Amtrak Resident: Natalie Zutter

Amtrak Resident: Natalie Zutter

Below, Amtrak Resident Natalie Zutter chronicles her journey, which spanned fifteen days between March 24- April 7, and included rides on the Crescent, Sunset Limited, Southwest Chief and Lake Shore Limited routes. 

I arrive at Penn Station to the announcement that a train derailment has delayed or cancelled most of the trains going in and out of Penn that afternoon, but I’m lucky; the Crescent is on time. Handing over my ticket to the attendant at the top of the escalator brings to mind getting on the Chunnel train in London.

Even after watching “sleeper car tour” videos on YouTube, my car feels different, because it will be my home for the next 36 hours. My eyes keep being drawn to different innovations: the folding sink you unlatch from under the mirror, the hidden spot in the upper corner where the blanket sits. It’s like one of those micro-apartments you see in viral videos, where someone folds their bed into a dining room table.

My partner Matt and I had intended to talk out my writing goals for the first few days the night before over dinner, but I showed up too sloshed from goodbye drinks with my coworkers. So, counter to all of my instincts, I just wing it, albeit by turning to my trusty fallback: journaling in my notebook about Split Second, the feminist time travel romantic drama I pitched as my project for this trip over a year ago.

Philadelphia

Our first big stop is Philadelphia. I’ve spent plenty of time in and out of train stations on short rides, but for some reason I envisioned us rolling in to an above ground, open-air station, like something out of a western, or Harry Potter. Instead, it’s the same as New York’s Penn Station: The train comes in underground, and those who disembark bring themselves up to the surface. No one sees us who isn’t here on train business. We don’t interrupt daily lives.

At home, my main writing time is 6-8 a.m. every morning before going to my day job to write about pop culture; evenings are tougher, because I’m usually too burnt out to really focus.

On the train, I can get over that hump and into journaling without feeling like my 1-2 hours of the day is already over and done with, and the momentum lost. By the end of the night, my hand is cramping from all the Split Second world-building that’s been plaguing me lately. The train is zooming, and so am I.

I went to sleep early in the top bunk (naturally) and left my curtains open so I could see and hear the world outside. I briefly woke up at 3 and 5 a.m. to various stops and train noises but was able to fall back asleep, lulled by the rattling of the train, which evoked memories of the night trains that we would take through Germany and Switzerland.

I can feel it the moment we pass into Alabama and Mississippi: the steaminess rising from everything, even in my sleeper car. There’s not a lot to do on this leg. Not that it’s boring, just more repetitive than I expected. (One of my dining mates did warn me of this, that things would slow down when we hit swampland.) And in that space, there’s nothing to do but write.

New Orleans

When I get to New Orleans, I find myself shyer than usual in exploring a new city. I think that the relative solitude of the train has me feeling like keeping to myself. My first impression of Bourbon Street is odd—it has the strange familiarity of a Disneyland neighborhood, and the crowds feel more pressing than in Times Square.

I keep things low-key, eating chargrilled oysters and gumbo (washed down with a nice cold beer) at Acme Oyster House. I get to bypass the long line snaking out the door—the perks of traveling alone!

My first anxiety of the trip settles in: I’m not experiencing enough of New Orleans, I’m not “putting myself out there” to soak in every possible detail like a good writer should. Matt talks me down: This isn’t a vacation—it’s about writing. So I let myself off the hook for not seeing everything in New Orleans in 24 hours, and instead return to the off-the-beaten-track Pisco Bar I found the night before. The bartender welcomes me back; I order the pisco cocktail with crushed white grapes and cinnamon and make revision notes on a play.

I remember the valuable advice from my friend Ilana, currently on her own residency at the Vermont Studio Center, advice that has become my mantra for these two weeks: What you make of it will be the most of it.

I’m glad to get back on the train first thing in the morning. Maybe it’s that the Sunset Limited is a Superliner compared to the Crescent Viewliner, or maybe it’s the idiosyncracies of this particular crew, but there’s lots of communication over the intercom, and I appreciate knowing all of the information about the ins and outs of this massive train.

Today’s focus is getting back into the momentum of writing. It’s clear that I’m procrastinating actually diving deep into one project, mostly because I feel as if I’ve passed the “honeymoon phase” with them. But I envy Amtrak Resident Ksenia Anske her first draft of TUBE (which, let’s remember, she didn’t nearly finish on the train) and playwright/author Monica Byrne her nearly-done first draft of her next novel. I join Patreon so that I can support Monica and get access to her process diaries and posts as advice and encouragement.

My daily commute is about 45-60 minutes each way by subway. I’ve made a deal with myself that if I can nab a seat on the train, I have to open up my notebook; I jokingly call these sessions “trainstorming.” Amtrak is a whole other kind of trainstorm, on a massive scale. To warm up for the day’s writing, I brainstorm an idea for a 20-minute radio play based off a quote, just like that.

I had tried not to go into this residency with too many expectations, but an undeniable one had been that the moment I stepped onto the train, I would just churn out the pages: dozens of them, my fingers struggling to keep up with my brain. Instead, even though the responsibilities of daily life have fallen away, the problems persist: I’m stuck on worldbuilding; I know how I want the play to end, but not how to get there; I trip myself up. It’s a disquieting realization, that I can’t escape what’s keeping me from telling the story. But I remind myself that, unlike in those mornings when I’m blearily chipping away at my writer’s block and get nowhere, now I have nothing but time.

Time travel, I realize, is kind of like traveling on the Sunset Limited going west: You keep gaining time as you cross the time zones—it’s 3 p.m. again, and again—while everyone on the East Coast stays the same. If anything, you’re moving further and further away from them, both literally and figuratively. It makes me grin, sitting in the observation car, to realize that everything I had said in my application was true: Train travel is helping me better understand time travel, and watching the country unfold is like visual white noise, giving me the breathing room to process all of it.

My dinner companions are an older couple who have started riding trains now that they have grandchildren to visit. When I tell them about the Amtrak Residency, they say that they envy my generation the freedom to explore such opportunities. I tell them that I will be grateful for every moment of this experience.

Los Angeles

I hadn’t really planned out my L.A. trip, so didn’t realize that I would be so isolated staying in Bel-Air. The cost of Ubers into central LA means I have to be choosy about where I go and when. So I spend my first day not exploring, but working on applications at my friend’s apartment—another privilege I don’t have at home, to draft statements of purpose and polish writing samples. A week later, when I’m readjusting to real life, I’ll find out that I’ve gotten into the semi-finals for a writing group and gotten a radio play accepted somewhere else!

I’m surprised how many friends I get to see on this trip: one invites me to her favorite café for a writing date, another tells me about his projects over coffee. One night, I go to a screening of Ghost in the Shell (with its controversial whitewashing “twist” a valuable lesson in unnecessary storytelling choices) with college friends. What makes the experience special is that it’s on the Paramount lot, which we get to explore a little bit after the screening. As we walk past sitcom sets and through recreations of Brooklyn and the NYC subway system, I remember how magical it feels to be on TV sets.

Observation Car

We leave L.A. (on the Southwest Chief) late the night before, so I just watch TV before sleep. After a solid seven hours of sleep I get breakfast on my own, as I want to ease back into being on the train after five days away.

I spend a wonderful day in the observation car watching the country roll by. The days away from Split Second mean that I don’t jump back in to writing pages. But I organize a lot of it, establishing a stronger timeline and writing small interludes to stitch scenes together. And then… a realization, hours later: Am I actually making progress? It’s suddenly starting to feel like more of a cohesive whole. I won’t wind up writing any more pages on the trip, but the piece comes out definitively changed.

One of my goals on this trip had been to take advantage of the extra time to delve into a new medium—in this case, I’m fascinated by podcast radio dramas, both the form and the content. At home, I’m too pressed for time to complete my current projects that starting something new would feel impossible. But as I start idly trainstorming what kinds of stories I like to tell… the pieces fit together alarmingly well.

After dinner it’s back to the observation car. It’s too dark to see anything, but actually very fitting, as this is the same time of night that I’ve been listening to podcasts: surrounded by the soft, comforting dark, with the constant rattling of the train and the occasional whistle. I don’t have any music in my ears as I write; I envisioned the world of my podcast, set inside a Mars simulation, unfolding around me.

Yesterday and today are my biggest writing days of the trip: eight and six hours each, almost equal to my full-time job. After slogging through the Split Second world-building, with its complicated time travel logistics, it’s so freeing to just map out the podcast.

Chicago

Chicago is much more my speed, arranged in a similar grid to New York City and spread easily over the different branches of the river. I can satisfy the New Yorker in me by walking from my hotel to track down Chicago hot dogs and deep-dish pizza. I also take the CTA train around the Loop and the light rail down to the Museum of Science and Industry.

Compared to New Orleans, I feel more comfortable eating alone. Because I have such solid focus on what to write, I’m able to whip out my notebook over drinks and dinner (including an incredible meal at Girl & the Goat) and take notes while waiting for the next tasty concoctions and new courses.

My last morning, I sit in the common area of my hotel with coffee and a pistachio donut and write for two hours while people-watching. I had intended to write every morning on this trip, and for the most part I have failed at that; there was lots of sleeping in and exploring the cities, writing in chunks here and there. But it feels really important to spend my final morning in a different city focusing on a new project.

By far the most memorable part of Chicago is running into a fellow artist and friend on my last day—twice on the street, completely by chance, so we take it as a sign. Ricky, his partner Sean, and I sit in Whole Foods with our pressed juices and talk art.

As educational as my mealtime scribblings were, this is the most invigorating conversation I’ve had the entire trip. We excitedly share ideas for plays and podcasts and novels bringing diverse perspectives to the forefront, workshopping impressions and strengthening each other’s arguments with teachings, knowledge, and professional experience. We talk so long that I glance at my phone and suddenly I have only 90 minutes to my train. I say hurried goodbyes and all but skip to the station, beaming.

I board my final train, the Lake Shore Limited. It’s exciting but also bittersweet, as I know I’ll be back home in less than 24 hours. Of course I go top bunk, one more time.

New York City

I had visions of riding into Penn Station in a blaze of glory, writing up until the very last moment. Instead, I was too nervous the previous night and couldn’t fall asleep. So, I let myself off the hook: I take some notes, but mostly I nap for two hours and alternate between reading and looking out the window for the rest of the time. I know that I will have two more days of this weekend to write, so I do what I felt like in the moment.

The most important takeaway from all the writers and artists I talked to on this trip is that I need to finish things. I have great ideas, but they’re no good to me if they’re all half-written. This realization sits oddly next to the acceptance that I didn’t complete any drafts while on this trip.

I start crying as we pull into Penn, though I have to laugh when the poor sleeper car attendant pops his head in to see if I need help with my bags. Of course this train is a commute, or just a short trip, for everyone else; for me, it’s the culmination of two weeks away from home, two weeks freed from the constraints of normal life. I wipe my tears and wave him on.

It makes me realize that even though this residency is over—and it really does feel like grieving an experience—my time on Amtrak doesn’t have to be. I would gladly take some of the same routes, not to mention new ones, and still set up with my laptop. But even that is a ways away, and I need to focus on the most important part of this trip: taking the time and space to create new rituals and habits for my daily life, to find the time to write and the encouragement to push through the blocks.

Even when I’m not moving, I’ll be carrying this experience with me.

About the Author: Natalie Zutter is a playwright, aspiring TV writer, and pop culture critic based in New York City. Follow her on Twitter at @nataliezutter and on Instagram at @zutsuit.