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!

 

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Her new book, Get Published in Literary Magazines: The Indispensable Guide to Preparing, Submitting and Writing Better, is now available on Amazon.

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