Take your muse for a ride on Amtrak

The writing world is all a-twitter this week about Amtrak offering residencies for writers on its trains. It seems a writer named Alexander Chee commented in an interview that he loved to write on trains and wished Amtrak had residencies for writers. Other writers started tweeting about it on Twitter, and voila, Amtrak is now offering residencies for writers. Application information went online this week. Read about it at http://www.blog.amtrak.com/amtrakresidency. The first writers have already boarded and blogged about it, and thousands of other writers have  applied. Those who are chosen will get to ride free in a sleeper car with bed and desk and nothing to do but watch the miles go by. Read about Jessica Gross’ Amtrak writing experience in the Paris Review.

The Amtrak residencies have strict requirements and qualifications, which most of us could meet. You fill out a form and submit a writing sample at their website, and Amtrak staffers choose who gets to go and where they will go. It’s worth a try. There’s something about getting away that can be incredibly freeing.

I rode a sleeper car on Amtrak’s Starlight Express to San Jose a few years ago. It was snowing outside most of the way, but I was warm and cozy in my little cubbyhole, watching the towns go by. It cost over $700 for the 20-hour ride, and I didn’t sleep well, but I did get a lot of writing done. In fact, I write more than usual every time I travel. Planes, trains, boats, cars, feet, it doesn’t matter where I go or how I get there. I have a wonderful office at home, but somehow getting away from the distractions of ordinary life for a while, escaping my daily routines and seeing new places can really get my muse dancing. Only the cost has kept me from taking the train again.

Residencies and retreats have long been a part of the writing life. Usually you sleep in a stationary building, not a moving train, but the concept is the same. You escape to a place where you can focus on your writing. It can be especially helpful if you’re trying to finish a book or other long project or just feeling stuck. Sometimes you have to pay to go there. Sometimes the organizers award free residencies to writers who meet their qualifications. For lists of residencies, do a Google search or visit the residencies database at Poets & Writers.

I suspect other transportation companies will soon be following Amtrak’s example. It’s good publicity, and it helps them fill seats during the slow seasons.

Even if you don’t get an Amtrak residency, you can plan your own getaway. Just last weekend, I attended an all-day poetry workshop in San Rafael, California. We spent the whole day writing poetry. It was so freeing. I combined the trip with a visit to my dad and a birthday celebration with my family, but I flew from Portland to San Jose, which meant time at the airport and on the plane when I could think about my writing. It was a mini-retreat. Some days, maybe all I have time for is an hour at Starbuck’s or at the beach, but it’s still a chance to get away and write.

Try a retreat or residency. It can really spark your writing. If you can’t spend a month at a cottage in the woods or a week on Amtrak, take a day or an hour close to home. Take a lunch, a pen and a notebook, and see what comes out.

Now go write.