amtrakA lot of writers seem to like writing on trains. It’s hardly a surprise; they have comfortable seats and often tables, power outlets for your laptop or tablet charger, free WiFi, more space than in an airplane, and you’ve got plenty of time as you trundle down the tracks, especially if you’re traveling very far. Maybe something about just traveling unhurriedly, isolated from the rest of the world, just breeds ideas. J.K. Rowling got the idea for Harry Potter on a train, for example. Now The Wire reports that Amtrak might just be looking at trains and writers in a whole new light.

Back in December, writers Jessica Gross and Zach Seward were on Twitter, discussing writing on trains, in the context of an interview with writer Alexander Chee who said he wished Amtrak had residencies for writers. Seward and Gross echoed this sentiment, and tagged Amtrak’s Twitter account. To their surprise, Amtrak reached out to them and offered them the chance to take a free ride for writing in return for tweeting about it along the way and an interview at the end of the trip.

Jessica Gross blogged about her trip and why writers like the train so much in the Paris Review:

These reasons are all undergirded by a sense of safety, borne of boundaries. 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. 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.

The idea makes a lot of sense when you think about it. If there are empty passenger spaces on an Amtrak train, they’re not doing Amtrak any good given that they’re having to bear the costs of running that huge heavy train anyway. And as the spate of news and blog articles that have come out about this program over the last couple of days demonstrate, if you want some really far-reaching word of mouth (“word of pen”?), you get a writer interested in what you’re doing.

Writers write. Happy writers write a lot, including writing about writing…and writing about writing on a train. And writers can certainly make riding on a train sound more appealing. (Just look at what Jessica Gross had to say, for example.) So why not trade an empty passenger space for publicity that might fill a lot more passenger spaces down the tracks?

And, as novelist Elizabeth Moon suggests in a thread on her SFF newsgroup, Amtrak could go beyond just giving a writer a seat, if it wanted to—it could have the writer spend part of his time giving a mini-seminar on the process of writing, and perhaps even advertise the presence of a particular writer on a particular train as a draw to that writer’s fans to take rides.

Of course, that’s all academic right now. At the moment there isn’t even any way to apply for the residency program yet beyond using the #AmtrakResidency hashtag on Twitter. The Wire spoke to Julia Quinn, Amtrak’s social media director, who explained that there were not at present any plans to require writers to write on the train, or indeed do anything else, and that they were going to define “writer” fairly loosely for purposes of eligibility. “The differences between a journalist, a published author, a blogger—those lines are continually blurred by the Internet.” The trips at present are free to the writer, though that might not necessarily remain the case—they do, after all, cost Amtrak something.

In conclusion, I’d just like to say…hey, Amtrak! Over here! I’d love to hop on board for an #AmtrakResidency trip. I’ll look forward to hearing from you.


  1. That instantly reminded me of this news piece: — except Amtrak appears to be more flexible in how they define a writer. They also have a better-defined goal, whereas that nonprofit in Detroit appears to be glorifying the traditionally published writer in a manner reminiscent of, say, 1994. Interesting, though, that two very similar projects like these would pop up nearly simultaneously. I wonder what it means.

  2. Yes, there’s something about the atmosphere on a train that simply can’t be duplicated by any other way of traveling–not hiking, not in cars, and certainly not stuffed like a sardine in a plane. That’s part of the magic of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. It’s a closed world and yet its a moving one. The closest parallel is a ship.

    I roamed Europe with a three-month Eurail pass back in my early thirties and loved it. There was the sheer pleasure of standing in a Munich train station in the evening and choosing the train to the right for Rome or that to the left for Paris. I’ve thought of doing it yet again and perhaps writing as I travel.

    Alas, one trick I used may be harder to do today. When I traveled, most train cars had booths with wide, bench seats that at night could be folded down into beds. To save time and money, I did most of my traveling at night. I’d board one of the city-to-city overnight trains and find a good compartment. When three or four of us were in one, by mutual agreement we’d decide that was enough, pull down the curtains, fold out the seats, get out our sleeping bags and sleep while we traveled. I’d arrive at my next destination rested and ready to sightsee. If I planned to stay more than one day there, my first stop was a youth hostel to get a bed for the next night and to leave off my heavy pack.

    From what I’ve seen in pictures, most European trains have abandoned booths and fold-down bench seats. You sit in individual seats along aisles, although more spaciously than on a plane. There’s no way I could sleep well like that. Blitzing Europe via rail and night trains like I did isn’t quite as easy today.

    What is probably true is the good sense of taking inexpensive privately run buses between major cities and then visiting those cities for longer stays. Since I didn’t see Eastern Europe on my last round, I’ve thought of visiting a string of its major cities and exploring them in depth–six weeks in Prague, perhaps, then six weeks in Warsaw–maybe longer. I like to stay places long enough I can pass, at least superficially for a local.

    I suspect that, while Amtrack might give some of these residencies out to Americans, they’d be far more delighted in someone from Europe, Asia, or Australia called, promising to get stories in their local press and on local blogs. Just keep in mind that the American train system is optimized for heavy freight not passengers. You can’t go as many places or as often as in Europe or Japan.

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books

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