Dear Amtrak, About Those Writing Residences

Dear Amtrak,

The hazy, self-loathing, liquor-soaked writers of the world straightened in their seat slightly, closed their twitter window, washed their faces, shaved whatever parts needed shaving, and—begrudgingly, I admit—put on a pair pants earlier this year when you announced the opportunity to let a small number of wordslingers take part in a free residency program on some of your more scenic train routes across America.

For a time afterward, you basked in the glow of marvelous PR as beleaguered writers, desperate for a chance to escape the shackles of everyday distraction, salivated over All The Work They Could Accomplish while steaming* across this great nation.  Such an opportunity could mean finally stamping a big chunk of accomplishment all over that stagnant novel-in-progress that always somehow seems to come in last place in the Great American Modern Priority Contest behind such key tasks as “feeding the kids”, “going to work”, “doing laundry”, “avoiding phone calls from the in-laws”, “binge watching old seasons of Big Brother on Netflix”, and even “staring at pictures of feet on tumblr”.

So, yeah, this whole idea for writers was a Pretty Big Deal.

Admittedly, not all of us applied for the chance to escape our daily commitments on a 5-day trip to San Francisco so we could finally hammer out the last few chapters of our “amphibians in space meets buddy heist” novel. You know, like Ocean’s Eleven but with multi-armed Frog People? It’s awesome, trust me. The point, though, is that even though I didn’t apply for your fancy program, I’m betting a significant number of writers did.  Like, probably enough that you couldn’t count them all. You probably started to count them but then Eddie from the mail room always interrupted you right around application number 62,564,987, to drop off that catalog from Office Depot and tell you about how he caught a striper bigger than a wheel barrow over the weekend, never mind that fact that you haven’t ever been fishing (since you’re a train company and all) and wouldn’t know a striper from a Clown Fish named Marlon.

No, no, that’s “striper”. Not “stripper”.  Very different things. One’s a kind of fish, I think. Maybe with a stripe?  The other is…well, you know what the other is.

At any rate, even though I didn’t apply, I was very interested to see who did earn the prestigious Writer In Residence opportunity, since we all know you got more applications than you could probably shove onboard the 8:25 from New York to Yuma.  And earlier this week, you finally announce the 24 lucky, lucky devils who won them.

I have to say, Amtrak, it’s a solid list. Well, I mean, it seems like a solid list. I don’t actually know any of the writers on it any better than I know your sweet, blue-haired grandmother.  But, still, these people all seem like bona fide writers who are capable of doing some real, quality work being writers while riding.

It’s just. Well, they seem a little too bona fide, if you ask me. Admittedly, I understand that you really, really needed to make sure the scribes you picked would be doing actual work on your magic free train rides, because the last thing you need is some poser type who just wanted a free trip to New Mexico and a 18-hour engagement in the bar car, if you know what I’m saying. 

Still, though, the bio’s from your list of winners make them all sound like pretty accomplished professionals.

Which brings me to my big question: would it have killed you to take a chance on just one struggling, working slob, the parent of one or three or n kids or maybe zero offspring but with one ungodly needy Chihuahua? Someone with a trunk full of practice novels and an even bigger load of personal baggage, but a deep, driving aspiration to succeed and a manuscript that’s smart and fresh and just this close but needs a little dedicated time and attention away from the unending demands for TPS reports, a fresh band aid, or more macaroni and cheese?

In summary, Amtrak, I guess what I’m saying is that, wow, you picked yourself a fine crop of writers to work while coasting across America. They seem polished and accomplished and successful. And I totally get why you picked them. But would it have killed you to pick one—just one—writer from your endless heap of applications whose bio was more like:

Brenda McCayhee is a Nebraska mother of two whose last published work appeared on her refrigerator in the form of a grocery list.  She spends her days struggling to remember what adulthood feels like while wrangling twin toddlers and trying to cling to whatever paper-thin shreds of her sanity remain intact amid a house full of laundry and Nick Jr. cartoons. Every free moment (when she’s not exhausted), she pours her heart and soul into capturing the stories of adventure and intrigue that fill her imagination. Usually with wine. She’ll be spending her Amtrak writing residency basking in the glow of having multiple consecutive hours to work on her upcoming novel without interruptions for apple juice or phone calls from her mother asking for the 3742nd time if she’s ready to give up this writing nonsense and focus on being a good wife.

Anyway, that’s what I was hoping for, Amtrak, just one of those on your list of 24.  Because I know plenty of writers with fewer shiny credentials but a pretty intense need for a handful of hours to work.

Maybe keep that in mind the next time around?


*Yeah, okay, trains don’t “steam” anywhere nowadays. Screw you, I still like it as a verb.

2 thoughts on “Dear Amtrak, About Those Writing Residences

  1. EXCELLENT question, my friend. I want to know why Amtrak didn’t come asking ME to apply–because I certainly think that a middle-aged science geek mother-of-several teens with one romance novel–that most of her mom’s friends bought (but kind of hopes they didn’t read)–under her belt (and lots more in her brain but too many distractions to spew forth) would be an excellent choice to put in a seat with a fully charged laptop and a gallon of bad coffee (and hopefully a functioning bathroom nearby).

    But whatever. I’m not bitter.


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