Maybe we’re a bit biased, being writers and all, but it was a stroke of pure brilliance when author Alexander Chee, in a December interview with PEN America, stated his love of writing on trains. “I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers,” he said, and with that simple statement, Chee ignited a movement — literally and literary — to giving American writers an opportunity to see the country while working on their craft. After reading the Chee’s PEN America interview, Jessica Gross, writer for the New York Times Magazine, the Paris Review and many other prestigious publications hopped on Twitter and asked Amtrak how to get this program going. They responded, asking Gross and Quartz editor Zach Seward if they’d like to go for a test run. Gross took them up on the offer, and jumped on the Lake Shore Limited for a free ride from New York City to Chicago and back again. “I’m only here for the journey,” Gross wrote about her experience in the Paris Review. “Soon after I get to Chicago, I’ll board a train and come right back to New York: thirty-nine hours in transit — forty-four, with delays. And I’m here to write.”
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It may be easy to assume that Amtrak’s writers’ residency program is nothing more than a ploy for media attention. But Julie Quinn, the company’s social media director, told the Wire that because of “overwhelming demand”, the company wants to turn the program into a regular operation. “We would’ve never known until really in the last 48 hours what type of response a program like this would warrant, and we have been pleasantly surprised,” Quinn says. The company isn’t sure yet exactly how the program will be structured, but Quinn says the goal is to “engage with writers several times a month”, possibly through a “tiered approach.” For now, the trips will remain free for writers, but Quinn says that could change, depending on the program’s regularity — and Amtrak’s bottom line. Interested writers — and Quinn says that anyone with a writing background would be considered, not just published authors — can apply through social media, by tweeting the company with the hashtag #AmtrakResidency.
There’s no telling how far this program could travel. Amtrak operates more than 300 trains a day on more than 21,000 miles of track. The company connects more than 500 destinations in 46 states, DC and Canada. And given the financial trouble the company has had in recent years, attracting a crop of successful writers, many of whom are active on social media — even if Amtrak is footing the bill — is a promotional opportunity that a fledging transportation business could only dream of. As for Chee, he tweeted last week that his Amtrak writer’s residency dream has come true. And he’s in it for the long haul, committing to a trip from New York City to Portland in May.
Updated: Monday, March 10, 2014: Amtrak has released an official application for its Residency program. Up to 24 writers will be selected for the program starting March 17, 2014 through March 31, 2015. 
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