It all started with a tweet: "I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers."
What happened was that novelist Alexander Chee made the suggestion in an interview, someone posted it on Twitter, and it made the usual rounds. But then Amtrak saw it, and decided it was actually a good idea.
And just like that, two weeks later, another writer who had retweeted the comment—Jessica Gross— was on an Amtrak train, enjoying a free ride from New York to Chicago as she wrote an article for the Paris Review. After this first free trip, now the program’s becoming official.
And that's the power of social media to make things happen in a public-private entity not exactly known for innovation. "It was an organic conversation," says Julia Quinn, social media director for Amtrak. "Jessica and several others brought the article to Twitter, and I don’t know if I would have stumbled upon it otherwise."
For the financially struggling rail service, it’s a way to remind travelers about the long-haul routes that most people replace with plane rides. Each of the new residencies, which will be officially announced this week, will offer writers space on one of Amtrak’s 15 long-distance trains.
"Those 15 trains connect our country from border to border, and I really see them as being the best places for these writers to have an inspirational experience," Quinn says. "Ideally right now we’d like to work with as many residents as it would take to cross the country. To have people experience every single one of our routes, over a calendar year."
For writers, it's a chance to escape ordinary life, gaze out the window, meet random passengers, and have—for some—the perfect conditions for putting words on paper. As Gross wrote about her experience:
The train is bounded, compartmentalized, and cozily small, like a carrel in a college library. Everything has its place… 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…
Alexander Chee will be next to ride, kicking off the cross-country residency program with a three-day ride from New York City to Portland, Oregon, in May. Others will soon follow, though perhaps not in the summer—to make sure the program is cost-effective for Amtrak, Quinn says the rides won't be offered at times when the train is likely to already be sold out. Though requests from other writers have been pouring in on Twitter, Amtrak says applicants should wait: They're about to release an online application form.
Each of the exact routes is yet to be determined, but maybe Amtrak should offer a residency from the coasts to Detroit, where a different residency is hooking writers up with free houses.