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...
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!
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!
Thanks for the overwhelming interest, everyone. We're pulling together a formal program now and should have updates soon. Please stay tuned to Twitter and Facebook for updates!
I love the rhythm that the movement and the sound of the train moving over the track. It takes you into a space that's outside normal activity and gives you space to think, to create.
please see our Poetry E Train and get back to us, we remain your humble and obedient Servant! http://www.poetrytrain.com
The noise and movement is perfect for helping me stay focused on the writing - the windows, the perfect "break" in between more intense moments of work.
I've ridden AMTRAK many times before I started writing. Once I started my writing career, I would write during my commuter train ride every day. Writing during my two hour commute was my way to forget the day job, forget stuff that need to be done at home and concentrate on what I really wanted to do--write. I no longer have my day job, so I can see more AMTRAK trips in my future. I'm a travel writer and what better way to write than while traveling and writing about all the places AMTRAK takes me. Love the idea of the #AmtrakResidency program.
For cross country trips a plane may get you there faster but for a writer the time writing on an @Amtrak train while crossing is invaluable! Here in California we don't have the vast network of trains compared to the East Coast. That said I've taken the train a few times and found that I got a whole lot accomplished. Would love a cross country trip to really make headway on my novel. The changing scenery helps break the monotony. It's like being transported to a mountain top for solitude. I've met interesting, characters, ah I mean people, too. For a writer it's the perfect scenario.
Here in California we are not train people because everything is so far away compared to the East Coast. That said I've taken the train a few times and found that I got a whole lot accomplished. Would love a cross country trip to really make headway on my novel. The changing scenery helps break the monotony. It's like being transported to a mountain top for solitude. And the people I've met are interesting. For a writer it's the perfect scenario. For cross country trips a plane may get you there faster but for a writer the time writing on the train while crossing is invaluable!
This is the single best thing I've heard of Amtrack doing since I took the Zephyr east when I was 10 years old in the sixties. Coming up from Chico to Seattle last year I noticed that the train, from the time I got on at 3 in the morning, was unusually fruitful for writing. As I recall, that train had a local historian on board in the observation car giving us details of the land as we passed. This seems like the perfect venue for a writer as well. Perhaps they could "sing for their supper" by giving readings at scheduled times in the observation car.
Standing ovation to Amtrak.
I started my 1st Novel on The Texas Eagle, March 2013. I have been working on a Kickstarter project to fund taking the west Trains to finish the novel. It does not look like it is going to get funded. I would love the chance to finish the novel on the trains! When can I sign up for this? What a wonderful adventure to take with Amtrak!
As a writer - trains take me to another place. I am ALWAYS more open and creative when I'm moving. It's the landscape out my window, the rocking of the train ... the romantic idea that I could be moving through time and space in ... the 1940s, or the 1960s or 1915 ... my heart opens up and my mind is set free. Trains always help me find my muse. This is SO exciting!
Glad to see this! My novel, The Consciousness Plague, has a major section that takes place on The Lake Shore Ltd - and I wrote that section going from New York City to Chicago and back again for a World Science Fiction Convention a few years ago http://paullevinson.blogspot.com/2013/09/authors-cut-kindle-edition-of.html
I write novels in verse. Poetry is all about rhythm. And so are trains, of course. Maybe that's why I've written some of my best poems on trains.
And taken some of my favorite photos.
This residency would be a dream come true...true...true!
My Dad worked for the railroad and made it his life's work… we traveled from our home on Long Island to Colorado a few times when I was a child to visit my eldest brother for his wedding and then for baby births I LOVED sleeping and traveling in the rooms! even back then(around 7yeas old) I was writing poetic prose and rhyme of traveling on the trains we all LOVED!!! The train had a "vista" car; a double-decker with comfy reclining seats and BIG windows all around on the upper! My brother, sister and I spent hours riding up there where you could see the sky-line of the majestic Rocky Mountains long before we arrived in Denver! I wonder if they still have cars like those??? I recall the room we stayed in on the train… it had roomy bunks and a HUGE window where we sat at a table and played games or dreamed up stories of all the places we saw as we passed by! Now that I'm getting up in years and finally free to pursue my first-love of writing, I wonder... if Amtrak has service into and through Canada? I wonder, too, how to apply for a residency???
Dear Amtrak, you wouldn't make my day, but rather, you'd make my Entire Life, should I receive such a gift! Ahhh, to travel and write while cradled and rocked on the 'polar express'! The epitome of romanticism! Blessings! -E Lawler
I would love to make a train my workspace! I love making friends on trains. I have traveled on trains in the US. I could be productive on a train and learn a lot. Sometimes train conductors have let me in the front.
There's something about the motion of the train, the landscape flitting by, and being surrounded by people headed off on adventures that creates the perfect conditions for writing. Amtrak, if you're opening up the residency to more authors, I'm the 2014 James Thurber House Children's Writer-in-Residence and debut children's author of the first in a new kids' mystery series, The Wig in the Window (HarperCollins). Twitter: @kkittscher Agent (25K followers): @literaticat.
@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!
@Amtrak Thank you for your generosity and kindness toward those who are craftsmen and artisans with the proverbial pen! We all are aware that the 'pen is mightier than the sword', yet it also brings those who cannot go to the places they yearn to go ...simply by opening the pages of a book.
Thank you and God Bless You for it! -Ellen :)
@PoetryETrain I went to your FB page, and I wonder if you have an About page that explains just what you do, or are? It all looks fascinating, but I can't figure out if this is something I can submit to, or just read, or what?
Poetry E Trains' America eRoute 2011/2012
Poetry E Trains' Canadian eRoute 2013/2014
@thesavorymuse the food was phenomenal!
@BarbaraStorey @PoetryETrainHello Barbara, Our mission is to promote, support & sustain culture, heritage & the arts, furthermore the Great Railroads on this planet. We have been promoting poetry, railroads and high-speed rail, furthermore the history of each for the last three years. the home site is a place for poets to share their work, & so much more for instance the poets briefcase; tools to protect their work online, and a school to expand ones talents in poetry. thank you, Barbara for your interest is appreciated and we are charm'd...