I’m writing to you today from the Amtrak quiet car, on a southbound train somewhere in New Jersey. Although the Amtrak Writer’s Residency Program is “currently evaluating the future of the program and do not have a timeline for when the next submission process will launch,” you can still pay out of pocket for a DIY Amtrak residency. That’s what I’ve been doing in 2017, now that my full-time teaching job is in Virginia and my fiancé is a theater director in New York.
Some long-distance routes have poetic names like the City of New Orleans or the Maple Leaf, but this is the plain old Northeast Regional. It stops eighteen times between Penn Station and Norfolk. Two years into my relationship with Kareem I’ve earned somewhere in the vicinity of seventy million Amtrak Guest Rewards Points. I can glance out the window and know I’m coming into the Great Dismal Swamp, or crossing the Mason-Dixon Line. I guess that means I’ve spent a lot of time staring out the window, but it doesn’t feel like it, because on each train ride I accomplish more work on my novel-in-progress than in the rest of the week combined.
Trains seem to perform some kind of gentle hypnosis on the creative mind. At my desk I can’t focus on anything for more than 45 minutes. In this quiet car I can write for unbroken three-hour stretches. The passing scenery or the knowledge of my forward motion works like some harmless natural amphetamine. A seventy-dollar NYP-NFK ticket buys me an eight-hour dose of it. I used to wish for world-class high-speed rail between New York and Norfolk, so that the journey would last 90 minutes, but no longer. Sometimes we’ll slow to 25mph because we’re stuck behind a coal train, which is fine with me. It helps also that the wifi is so slow, and the quiet car so quiet. As soon as a phone rings, someone hisses that WE’RE IN THE QUIET CAR while gesturing aggressively toward one of the signs. This gives me hope for the future of civil society.
At my first writers’ residency (Caldera Arts, in Oregon’s Cascade Mountains), I found something magical about having a studio bestowed upon me by an agency that wanted to support me. That imprimatur seemed as big of a contributing factor to my productivity as the serenity and free meals. In my month at Caldera (January 2005) I wrote fifty thousand words. Then I started applying to every granting organization on the list, as if my life’s goal were to bounce from residency to residency until I was dead. That worked out for a while. These days it’s not as easy to get away for more than a week at a time, so I’m grateful to the National Railroad Passenger Corporation. I hope the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act doesn’t abolish it.
The photographs were taken from the window of the Northeast Regional…