Empire, Limited

Writing in Transience

by Julia Tompkins

Illustration by Ivan Rios-Fetchko

published December 4, 2015

Amtrak’s Empire Builder train departs from Chicago Union Station, arcing northwest along the border with Canada and passing through Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Spokane before the line ends in Seattle. Its website boasts an “exciting adventure through majestic wilderness,” replete with views of the Dakota plains and Glacier National Park. The company’s other trains bear similar names: the Lake Shore Limited, the Sunset Limited, the Missouri River Runner. Navigated correctly, and with adequate funds, the rails become a circular route, sweeping riders around the continental United States until they choose to get off. 




In a 2014 interview with PEN America, novelist Alexander Chee—when asked his favorite place to write—responded: “I still like a train best for this kind of thing. I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers.” Chee’s comment soon attracted attention. After journalist and critic Jessica Gross tweeted the idea, Amtrak offered her a trial residency aboard the Lake Shore Limited. Gross embarked on her residency early in 2014, traveling from New York City to Chicago and back in a sleeper cabin paid for by Amtrak. The trip reimagined travel—‘getting there’ lost its luster. In a Paris Review piece on the trial-run trip, Gross wrote, “I’m only here for the journey.” For her, the space of transition was the only space, writing the only demand. 

There are few generalizations to be drawn surrounding writers. That which is writerly is endless; those who are writerly are classified only by the ability to generate, through some means, words upon a page. The spaces writers inhabit are unclassifiable: they are all spaces, everyspace. To delineate writers as café writers or train writers, desk writers or bench writers, is to make enormous claims about what it means to be a writer, not to mention assumptions surrounding class, taste, geography, and even mobility. In short, the writerly bag is so deeply mixed that to claim it is anything at all is foolish. The sheer number of self-identifying writers naturally leads to disparate interpretations of writing, let alone where and how it should be done. Even the relationship between writers and the spaces they write in is variable. 

In his essay “Writing in Cafés: A Personal History,” Benjamin Aldes Wurgraft leaves the café to note: “transitional spaces have the feel of freedom, the mind swept up with the movement of arrivals and departures. Sometimes stillness frees the mind, sometimes kinetic energy.” Trains, by nature, are transitional spaces. They bring people from one place to the next. Some passengers—like the writers in the residency—ride for a number of days, some just for the afternoon. Quickly, though—and Amtrak doesn’t hesitate to do this—notions of transiency and romanticism regarding travel are blended. Travel becomes about seeing things, not just getting there. In 2009, Amtrak commissioned collectors’ posters by graphic designer Michael Schwab that pop up on some of the writers’ blogs. On the posters, Amtrak trains rise from dramatic angles toward the foreground amid wide swaths of color. Many of the posters feature the sun rising and setting, the moon coming out across the prairie. The trains plunge through natural landscapes, becoming themselves explorers across the continent. Needless to say, the posters embrace a spirit of travel for the sake of travel, movement as a means of seeing.




Jessica Gross’ trial residency proved successful enough that Amtrak decided to make the program official. Writers could apply for the 2014-2015 cycle by submitting a writing sample. After 16,000 applications were submitted. Amtrak narrowed the pool down to 115 finalists. From this, the twenty-four winners were selected based on “the quality and completeness of their application package” and the breadth of their Twitter-followership, or, as Amtrak puts it, “the extensiveness of their social community and ability to reach online audiences with content.” As a result, the twenty-four winners of the #AmtrakResidency were not unknowns; indeed, many of them were established writers in their fields. Amtrak made sure to account for some measure of gender and racial diversity within the group of winners, though the majority of them were white. The winners’ biographies for the first round of residencies tout publication in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New York Times, amongst others. ‘Success’ in the group is defined by fame and even money. It should be noted, however, that not all the writers selected were strictly ‘literary.’ The group was comprised of novelists, journalists, teachers and professors, even a sports writer and a film critic. 

Based on the pool Amtrak ended up selecting, the company seemed to need proof that the so-called writers were true to the craft. That is, individuals with a stamp of approval: publication, awards, success, a syndicated column with a major news outlet. Before the first writers embarked on their residencies, the program was already receiving online criticism from rejected applicants and frustrated observers for catering to the established, providing a free experience to individuals who—it was assumed by most of the commenting body—could shoulder the cost. After all, the program created no financial difficulty for Amtrak: the berths provided for writers were those that were left unsold, and all the company covered was meals and service by the Amtrak attendants. The benefits were twofold: to promote Amtrak as a corporation in support of the arts, dedicated to providing promising writers the chance to experience idyllic landscapes on the company’s dime; and, to give writers the chance to escape from time, to write in a space where the only obligation was creation, if the author wished it. 

“Writing demands what I call ‘long thoughts,’ a train ride produces an environment in which long thoughts are possible,” wrote author and Barnard College professor Jennifer Boylan in an email to the Independent. Boylan, the program’s second writer-in-residence, began her route in Maine, riding the Lakeshore Limited, the California Zephyr, the Coast Starlight, the Empire Builder, and, finally, the Downeaster along her way. One of the better known writers in the program, Boylan is aware of the pushback, and acknowledged it in correspondence with the Indy: “I know there were some hurt feelings that the first batch of writers were not all exactly unknowns,” but, she continues, “none of us is exactly Stephen King.” It was a clever move for a writer’s residency on Amtrak’s part. Instead of shepherding writers off to a retreat, the program let each winner choose his or her route, allowing each one to customize the trip based on their needs. Yet at the same time, Boylan suggests, the departure from a typical residency makes the marketing nature of the trip more transparent: “you have these writers attracting attention to the delights of train travel. Remember, this is not Yaddo (a writer’s retreat in upstate New York), it’s an invention coming out of the marketing division of a government agency.”

Boylan’s “long thoughts” on the train were the product of vast stretches of uninterrupted time. For all writers, established or not, unburdened time is hard to come by. Even when writing becomes a career, life intervenes. The continuity of the train, the constant motion—both allow for the mind to inhabit a different state. With production as the goal—for Boylan, it was finishing the first draft of a novel—the idealization of travel, of not getting there, created a space in which creation made sense. The space itself is one of separation from normal life. WiFi is spotty, as is cell service. Amtrak trains run notoriously late; time is not to be counted on. There is no place to be. Things move at their own pace—through, up, around, and across the country. Often, writing or talking to strangers in the observation car is the only option. Excess is eliminated; the roomette fits only the bare minimum. The nature of travel itself indicates a removal, from people or places, even from a way of living. People are packed into the train car in nearly cramped conditions, yet given the gift of a space of one’s own. Each writer embarked alone. Some, like Boylan, disembarked. While she spent her time off the train hiking, others visited friends or family, only to get back onboard their next train after a few days. Life continued outside the residency. 

Once off the train, Seattle-based Ksenia Anske reflected on her blog: “I miss the lull of the train, the coziness of my little roomette. There is something ethereal about it, something that makes you want to create.” For Anske, the train held little in the way of romantic notions. Trains were familiar territory for her, ubiquitous in her childhood in Russia, where, she says: “travel by personal vehicle was restricted to those who had the privilege and the means of owning one. My family didn’t.” The train was a welcoming mode of travel, a familiar one. Anske’s work, too, was highly influenced by her surroundings. In an email to the Indy she writes, “the day I boarded the Empire Builder that was going to take me from Seattle to Chicago, I started writing a book about a train killing its passengers one by one, famed Bolshoi ballerinas touring the US.” For any writer looking for material, transience may be the solution, at least for Amtrak. Move until you find something. Keep moving when you do, find more, write more, write all you do, write from your experiences. But,“there’s nothing particularly romantic about being a writer,” Boylan pushes back, “and anyone who thinks it’s about looking out the window at the mountains and being inspired and typing it all down ‘just so’ should prepare for disappointment.” 

In some places, time grows. On her trip blog, Boylan wrote that the train stops, heading east, outside Dayton, Ohio, “on account of the reversion to Eastern Standard Time. I’d heard that trains do this—if they just chugged ahead, we’d all wind up at our destination an hour ahead of the schedule, thus opening up a rift in the space-time continuum.” While the practicalities are mundane, the act of waiting for time to catch up is a graceful one. For the group of writers Amtrak sent out for the residency, many of whom write with a deadline, graciousness towards time is rarely found. Here, it becomes an instance for celebration, or at least reverence. 




In October, Scott Berkun, an author and speaker, finished his five-day residency, the last of his cycle of winners. In a blog entry on the trip he notes, “train routes follow the hills and waterways, curving in and out as the landscape demands,” forcing riders to see the landscape as it makes itself seen. The noise of other passengers, authors noted, is a frequent distraction. Though life shifts away from the normal, it continues to go on in a space usually reserved for getting there. The confinement acts as a collider, driving travelers together—in the dining car, in the observation car, in line for the bathroom. Farai Chideya wrote after her journey: “there’s something about the train that seems to create an expansive space for intimacy amid the physical confines.” An intimacy, perhaps, generated by individuals placed in the same space, despite their arbitrary reasons for being aboard. Distance is a surmountable thing—the train chugs along, behind schedule, on time.

Amtrak recently released the application for their second group of writers in residence. The application is short, only two questions, and the comments section is already bulging with eager applicants. The concerns remain the same: what about the poor writers? What about the writers just starting out? How will Amtrak encourage the underdogs? That the program, a marketing scheme by a government corporation, would target the underrepresented is a good wish, a hope. Yet it’s the bigger names that proved to Amtrak that a residency was possible, that allowed trains to become a shelter for the creative in need of time and a berth. The program itself wields luxury masked in simple Americana: weeks to spare for train travel, the ability to disconnect, on some level, from work and life. A nation where train transport is for sightseeing. A post-train nation. 

For the hopeful applicants, the celebration of the opportunity rings distant; it is another application, another competition. Perhaps each writer just seeks what Anske describes as “the sunset burning the canyons red.” Who knows what the next Amtrak Twitter episode will lead to. An endowed sleeper car, complete with pen and paper. Or, #AmtrakingResidency might go the way of most marketing campaigns, with this next round of writers serving as its last. Until then, the aspiring pen-wielders will vie for their place. Time for ‘long thoughts’ and shorts stops, the open rails. 


JULIA TOMPKINS B‘18 will just hop a boxcar @Amtrak