It began when writer Alexander Chee made a simple, obvious statement in an interview with the literary organization PEN: Trains are great places to write. "I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers," he said.
Something about that line captured the imagination of writers everywhere. Chee's interview was tweeted over and over again by writers, including Zach Seward and Jessica Gross, who added their own fantasies of what it might be like to spend a week moving through the country with free wifi and a front-row seat.
But then something crazy happened: Amtrak responded. Needless to say, Gross was surprised:
— Jessica Gross (@jessicagross) December 26, 2013
It was not a joke. Amtrak sent Gross from New York to Chicago and back (44 hours with delays) and she wrote about the experience in a beautiful Paris Review article, out this week.
Last week, Chee announced that Amtrak's second residency will dispatch him on a cross-country adventure:
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
In fact, Chee's Twitter bio now reads: "#AmtrakResidency fellow who dreamed the whole thing up."
Thousands of writers have since chimed in with their own proposals to become fellows, either using the hashtag, or simply tweeting at Amtrak (some of them with a questionable grasp of the English language). There's a Tumblr entitled the Great Amtrak Residency Caper, dubbed "the unofficial page for thinking up, teaming up, and pitching the perfect idea for an #AmtrakResidency."
Many of the writers I know want to apply, and most of us agree: We have never seen anything like this response. There are plenty of residency programs for writers all over the country, even ones where actual money and free houses are provided. But here it seems to be something about the allure of the train itself: the history, the romance, the characters, and even, yes, the slowness. Remember Nathaniel Rich's captivating New York Times story of 47 hours on Amtrak?
Gross, who was interviewed about her experience for Amtrak's blog last month, says that the train is a perfect productivity tool: "I think it's a combination of the set deadline—the end of the train ride—the calming movement, and the company of strangers."
But there's something else that's much more poetically universal about it, Gross writes in her Paris Review piece:
Why do writers find the train such a fruitful work environment? In the wake of Chee's interview, Evan Smith Rakoff tweeted, "I've been on Amtrak a lot lately & love writing while traveling—a set, uninterrupted deadline." The writer Anne Korkeakivi described train travel as "suspended impregnable time," combined with "dreamy" forward motion: "like a mantra, it greases the brain."
According to Julia Quinn, the savvy Amtrak social media director who is heading up the initiative, (and who is also to thank for tripling annual ticket revenue from social media channels), there's no plan just yet for deciding who else gets to go. But brilliantly, she's asked interested parties to keep posting their desires online:
As we work on a formalized entry process we ask that you please use #AmtrakResidency to show your interest. We don't want to miss you!
— Amtrak (@Amtrak) February 22, 2014
All of this attention could be spun into one of the greatest ever promotional tools for Amtrak, a company currently saddled with massive debts and notorious delays (especially on the longer routes). In fact, another writer, urban designer Julie Campoli, recently gained national attention when she tried to live-tweet her train journey from Vermont to a lecture in Vancouver. The trip was so delayed she ended up having to buy a plane ticket to get to her event on time.
Amtrak has an opportunity to turn a single, offhand comment into a long-term, feel-good program that could not only fill up their routes, it could also serve as a self-perpetuating campaign that brings attention back to train travel. Amtrak's residency program could pre-approve artists or writers by some kind of application, and they should definitely approve a lot of them. Imagine if all these people were really serious about wanting to produce work on Amtrak—what if they all managed to somehow take a ride on a train and write or make art about it?
When I wrote about Station to Station, the art show-on-wheels that traveled the country last year, I imagined Amtrak continuing the program as a kind of hip motel alternative: "original trains with a light contemporary design touch, maybe even an on-board artist or musician in-residence, like an Ace Hotel on wheels."
Maybe there doesn't need to be a special train, or even free tickets, but rather a discounted rate for writers and artists in exchange for some kind of commentary like Gross provided in her interview—a way to share the experience. Amtrak becomes a kind of roaming cultural generator, a place for creators to not only tell stories about the country, but where they also have a responsibility to report on what works (and what doesn't) and help dream up a better future for transportation in the U.S.
The last time I rode an Amtrak train off-peak, mid-week there sure were a lot of empty seats. Maybe it's as simple as saving a few seats on every train for writers and artists, who could be issued a kind of standby ticket: If there's space and you have the time, climb aboard the train, and see where it takes you. [The Wire]