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Residency By Rail: Amtrak Launches First Writer's Residency Program

Trains have been an inspiring part of American history ever since they started racing across the country. The Transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869 as the golden spike sank into the ground at Promontory Point, Utah. Trains became part of the lives and stories of countless writers, dreamers, and artists throughout American history. Today, Amtrak is doffing its hat to the past, and offering the allure of traveling by rail to writers free of charge.

A sleeper car, complete with a bed, desk and outlets are included in this round trip opportunity. A window shows the American countryside rolling past. The typical writing residency length offered is two to five days in length, though exceptions may be available for special projects.

The Amtrak website ( outlines what you need to do to apply, though don’t wait long. The application deadline is March 31st.

The beginning of Amtrak’s residency idea was sparked by novelist, Alexander Chee. In response to being asked in an interview where he liked to write, he stated, “I still like a train best for this kind of thing. I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers.” Amtrak’s figurative wheels began turning and the writer’s residency project was born. Now, with the application deadline rapidly approaching, over 9000 applications have been received showing that Chee wasn’t the only one craving the opportunity to write by rail.

Jessica Gross, published in New York Times Magazine, Ted.Com, and The Paris Review, was offered the opportunity to take a test run on Amtrak. She shares about her trip with The Paris Review. In her article, written while traveling by train, Gross explores what it is about riding on the train that is so conducive to writing. Perhaps it is the American landscape rolling past. Perhaps it is the deadline – the train ride will end. Perhaps it is the movement, or the characters on board. Or perhaps the removal of the writer from everyday life provides enough safe newness to encourage deeper insights.

As Amtrak’s residency program is in its beginning stages, I find myself beginning to wonder, why has this not been undertaken earlier? Writer’s residency programs are available all across America, and the world. These places give writers a safe, inspirational haven, focused time, and the meeting of basic needs (eating, sleeping, shelter). Traveling by rail seems to fit into this category quite naturally.

As a child, I lived in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, minutes from The Strasburg Railroad Museum. When I visited, the huge cars and engines held my fascination and awe. I felt like I was standing next to a piece of history, and American spirit. I adored the elegance and richness of the red velvet cushions and wood paneling interior of some of the cars. I dreamed about who had sat on those cushions. Were they going somewhere new or traveling home? In the summer of 2012, I again visited the museum, this time with my husband and to-be-born son. The magic of history and the strength of the American people reached out to me like they had before, and I vowed that one day I would ride the rails. I can think of no better way to do it than with a pen and notebook in hand, as part of a writer’s residency program.

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