The Self-Made Amtrak Residency

August 18, 2016 § 24 Comments

You can just see the classical dome on City Hall. There are a surprising number of classical domed municipal buildings within sight of a rail line.

You can just see the classical dome on City Hall. There are a surprising number of classically domed municipal buildings within sight of a rail line.

Last weekend I spoke at the Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference (round-up post coming!) in Lancaster, PA. It was a fantastic experience full of ideas and inspiration, and I knew I’d want a couple of days to decompress. My next destination was Louisiana, and I took the train.

There is a formal “Amtrak Residency,” where writers are chosen from a pool of applicants to receive a free train trip. I’d considered applying, but the first year there was some dubious language about Amtrak owning copyright in submitted work samples, and last year it seemed like a lot of hoops to jump through for a short residency period. And most of the winners looked either more famous or more social-media-gifted than me. Instead I bought my own trip.

It didn’t start well. I gave up my seat so an older couple could sit together, and went to work in the café car, where I got trainsick while typing and had to stop. The café car closed, and I wandered the length of the train looking for another open seat. Downtown Pittsburgh is no doubt charming before 10PM, but finding a restaurant on a four-hour night layover was tough. The guy next to me in the charmless waiting room spent an hour explaining smart phones to an Amish family, who patiently smiled and nodded while clearly understanding modern technology they were choosing not to use. I felt my bedtime ticking away.

But once on the train to Chicago, tucked up in my “roomette”–basically a bunkbed with just enough room to put on shoes before staggering to the WC in the night–all was forgiven. The rocking of the train really was soothing. The next morning hit the observation car, enjoying huge windows and morning light while working away. Turns out I need to face backward on the train, contrary to all my instincts.

A morning layover in Chicago let me scoot to Walgreens for snacks, and the afternoon-overnight-morning to Texas was gorgeous. There was technically wifi on the train, though I barely used it, and just sitting and thinking was peaceful–I felt meditative watching the world go by. The showers were as clean as a gym’s, and the bedding was comfy. Seating at meals is communal, and I met people who gave me their emails to let them know when my book came out, a lady who’d lived in Istanbul, and a man who was riding every train line across the country as his bucket list. (He recommends the Southwest Chief as the most beautiful route.)

Now, I’m a freelancer with no kids, I live in a country where I don’t have a work permit so I don’t have to hustle back for a job, and my husband is deeply supportive and understanding, so it’s possible for me to say, sure, I’ll randomly take a few more days for myself! which is not everyone’s experience. But if you have a couple of days, consider a self-made mini-residency. You don’t have to pass an application process or bother your references or agonize over which pieces to put in a work sample or guess which dates you’ll be available 18 months from applying. Doing your own can cost less than flying to an established residency.

  • Airbnb makes renting an apartment doable just about anywhere. Pick a place that’s unpopular or small and reasonably cheap. I’m planning on Baku, Azerbaijan because for me it’s a short flight; you might try a landlocked town in a state known for beaches, or a college town during spring break, or a farm community, or the “boring” suburbs of an exciting city.
  • State parks often have cabins to rent at a reasonable price, and during shoulder season can be easier to get a reservation.
  • Bring your own Lysol and rent in one of those seen-better-days mom-and-pop motels along the highway that used to be the main highway before they built the interstate. Bonus points if it’s walking distance from a truck stop. You’ll almost certainly encounter people you can refer to as “denizens” in your essay.
  • Ask your friend who has a vacation house if you can use it. Start with “No is a totally OK answer, but I’m looking for a place to do a three-day mini-retreat to write. Would you ever consider…” Leave the place sparkling and drop off a couple of nice bottles of wine or a restaurant gift card.
  • Off-seasons in general are usually quiet–a ski resort in September, the less-popular part of Cape Cod after Labor Day (try a ramshackle cottage within walking distance of great chowder in Onset, MA).
  • If you have children, see if you can team up with another writer with kids: rent a place for a week. You take the kids for three days, they take them the other three, and in the middle you spend one family day doing something fun all together.
  • Stock up on snacks and don’t be shy about eating out–it’s worth it to open up the mental space that would be spent choosing, cooking and cleaning.

I didn’t actually write very many words on the train. But I found some open spaces in my brain that I needed to write when I got home, and it was wonderful to think over what I learned at the conference. 4/5 stars–recommend.

Have you done a self-made residency? Tell us what worked (or didn’t) in the comments!


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

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§ 24 Responses to The Self-Made Amtrak Residency

  • davidwberner2 says:

    Took the train from Seattle to Chicago — it turned into an essay and a section of a novel. Worth it.

  • Sandra Gail Lambert says:

    I wrote most of my first novel van camping in many of the state parks of Florida. I’d snake an extension cord in through a cracked window and have computer power. Wild boar, turkeys, and alligators would wander by.

  • Jan Priddy says:

    You have to know I immediately went to look at trains.

  • Jan Priddy says:

    My husband says If we outlive the pets . . . Other people have children at home. I have an elderly dog.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Any teens who need a part-time job in your neighborhood? Maybe call the animal shelter and find out if they have any volunteers who also pet-sit?

  • Nina Gaby says:

    Thanks for this great piece, it also reminded me that I forgot to apply for the Amtrak residency AGAIN. But your idea sounds even better. I have rented a cottage on a bay in Maine and structured myself well- rewrote a whole novel and got plenty of exercise. I borrowed a lake house in New Hampshire from a friend who felt thrilled to have it put to good use. And one summer I put an air conditioner in our guest room ( so I couldn’t see the mess in the rest of the house) and took the week off while my husband was at a conference and edited an entire anthology. The tricks include good play lists and the ability to avoid all responsibility. Grocery shop ahead of time. Get dressed in the morning as if you’re going to work. Light candles of your favorite saints for focus and good luck. Treat yourself to specific times for social media or better yet go somewhere without internet and then find a fabulous coffee shop where you allow yourself one trip a day for every 20 pages. I was recently hospitalized for cardiac observation and felt like even that might work out for some solitude and writing time. Not so much. Lots of beeping and an annoying roommate. Lousy coffee.

  • lgood67334 says:

    My husby and I are at a Thousand Trails Campground right now and each of these trips is a working vacation, so I would call this a semi-residency. The sun has set. There is light in the sky. The old man in the trailer next door has gotten something from storage and is going inside. I can hear the American river and the cicadas. My dog-dog is at my feet. And a residency is in the eye of the beholder.

    Writer Advice Managing Editor,
    Author of YOU WANT ME TO DO WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers & Author of TALENT

  • I wish we could have such “residency” in India too. It will be so encouraging to writers to find some open spaces in your brain ( borrowing your own words Allison Williams). I am sure with more Indian writers joining the gang, this will happen sooner or later.

  • samiller1029 says:

    This is the first thing in years that has made me want to ride Amtrak. Wonderful idea.

  • Phyllis Brotherton says:

    Great ideas, Allison! I tagged along with my daughter on her business trip and squatted in her hotel room in Seattle for three days. When she left for her trade show at 8:00 each day, I buckled down to put the finishing touches on a ms. with breaks to gaze out the window and observe beautiful downtown. By 4:00 I was enjoying a glass of wine in the bar with a good book, then dinner out with my daughter. Wonderful!!! I got so much accomplished and it truly did feel like a relaxing retreat. Working at a hotel room desk in a 4-star bathrobe can’t be a bad thing!

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Sounds great – and l love it when there’s daytime writing and then time with a loved one 🙂

  • Baylink says:

    Even long Amtrak trips are *stupidly* cheap if you book them far enough in advance (by which I mean, like, six months).

    And on the “leave it sparkling” front — if you’re like me, do the sparkling *first*, then the thinking and writing. 🙂

  • Lisa Romeo says:

    Last January, I went to far northern Maine (12 hour drive) with my college age son for a week while he did an internship trial . He was gone for 8 hours a day, I had the comfy (and very inexpensive) bed & breakfast almost all to myself. Too cold to want to go anywhere. Walked across the street once a day for lunch, then we drove one mile to one of 3 tiny restaurants for dinner. Got a lot done.

  • gmabrown says:

    Trade houses with another writer. Love the idea of someone sitting in my kitchen gathering up inspiration, uninterrupted by the need to scrub the floor around the stove. And me? I am that writer in her place. I’d be glad to feed the cat.

  • ryderziebarth says:

    Gee…you could always ask your empty nester writer (facebook) friend who lives in Central NJ if the two-bedroom cottage with central AC and views of hay fields and flower gardens on her 30 acre farm is available to another writer looking for a quiet (free) get-away, but if Am-trak is more appealing….well…..

  • Stacy E. Holden says:

    I am going to look up Southwest Chief as soon as I post this… But, for those in US looking for an out-of-the-way writing retreat closer than Azerbaijan, I recently encountered Carbondale, IL. I need to look at some documents at Southern Illinois University. It turns out, this small town is near a state park and a wine trail. So, there are some cute cabins to rent for a pretty good price, since, after all, it is Southern Illinois, not San Diego. Thanks for a thought provoking piece, Allison.

  • […] a través de The Self-Made Amtrak Residency — BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog […]

  • I checked into a cheap motel in Warwick, RI for two nights and went for three walks a day, one to get chicken wings for lunch at the mall across the road. On one of the walks I got the “second layer” of an essay I’d been working on for ten years. On the last walk I got the last line. Ended up with one of my favorite pieces ever

  • […] via The Self-Made Amtrak Residency — BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog […]

  • […] did another self-funded mini-Amtrak residency last week. One of the best parts of the train is inconsistent/slow wifi and poor cell reception. I […]

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