What writer doesn’t dream of spending long days riding the rails while cranking out finely-crafted and inspired prose?
Don’t forget about the chance to chat with mysterious and fascinating strangers in the dining car, and being rocked to sleep by the train’s gentle swaying through the night.
The Amtrak Residency program, established in 2014, makes this dream come true — if you’re lucky.
Differing from a traditional writing residency, this one takes place on trains crisscrossing the U.S. and Canada.
The company recently released the names of its new crop of residents.
What’s it like to participate in an Amtrak Residency program? We asked three Amtrak writers in residence about their trips.
Jennifer Boylan’s productive journey
She started in Maine, taking the Downeaster line to Boston, followed by the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago, the California Zephyr to San Francisco, and the Coast Starlight to Salinas, California.
Once she arrived in Salinas, she spent a few days at a spa finishing her novel before hopping on the Coast Starlight back to Seattle, the Empire Builder to Chicago, the Lake Shore Limited and the Downeaster back to Maine.
Boylan relished her time on the train. “It was a delight. The chambers are SMALL, but you do have a sense of elegance,” she said.
She also enjoyed the dining options. “The food is surprisingly good, and you can also take your meals in your berth if you want, which I tended to do for lunches.” Boylan found peace and quiet, which gave her time to think and work.
The lack of internet access was also a great help. “I think trains are great places to work, and the sustained quiet time was magnificent. The very best thing was the fact that for long stretches of the country there is no internet, and thus no interruptions or distractions.”
Her daily schedule involved work, relaxing, and dining.
“I tended to get up early, have coffee in the observation car, work all morning in my berth, take lunch in the berth, spend the afternoon revising, and then chill in late afternoon, looking out the window or hanging in the dining car. “
Boylan’s journey was productive: she was able to finish a rough draft of her novel and write two essays during her trip.
But while fantastic scenery can aid the writing process, it can also become a distraction.
“The hard thing about the long-distance trains is that you really do want to spend your time looking out the window in amazement,” she says. “Especially the Denver to San Francisco run — you go through parts of the country that you really can’t go to any other way — really jaw-dropping scenery.”
Doylan also recommends packing a healthy dose of patience. “I’d suggest not being in any particular hurry, either with your work, or with your desire to get anywhere,” she says. “The long distance trains, especially on the Empire Builder, tend to run late… but that’s all part of the journey.”
Erika Krouse’s whistle-stop book tour
“I decided to double-duty my residency,” she says of the choice to mix writing and promotion. “I took the California Zephyr from Denver to Emeryville, then took the Coast Starlight to Los Angeles. I did a few readings in LA and San Francisco, then rode back over the mountains to home.”
As she worked on the train, she found that the project she originally planned to pursue during her residency wasn’t well-suited to the journey.
“I had planned to do some revision, but soon discovered it was impossible,” she says. “Instead, I mostly took notes, maybe 50 pages of notes. Train travel is more suitable for gathering information about the world around you as it rushes past. At least, it was for me.”
She also offered a few tips for aspiring train writers, including encouragement to leave devices behind.
“Technology isn’t your friend—glare, noise, and the interesting scenery all suck your attention from the screen,” she says. “Go old school and use a notebook and a good pen. Turn off your phone and your camera—instead, rely on your words to evoke the setting. Talk to people and ask them nosy questions. Feel yourself relax, and notice what that does to free your mind. Take a favorite book. Bring wet wipes and warm socks. Try to record your changing surroundings, and the experience of being conscious in it. Hydrate.”
Deanne Stillman’s research bonanza
Deanne Stillman is planning to head out on her journey this fall, going east across the Great Plains on the California Zephyr and returning to the West Coast on the Empire Builder through Canada.
While on the rails, she’ll work on her upcoming book, Blood Brothers: The Strange Friendship Between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill.
The route she chose serves as crucial research for her book. “Place, especially the American West, is a main character in my work — and life — and it will be in this new book,” she said.
She explained, “I’d like to see the frontier from the POV of the Iron Road, aka the railroad, as Sitting Bull saw it when he left the plains to join the Wild West show. And of course, the plains were where the buffalo roamed, and where William Cody established himself.”
Seeing historically significant places firsthand will help Krouse envision the characters’ journeys and provide important background information for her writing.
How you can write on the rails
Convinced that writing on trains is for you? Keep an eye on Amtrak’s residency page for information on future application cycles.
In the meantime, consider putting together your own DIY writing retreat — train style.
Next time you have to travel, skip the airports and opt for a train ticket. Spend your travel time getting to your destination a bit more slowly, finding inspiration and adventure along the way.
Or consider applying for one of the many other writing retreats available in non-train form.
How would you spend your Amtrak Residency? If you’ve ever used a long train trip to work on a writing project, tell us about your experience!