake Shore Limited.”