Riding the Rails with a Newly Minted Amtrak Writer-in-Residence

Gothamist deputy editor Jen Carlon is one of the 24 people just awarded a Amtrak writing residency, which gives recipients with a long-distance train ride and the chance to put some pen to paper.

This article is from the archive of our partner .

After more than 16,000 applications, the much-talked about Amtrak Residency program announced today it had picked 24 writers to take long-distance routes across the country and get a chance to work on their projects on the rails.

The residents, ranging from a former clandestine agent for the CIA to a recent Broadway star, get a sleeper car, some scenery, a power outlet, and uninterrupted time to work on whatever piece of writing they choose.

We talked over email with Jen Carlson, deputy editor at Gothamist and one of the 24 selected to climb aboard.

The Wire: So, where are you headed?

Jen Carlson: I'm not quite sure yet, but my top choice is the Seattle to Los Angeles route, on the Coast Starline. At the moment, I'm just not sure how the logistics work, say, if I choose a route that is nowhere near where I live, which is Brooklyn. My second choice is New Orleans to Los Angeles, on the Sunset Limited, but that train appears not to have WiFi.

Jen Carlson, deputy editor and new
Amtrak writer-in-residence.

Now, I'm not worried about being without Internet in theory, but what if Train Me can't handle it? That said, having been connected to it every day for the past howeverlong, it might be nice to see what happens to me without it. Or possibly terrifying? I'm not really sure what my brain without Internet looks like anymore. But, basically, I'm ready to roll with whatever happens on that front. You know, as long as I can still Instagram.

How long are you going to be aboard?
This depends on the route, but it seems most routes are two to five days. The Coast Starline is 36 hours.
Do you already have an idea of what you'll spend the time working on? Or will you wait for inspiration to strike once you hit the rails?
I have an idea of what I want to work on, yes... but I have a feeling the novelty of being on the train will make it difficult to concentrate at first. It will be nice to mix in the writing with some quality "staring out the window" time — see new things for a bit, not have a screen in front of me. There is no pressure to write on the train as part of the program, it can just be about inspiring you to write or allowing yourself this time to focus on your thoughts and ideas, which is kind of a luxury for anyone working on constant deadlines. So I plan to do a little bit of all of that!

Before you applied for the Amtrak residency, what was the longest train ride you'd been on?

I take Amtrak up to Vermont sometimes (FYI: The Vermonter has very good WiFI), and that's about a six-hour trip. And when I was little we drove down to Virginia (I think?) and put our car on an Amtrak, and went to Disney World that way. That was probably my longest train trip.

You'll obviously be bringing something to write with and some clothes. Anything else you plan to bring for the ride?
I'm a very light packer, so I think it'll be: laptop, phone, chargers, notebook, a book to read, and a couple of outfits. There might be something in an elastic waist there, but I do plan on dressing up for my solo dinners in the dining car, since I have a very romantic, old school notion of train travel.
Your day job is working at Gothamist, where the cycle is probably pretty up-tempo. How do you think you'll adjust to having nothing but time and scenery to look at?
I think my goal will have to be to not check Gothamist emails and work constantly, so I can actually use this train time as intended, to focus on other things. I have never successfully been able to unplug like that... maybe I should pick a no WiFi route.

When the Amtrak residency was announced, there was some worry by writers that Amtrak could use the writing in their application for marketing purposes. Do you know if Amtrak plans to use what the 24 of you end up writing at the end your trip?
I haven't heard anything about using the material from the trip. I don't think they plan to. And there's no pressure to write about the trip, or even Tweet or Instagram about it, but I think most involved will do the latter if social media is a normal part of their online life anyway — so I'm sure they'll be RT'ing and all that. [Ed note: Per Julia Quinn, Director of Social Media at Amtrak: "We’re not claiming any rights to the works the residents produce while traveling, nor are there any content creation requirement. There may be opportunities to promote their content and the experiences they had, but that will be conversations we have with the residents."]
Final question: what spot are you most looking forward to you on your trip?
I think I'm most looking forward to the little roomettes we get, which I THINK include a desk and window. So, no specific geographic location, but specifically that part of the train, since I'd probably never be able to afford something like that otherwise.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.