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Amtrak is giving 24 people a 'writer's residency' on its trains

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Loco Steve / Flickr

The first train-based authors' residency program is preparing to leave the station. Amtrak has announced two dozen recipients of its residency awards, which will send writers on a long-distance trip where the romance of an aging transportation system with an illustrious history will hopefully inspire them to create beautiful, possibly train-related work. The list tends towards journalists and other nonfiction writers, but also includes novelists, playwrights, comic authors, and poets. Amtrak says it aimed to "offer a diverse representation of the writing community" chosen from across the country. While diversity includes any number of different factors, the list is admirably gender-balanced (12 men and 12 women), although it looks like it skews heavily white.

The Amtrak program grew out of an offhand suggestion from author Alexander Chee, who said he preferred writing on a train and wished Amtrak would offer a residency. Freelance writer Jessica Gross, among others, tweeted his proposal to Amtrak, and the company ended up offering Gross a "test run" of the residency, giving her a free round trip from New York to Chicago. She published a piece about the experience in The Paris Review. Soon after, Amtrak announced that it was creating an official program and accepting applications.

"Residency" may be a bit of a strong word for the program; according to the rules set forward earlier this year, each applicant gets a single round-trip, long-distance ticket for a sleeper car, with the route determined "based on availability." The expansive terms and conditions, which gave Amtrak the right to republish any part of the application (apparently including writing samples) for publicity or any other purpose, raised hackles in the writing community when the program was first announced. It's not clear whether those have been revised, but regardless, Amtrak says it received over 16,000 applications for the 24 spots. Winners are getting a respite from the outside world and an inspiring view, and Amtrak is earning good PR and the affection of some excellent writers. Nobody really loses, except maybe the senators who wrote in to complain that the residency program (valued at around $22,000) was a waste of Amtrak's government subsidies and glamorized its money-losing long-distance routes.