Inside Amtrak's (Absolutely Awesome) Plan to Give Free Rides to Writers
Amtrak has begun offering “writers’ residencies” to, well, writers – long roundtrip rides aboard Amtrak trains dedicated solely for the purpose of writing.
Update: Julia Quinn, Amtrak's Director of Social Media, offered a few new details on the program during a Reddit AMA.
Amtrak has begun offering "writers’ residencies" to, well, writers – long roundtrip rides aboard Amtrak trains dedicated solely for the purpose of writing.
After New York City-based writer Jessica Gross took the first "test-run" residency, traveling from NYC to Chicago and back, Amtrak confirmed that it is indeed planning to turn the writers' residencies into an established, long-term program, sending writers on trains throughout its network of routes.
First, let's get it out of the way: The Wire is 100 percent on board with this idea. Pun intended, because we're writers. We love writing, and we love trains, and we love them both together.
Combining the two is absolutely bonkers. We can't believe no one thought of this before.
But first: how did this beautiful reverie come to fruition? It seems we have Twitter to thank. After reading Alexander Chee’s interview in Pen America, in which he said “I still like a train best for [writing]. I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers,” Gross tweeted her mutual wish for an Amtrak-sponsored writing experience.
How much momentum do we have to gain for this to become real, @Amtrak? @zseward— Jessica Gross (@jessicagross) December 26, 2013
And though such lofty fantasies often die unrealized, by the grace of some transportation-and-prose-loving god, Amtrak actually responded to Gross on Twitter, and liked the idea.
.@zseward @jessicagross We’d need a test run. You two up for a trip to Chicago and back?— Amtrak (@Amtrak) December 26, 2013
So Gross emailed the social media team at Amtrak to set the trip up, picked dates and a route (Amtrak recommended the Lake Shore Limited, because, you know, there tends to be room on a train headed to Chicago in mid-Winter), and booked her ticket. She rode the rails from NYC to Chicago to NYC again, writing the whole time. No one else on the train knew about her residency, Gross said, or if they did, they "definitely didn't act like it."
Now, perhaps the most important point: The residency was free. According to Gross, all Amtrak asked was that she send out a few tweets while she was traveling, and do an interview for the company's blog at the end of her trip.
All told, it sounds like a truly exquisite experience. Gross later detailed her trip in The Paris Review: "I’m only here for the journey. Soon after I get to Chicago, I’ll board a train and come right back to New York: thirty-nine hours in transit—forty-four, with delays. And I’m here to write."
What, exactly, is the appeal of writing on a train? In a phone interview with The Wire, Gross described the train ride as a "unique environment for creative thought," one that "takes you out of normal life." She won't find much disagreement. Now more writers (The Wire's staff included) are clamoring for their own Amtrak residency.
“I’ve seen a billion tweets from other writers saying ‘I want one of these’,” Gross said, probably being a tad hyperbolic, but it's true that once Amtrak actually does start offering writers' residencies regularly, they're going to be very popular. Julia Quinn, social media director for Amtrak, tells The Wire that there has been "overwhelming demand" from people interested in the program – part of the reason the company is intent on turning this into a regular operation.
Though Gross' residency was a so-called "test run," Chee, the man who started this whole thing, tweeted Wednesday that he had set up his own.
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
So this is really becoming a thing, and we could not be more excited. But there were still a few questions that needed clarifying before we threw a celebration, so we got Quinn on the phone to discuss the program in further detail. Let's break it down:
1. What will a long-term residency program look like?
A lot is still up in the air with regards to a future program. Quinn described it as "an idea dreamed up by Amtrak fans and customers," and a lot of the details still need hashing out. "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," Quinn said, so the outline being formulated is very new. But the goal, eventually, is to "engage with writers several times a month." There may be a "tiered approach," though the specifics aren't fully worked out, with the focus on individuals with a strong social media presence.
2. How much, if anything, will an "Amtrak residency" cost?
Gross's residency was free, and Quinn confirmed that the plan is to keep the program if not free, then fairly low-cost. But Quinn points out that the residency was "free to Jessica, not free to Amtrak." When Amtrak begins offering this program on a regular basis, Quinn said "we need to weigh [whether] it’s a good investment on our end” – because Amtrak can't just start giving away free rides willy-nilly. (Especially not when it has a significant amount of debt). It's about building a "mutually beneficial relationship" with writers, according to Quinn, and ensuring that a long-term program is sustainable. For now though, the program looks to remain free, if limited.
3. What constitutes a "writer"?
In other words, how will Amtrak decide who to send on its residencies? In the short term, as the program gets off the ground, candidates will be selected on a case-by-case basis. Quinn said that residents won't "necessarily just [be] published authors, or people with multiple books under their belt, or [people that had] a publication tap them." Amtrak, Quinn said, is open to people with a variety of writing backgrounds, because "the differences between a journalist, a published author, a blogger – those lines are continually blurred by the internet."
4. What will the application process be like?
Right now, with the program in its infancy, writing residencies are set up by Amtrak primarily on social media. Whether that will shift to an online application portal, or a sort of panel review, will depend on how the program eventually takes shape, according to Quinn. But as it stands, the Amtrak residency is a social media born-and-bred program, with writers and Amtrak reaching out to each other initially on Twitter, and then going from there.
5. Does any evidence of writing have to be provided?
So the whole point of these residencies is that long train rides offers a particular creative environment. Does Amtrak expect any writing to actually be produced? Gross wrote the piece in The Paris Review, but that wasn't a requirement of Amtrak. Quinn said that the program is "not pay for play … we want to keep this open as possible.” It's about accommodating the needs and goals of each writer, again "on a case-by-case basis." "We’re not sending people on three month sabbaticals to write a novel about train travel," Quinn said, though we're pretty sure some writers would definitely be interested in that. There is no plan to actually require writing; Amtrak wants to keep the residency an "organic experience."
6. Are all of Amtrak's lines open for residencies?
Gross went to Chicago, Chee is traveling to Portland. Can future residents pick whichever line they please, or will there be restrictions? "We’re not at a lack of places to send people," Quinn said, and a long-term program would likely include all of Amtrak's lines, though for now the emphasis is on long-distance trips. Of course, Amtrak can't necessarily drop paying customers on a train to make room for a resident: it's about "identifying what works best for the writer and what also works well for Amtrak," Quinn said.
7. And finally: Where do we sign up?
Ok, you can't really "apply" yet. But seriously, we want to do this. All aboard.
UPDATE (3/8): Now you can! Go here to learn the details.