Tweet lands writer best workspace ever
Thanks to social media, we get direct access to our customers like never before—sometimes when they’re not even on our trains! A recent tweet particularly caught our attention. New York City-based writer Jessica Gross tweeted about wanting an Amtrak residency after reading an interview with author Alexander Chee, because it would allow for uninterrupted creativity and window gazing.
We loved the idea.
Within days Jessica was rolling through the snow-covered landscape of New York, Pennsylvania and the Midwest, making her way toward Chicago. When she returned home to the NYC, we caught up with her to see what she thought of the experiment to give her the best workspace ever. Here’s what the contributor to the New York Times Magazine, TED.com and The Paris Review had to say about her unique trip.
Amtrak: Why were you interested in taking an “Amtrak residency”?
Jessica: The credit goes to the writer Alexander Chee, who said in a recent interview that he writes best on the train, and added: “I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers.” That struck a chord with me and many other writers—there’s something about the train that offers unparalleled space for writing as well as reading and contemplation.
You tweeted about waking up on a train bed. What was sleeping on the train like for you?
It was wonderful. I don't know what this says about the connection between writing and sleeping, but both seem to benefit from the steady movement of the train. There’s something comforting and meditative about it. I took the top bunk, which added an extra feeling of supra-earthliness. And there is nothing like falling asleep, and then waking up, with your face next to a window, watching snowscapes roll by.
It sounds like you met some interesting people on the train. Tell readers about the most memorable one.
I had a long conversation, over breakfast on the way back, with a professor of education who teaches way upstate in New York. I live in Manhattan, and though I adore my home, there are the inevitable fantasies about what life might be like in a small town. So I really enjoyed hearing about both the bonuses [like that] she doesn’t lock the door of her house and people ski all the time, and the drawbacks [like] farmer's markets, cultural life, not so much.
Why is the train good for writing?
I think it’s a combination of the set deadline—the end of the train ride—the calming movement, and the company of strangers.
What advice do you have for other writers who haven’t tried Amtrak before?
Try it! Don’t be too ambitious with what you plan to get done: Allow for time spent gazing out the window, letting ideas work themselves out in your mind. It’s that kind of deep thinking that the train is particularly good for, and that can be more difficult to achieve in the interstices of busy day-to-day life.
How productive are you on the train? Tell us in the comments below!
WELL, after applying, this morning I received a letter from Amtrak Corporate Relations stating that they do NOT have this program!!!!!! Someone needs to pass the information on down.
How productive am I on the train? Very. I just wrote two children's poems, and added to a piece of fiction I had been working on but had let go for awhile. Riding the train (#7) from Chicago to Seattle, recently, gave me the time and inspiration to continue the story.
The train is a wonderful place to write. I have been traveling on trains most of my 89 year old life. The first train trip I recall was one I took with my sister on I think, the old Panama Limited from Memphis up to Michigan when I was 5 and she was 12. I was furious because she made me stay in our room all the time, except when we were led out by the wonderful conductor watching over us, to go for meals. I always wrote to everyone about my trips... this first one by dictating letters to my sister to send at each stop. When we traveled 'full family' there were fights about who got the top bunk. My life and writing was full of 'the train.'
Around 10 years ago I wrote about a trip with my daughter from San Francisco to Chicago to visit my son and his family, using my tales of the trip as my Christmas letter that year. Now that the family in Chicago has one more child I haven't met, this writing residency would be a perfect new writing project to let me not only write of my adventures once more, but also to wind up in Chicago to see family and old friends. What an exciting prospect... back on 'the train' again!
Don, I agree with you about the creative vibe there is on a train in motion. My most memorable one was years ago from Seattle to Vancouver, BC. It was early AM and there was a layer of wispy fog on the Puget Sound. Out of the mist a pod of orcas leapt (they were fishing for breakfast!) and I wrote a poem on the spot! It got published in Prairie Schooner literary journal later and one of the editors has it hanging in her office to this day. I look forward to another creative space and more exciting topics for poems.The great thing about creation on trains is that your subjects keep on coming as you rumble by on the tracks. GREAT material happens moment to moment. Some of my poems have happened while simply IMAGINING trains or train stations. Yeah, there's definitely something going on with trains and creativity.
When I moved to Thousand Oaks, CA in 1996 to work a "real job" at Amgen Biopharmaceutical Company, I had a lot of unfinished musical studio recording to do with my good friend Mike Peters. I consequently spent many weekends riding the Amtrak from Simi Valley, CA to Solana Beach, CA and back, while working on the songs for my musical play, "Hard Road to Heaven". The train was the perfect place to put my scientific work week behind me, regain my creative focus and organize my studio recording tasks. Mike and I had some very productive weekends as a result of the preparation that train travel afforded me during my commute. I'm writing the book for a new musical play now and would love to devote my energies to it on a train trip up and down the Pacific Coast, from Santa Barbara, CA to San Francisco, perhaps.
Here I answer one of my most frequently asked questions: Why do so many Autistic people love trains? http://tinygracenotes.blogspot.com/2013/05/why-do-so-many-autistic-people-love.html
I would love to write on the train, because I love to be on the train. All the things are better on the train! And it is making me happy the more I see how much I am not alone in knowing this :) Love, Ib
My only train ride was during a sister trip to Italy. We saved for years to go on our "writing adventure." My younger sister and I couldn't get a flight out of Rome, so we took a fast train to Switzerland. (Why not?)
On the way, armed guards came through the cars. Scary much? Then, they pulled two men aside and searched luggage, handcuffed them and took them into another car.
Moments later the train slowed in the middle of nowhere...forests surrounded us--so did apprehension. At this point a voice came over the intercom, repeating the message in every language but English. People hurried to grab their belongings; some with alarm written all over their face.
I yelled out...does anyone know English? English please? A kind soul told my sister and I: "How you say. Must disembark. Now." Uh...Okay? We did so and a woman was shouting and motioning for everyone to run to the next track and get on another train that was waiting there. Everyone boarded and the trip ensued. We never found out what happened to cause the chaos, but I hope to restore hope of a pleasant ride on a train. :)
Therefore, I applied for the writer's residency on Amtrak. What a wonderful opportunity to allow uninterrupted time to work on my book! It's really difficult to concentrate on plot when there are arm guards staring at you. Seriously though, I'd like to thank Amtrak for allowing the opportunity to writers everywhere!
My train trips have included a longish (24 hours) one from Frankfort Germany to Rome Italy. It was a sleeper and I loved the rocking back and forth all night. So soothing.
First train trip was in 1967 for our Senior Trip to DC & NYC… loved it!! Then trips to KC, Jefferson City MO and the "Thanks Uncle Wimpy Trip" through Europe with a EurailPass.. oh the wonderful moments with fellow travelers and the contemplative time that only a trip by train offers.. and the scenery!!
I find train travel to be a great source of calm and peace which allows for creative inspiration and story ideas...you also meet many interesting characters while traveling too, and your room becomes your own refuge for relaxation and thought while gazing at the passing scenery. Traveling on Amtrak allows for a definitive kind of solitude that you can't get on an airplane or on a ship, for that matter. It's an extraordinary experience. I would take a trip cross-country once a month if I could afford to do so!
Is it possible to make this into an artist residency too? I would love to work on art while riding across country
Wow - it never occurred to me to WORK while traveling on the train. For all of my train travel over the years, I have been too busy looking out the window, looking after my kids, flirting (as a 4 year old) with GIs, watching Seahawks fans become friends (this year!), and taking pix of the fabulous, renovated train stations in Seattle,WA and Portland, OR. But if I got a #AmtrakResidency, you can bet I'd plan to write something at some point in the trip - if it was long enough! (hint, hint)
A home for the homeless of heart, the train has always been one of my favorite places. Who would ever think that strap-hanging shoulder-to-shoulder with a sardine-can of strangers every day would enable someone to be as anonymous or as connected as desired on any given day? And with my innate ability to drown out the NYC chaos, the subway was a perfect place to cultivate a voice and grasp at the countless sparks of alt-spirits running wild in this city. A snapshot of booze-fueled release on a napkin; tiny poetry under a phone number on a matchbook; a story of descent into insanity scribbled on a Greek diner's paper place-mat... I can only imagine where my pen and typing fingers would go if given the chance at a mystery trip on Amtrak. To think that the longest ride I've ever taken on Amtrak was from NY to DC and the cozy seat equipped with an outlet, the proximity of the restroom and the availability of a snack-car was impressive and relaxing enough for this writerly New Yorker. I'm not even picky about the destination! Just give me a seat with a window and the open railroad... :)
I took the midwest train out of Chicago to Omaha, Nebraska once. I loved crawling through the small towns, watching folks coming home from work, literally peeking through their windows while they set the table and served the evening meal. It was like a Norman Rockwell painting, circa 2007.
I love the easy sway, the vague metallic taste, as Amtrak's thundering length surges rhythmically to and fro in my social media present mouth hole. Thud thud. In out. My free hand flies over the keyboard, each stoke building a greater sense of self satisfaction. thud thud...
The easy sway of train travel is like a heartbeat. As the thrub, thrub of the wheels goes on, my mind is in a state of heightened awareness. I see and feel more than in a stationary place. When I travel by train, I get a view of the local areas from a whole different point of view which sets me to wondering about the people in those homes or businesses, or about the people who are drawn to tag buildings (why do they do their deeds in darkness for example?)
Sleeper trains are amazing. They provide a quiet space where I am able to fully concentrate and observe. Nothing else gets in the way. I once took a sleeper train from Frankfort Germany to Rome, Italy and found it the BEST way to travel. It was like being born all over again as we emerged in a new place just as day arrived.
Never have I had such wonderful "rooms of one's own" as the sleepers on The Empire Builder and The Lake Shore. There is something about the brilliant light on the plains west of Chicago and the steady rhythm of the train that makes writing fluid as dreaming. It feels like slipping outside of time, like being at once inside what I'm creating and watching myself create it. And when my eyes get tired of the computer screen, there are mountains and fields to rest them.
I once took a week-long workshop at the Hedgebrook retreat on Whidbey Island off Washington State, and had an excellent teacher, my own charming cottage, and my meals prepared for me. It's an all-women's place, and it is wonderful, transforming, empowering. I have to say, though, that a long-distance train comes pretty close to being that great. Freed of my daily responsibilities, well-cared-for by the sleeping car attendants and the cooks on the train, I was free to listen to my own thoughts and make something of them.
Railroad rhythm is what gets to me. No other mode travel, besides the iambic pentameter of horse's hooves, has this all-encompassing metronomic ambiance. Like the beating of the heart, the rise and fall of breath in the chest, the pulse of life itself, the sound and motion inspire some to sleep and others to a kind of hypnotic reverie. The mind plays on nostalgia for a forgotten time, notices what sparkles behind the scenes, opens to the isolated hours in the mountains, unwinds through the wind-blown plains, or focuses like magnified light, on the gathering of a city from small town and sleepy suburb to the raucous hustle of its heart. Entering the train, one gives up one's mind to another mode of being, both distant and intimate, and such an experience invites the writer to journey into the surrounding scenery, until their soul becomes part of the landscape.
A short-term rolling residency that takes you across the countryside in the company of strangers, with the opportunity to do nothing but expand your mind and write sounds like a dream. Words come in stolen moments for me, they are precious. I put my family first and my dreams second, working full time while putting myself through college for creative writing. I love the idea of window gazing and opening your mind to everything around you. The windows would be smudged with my nose prints, and my heart would be forever imprinted with the wonder of it all. Even the opportunity to apply is a prize for someone like me. This is a wonderful idea and the lucky writers chosen to experience it will benefit a lifetime. I can only hope to be one of them. Good luck, and thank you for hosting such an amazing opportunity!
Isn't this the dream of ever writer? Living on a train and writing?! Ahhh, I'm just so excited picturing this heavenly train ride across America. I am a student at a university, but this Amtrak idea is so magical and wonderful that I want to take the Amtrak across the country just for the sake of enjoying beautiful scenery and living the writer life!
I've already put in my application, but to ride the train and write my stories would be beyond awesome.
You see, I already have a connection -- my grandfather worked on the trains when my Dad was young. They traveled over the Northwest until they finally settled in California. Dad went on ahead last year, but I know he'll be looking over my shoulder and pointing out places where he'd been as a child. He'll be in all my books...
I'd love to participate in an Amtrak residency program. I lead writing class for mostly older adults, write fiction and nonfiction, and edit memoirs. I love to read and write about travel, especially if the writing has a personal touch. Most of my contact with trains, so far, has been through the memories of my students in their 80s and 90s. I'd love to see trains once again become a main mode of transport for people in the US.
I sang on the inner city trains of Paris, France for an entire year. It changed my life. Gave me clarity and purpose... to use music as a means to help people stop and connect with themselves inside. Amazing meetings occurred. I was invited interviewed on mainstream media. They said: "My God, that's a book you've got to write". I made a commitment to do it. 20 years later, I'm planning a live launch tour back in the "old country" of the US. The book became a series.
I LOVE the notion of traveling from Coast to coast - composing wordless music meditations accompanied by ancient frame drum, then writing the second book in the series: Miriam's Secret - Discovering Your Inner Well of Wisdom. This would give people on the trains a chance to stop, relax and contemplate. I share about my train story and compose a live piece of music spontaneously on the spot in my TEDx talk: Your Voice - Make it Heard: http://youtu.be/MfI8m7RtWuc
On past tours to California I have particularly loved San Juan Capistrano to LA, which brings back memories of singing on the trains, and as a child, going to meet my grandmother at Grand Central station as she would arrive from Salinas, CA.
What about a soft quiet music residency to accompany the writing? I'd do both :-)...
I love the idea of the residency!!! I'm a contributor to Writer Unboxed (a top writer's blog) and last week I wrote a blog about taking a trial run -- I bought a ticket for the Downeaster (Maine to Boston) and the "wrote the rails." It was great. As the granddaughter of a brakeman for the old Pennsylvania railroad and having driven cross country a time or two, I'd love nothing more than to ride the rails from Maine to California and blog about it along the way (I've been blogging for 3 years). Here's a link to my blog about "Writing the Rails":
Glad you're doing the residency. I freelance for about a dozen magazines. I need to be in NYC for the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors in April. I already have a story lined up with an editor of a magazine with a circulation of 70,000 about "green" options in Manhattan that could include riding the train straight into and out of Penn Station/Manhattan (much simpler than going by plane). I also have good luck getting back page essays into a bicycle magazine with a circulation of 30,000 and can imaging an essay about the various ways I've brought bikes on my trips, which could include bringing a folding bike on the train to NYC. And I write an occasional column in my hometown paper (circ. 70,000) about anything I want. Haven't written anything about train travel there, but that could be remedied. Good luck with the program Amtrak and looking forward to hearing about applications. www.frankhyman.com
The only way I could have written "Waiting on a Train" was to ride the system for weeks at a time. Loved those early mornings in the lounge car with a coffee and laptop.
Taking the Chief back to Chicago from L.A. in a few days. I still get in a couple of long trips every year.
I only travel by train since I retired and yes I write books on the train. I am the Author of African American Women Chemists and I have sold some of my books on the train and donated some to the staff. I received an invitation to speak at a pharmaceutical company while dining with a new found friend in the diner.
Just last week I took an Amtrak train trip from Detroit to Chicago -- in which I spent 90% of my 10+ hour round trip working on revisions for my soon-to-be produced play ANOTHER DAY ON WILLOW ST. I have always enjoyed writing while on the train.
In grad school, I would often travel from New York City to Pittsburgh where I was attending Carnegie Mellon, and I would pass the time writing my plays for playwriting class.
At present I'm about to start working on a memoir about my move from New York City back to Detroit after 18 years, and I think an Amtrak train would be the ideal place to begin this new book.
Won't you please tell me how I can apply for an Amtrak writer's residency?
Frank Anthony Polito,
author of THE SPIRIT OF DETROIT
and LOST IN THE '90s
As a Briton living in America, who made the move here for the romance of traveling this land, and who has already written one self published book titled Marmite Cowboy, which is about my travels & experiences traveling around this nation. I would absolutely love to do an Amtrak residency. I am currently working on a book about a cross country drive w/ my 15 year old son. I think a residency on Amtrak would generate so much inspiration & mood that I would be tapping away coast to coast and back.
I love taking the train, I love to write on / about trains - as experienced taking the 'Canadian' on a cross-country epic ride. I would love to write on Amtrak!
The writer residencies are a great idea, Amtrak. I like how you are listening to ideas from riders/potential riders to innovate your services.
I have another idea for you to add to the mix: I am a writer and I also like to ride a bike. I like the idea of having uninterrupted time on the train to read, write and gaze out the window. But I also have a need to break up long periods of sitting and working with movement and time in the outdoors.
I have looked into your West Coast line for travel from the Bay Area up to Seattle with the idea of bringing my bike to ride portions of the return ride, if not the whole distance. In Europe I have had great experiences with traveling by a combination of train and bicycle. So, my suggestion is that you add ways for riders (and writer-residents) to reserve a spot for a bicycle. I am particularly interested in the West Coast trains. To my knowledge, the Coast Starlight trains only allow for bikes that are boxed as carry-on luggage, which is not very practical. I have also been told that the Capitol Corridor line has bike racks but they are limited and non-reservable.
I look forward to learning more about your new program!
Ever since my family took a train from Little Rock to Washington D. C. when I was a kid, I've thought traveling by train is the best. The ability to just stare out the window, watching a world go by trumped car trips because there were no younger brothers wedged in beside me playing, "Don't Touch Me." I could get up and move. And walk. And go from car to car. Always find a window seat.
At sixteen, I went to summer school in North Carolina on a train. I remember waking up in the very Smoky Mountains at dawn, and the almost cathedral majesty of the silent hills through which we swayed on track laid on the lip of a steep hillside.
I went to college on the train, a trip of more than 36 hours. I remember the first time best, the solitude of being in the world but not part of all that was going on around me. This was a huge transition in my life. going away from home alone. Train travel made it a contemplative experience. There was time to think and plan, to worry and hope about this extraordinary change about to take place in my life.
As a writer, I still crave that solitude, those long beautiful and rare ribbons of time when all I have to do is think, and write, and dream.
Ms Gross -
I agree with everyone here…what a wonderful idea! And thank you Amtrak!
A few years ago I took a train trip from Eugene, OR to Seattle, WA. My creative writing juices were flowing freely on that trip, allowing the space to delve deeper into the happenings on my journey.
So many ideas are coming to mind - group bookings with a writer in residence, single extended trips, travel writing promoting Amtrak. If only something like this could result in bringing our train system up to speed and promote more business to support our rail system.
I also think it would be great if VIA Rail in Canada would consider the same. A trip from coast to coast across their landscape would be wonderful for writing inspiration as well.
Again, thank you!
Jessica Gross, this is a great account of your Amtrak residency trip. It epitomizes my belief that we are just beginning to see what can happen when, as Alexander Chee said, in his PEN Ten interview with Lauren Cerand, "Twitter strikes me as the arena and the farm team camp for the current and the next generation."
I found my way here via today's Grub Street Rag's "In the News This Week."
I remember going from Iowa City to Cleveland via Chicago in the summer of 1957 on the New York Central train with my mother and three younger sisters. We went to visit my grandmother and my aunt and her husband and children when my father was too busy with summer farming to drive us there in a car. I remember reading Seventeen magazine (when I was set to start to high school that fall) after I bought it in Chicago's LaSalle Street station on our return trip.
The thought of being a writer-in-residence on Amtrak appeals to my more recent sense of history when I recall running to meet the Amtrak train my daughter was on when it pulled into Kansas City's Union Station after her Girl Scout troop had taken the train to St. Louis and back. I was about 15 feet from its engine when it stopped and knew I wanted to travel by train again.
to experience the world yet be bundled and safe in the train car. w the added opportunity to roam where ever if we please , as we please it. its like a coffee shop w wheels. the opportunity to see new faces and places from all over and not just 1. new feelings new ideas access to more new inspiration. hustle and bustle and peace all in one. what an amazing idea. please do this!
I used to ride the sleeper car from NLC to Washington DC often and was always amazed at how restful the sleeper was. I am a published author and would love to weave through the routes east of the Mississippi to pay homage to two great eras of American culture made possible by the train. If it's possible count me in!
This is wonderful! I took Amtrak all over the East Coast while in college and from LA to San Diego now that I live in LA. I also lived and worked in India for a year after college and took the train all over the country! Long, crazy trips which I loved. If you do continue to do these I am a screenwriter and would love to join in!
I have many writer friends on Facebook on at least three different pages. I saw this about an Amtrak writing residency, and I thought it was a brilliant idea! I have always thought of trains with nostalgia and the magic of an odyssey. And besides: it's still on my bucket list!
I would love to take a long tour on the train with my writing buddies for such a writing get-together and inspirational tour!
I make comic books for a living here in NYC. I'm constantly taking the trains to comic conventions. My most memorable trip was to C2E2 in Chicago. An 18 hour trip in coach -- but I scripted over 15 pages, enjoyed a wonderful meal with an 80-year old comic fan who was using his retirement to explore all of the location from the comic strip Terry & The Pirates. Plus, I got to stare out the beautiful Hudson River. It was easily the most rewarding travel experience I've ever had.
I'm so obsessed with this idea! I've traveled Europe and written plenty, but, sadly, I've barely seen the states. I keep talking about wanting to go cross-country to write, because I've only ever traveled the coast in the US...what a great opportunity this would be!
@alice simpson I just contacted them. This was a story in Paris Review. Hardly believe they would fake it.
@Boiarski Nice! A poetic appreciation of rail travel, and the heartbeat rhythm which sustains and inspires us. Beautifully (and appropriately) written, Boiarski.
@saf affect It looks like VIARail serves good food!
@thesavorymuse the food was phenomenal!