I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of writing on a train. I’ve never managed to do it consistently, but love reading during my commute – if I’m sitting down. I am thoroughly impressed by how New Yorkers can read physical books, ebooks, or large, sprawlingly messy newspapers, while standing up shoulder to shoulder on the NYC Metro or PATH trains. But writing consistently on a NYC train seems like hell. I need elbow room and ideally a small table, but love the idea of writing on a train, where you don’t have the option of leaving until the train stops.
A few years ago, there was a story in Metro New York – one of two awesome free papers they hand out in the NYC subways and outside PATH stations, about a bloke who would write his novel on a Queens bound train. He would treat it like a writing residency by bringing a packed lunch with him as he typed his novel on a laptop, going all the way to the end of the line – Sheepshead Bay or something. Then he’d take the train back home. Not bad for $2.50. Two years ago, the NY Writers Coalition took this idea and held a free writing workshop on a Queens bound train at Times Square, where writers wrote on a paper and pen about anything they felt like.
As an adjunct instructor, I am always on the move just getting to and from classes, and spend a lot of my time just waiting. I take buses and trains, and like reading in transit, but I need a very specific environment to write.
When I heard about Amtrak offering free writing residencies, I was gob smacked. It’s totally brilliant. It’s a train, but it’s quiet, with tables, plugs, and best of all, most of them are long distance ones, so you have hours upon hours of uninterrupted writing time.
The story of how Amtrak decided to make this happen is equally as fantastic as the idea itself. And just one more reason I love twitter. In an interview for PEN America, author Alexander Chee made what was probably an offhand comment: “I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers,” in the midst of talking about his favorite places to write, which also included in libraries. Libraries are free anyway, so most writers completely glossed over that bit.
One NYC based writer, Jessica Gross, also read the interview, but unlike my reaction, which was to do nothing, she decided to tweet at Amtrak to make this writing residency thing happen. My tweet from the same day was me moaning about how Sona says I can’t wear brown trousers with a black cardigan or the universe will be destroyed. Amazingly, Amtrak responded to her tweet and asked if she was down for a trial run. She took Amtrak on a long distance trip to Chicago and back. She wrote about the experience for the Paris Review in a post named after the journey, Writing the Lakeshore Limited.
What I really like about Amtrak’s approach to the writing residencies is that they’re not being all hoighty-toighty about what constitutes a writer, and for now at least are considering unpublished authors, journalists, bloggers, and of course, published authors.
At the very least, it’s an interesting premise, to do away with the whole getting there part and just focus on the bit that most people hate: the actual commute. It’s down time. The only time I can read a book or write uninterrupted is when I’m commuting and don’t have the option of just getting up and leaving. For my morning commute, I’ll sometimes leave the house earlier and go out of my way for a longer commute by taking a bus for an hour, rather than a train for 30 minutes, just so I can do some reading, or occasionally writing on my iPad.
At the moment, I’m writing this post on my sofa, with views of a radiator, a Sofia the First book, and most dangerously – two remote controls.
What do you think of the Amtrak Residency? Would you commute for 39 hours just to write?