On the Amtrak residency: residencies versus contests, dreams versus desperation

When I first heard that Amtrak was considering having writers-in-residence on its trains, I was pretty captivated by the idea. I find trains deeply evocative, liminal, even mythic. I loved the idea of hopping on board for a multi-day trip (instead of my previous several hour or single-day rides), of watching the landscape roll by, of chatting with my fellow passengers, and of, presumably, writing up a storm. So I figured I’d go ahead and apply. Why not? I knew the Amtrak Residency was a PR move from the very start, but I’ve worked in business communications and I actually thought it was a brilliant PR move. I’m in favor of train travel, so it wasn’t like I’d be promoting something I didn’t believe in.

Along the way I priced out some sleeper-class tickets for long-haul journeys, because if I really wanted to get in some train-writing time badly enough, there were of course ways to do that even without Amtrak awarding me a free ticket. I looked at the prices, for sleeper cars especially, and … realized that I actually didn’t want to do this badly enough. Not as badly, anyway, as the many other things I wanted more that I could also do for the cost of a long-haul train ticket. At this point I still planned to apply–a few days writing on a train would still of a heckuva lot of fun–but I’d clarified that this wasn’t some great life priority for me.

Then the Amtrak Residency application went live, and I saw that this wasn’t so much a writers’ residency as a writers’ contest–complete with the requirement, common to many contests, that entrants give over legal rights to the application. The rights Amtrak was demanding from writer-entrants were non-exclusive (cool), but they also included the up-to-10-page writing sample attached to the application (not cool) and, worse, those rights would be given up simply by applying, whether or not one was awarded a free ticket (even less cool). I stepped back and thought it through. A sleeper-car train ticket is actually reasonable compensation for a 2000-3000 word article, given the cost of a ticket and going freelance rates. But an entry in a contest for a possible train ticket is … not.

Writers have been applying in tremendous numbers in spite of the rights issue and the low chance of compensation for same, eight thousand of them last I heard. With that many applicants and those terms, the whole business feels less and less like a group of professionals and would-be professionals applying for a residency, and more and more like a group of hopefuls buying rather expensive lottery tickets.

But what’s truly disconcerting is the way more and more applicants are talking about the residency, tossing around phrases like “this would be a dream come true for me.” Just this morning I saw one person claim he would just die if he were selected, and another claim she was salivating at the possibility of being one of the “Chosen,” and I couldn’t help feeling like somewhere along the way, realistic perspective about this whole business had been lost.

Either they’re (some of them) making all of this up to make their applications look better–because, really, of all the grand dreams in the world, how many thousands of people really put a domestic U.S. round trip train ticket at the very top?; or else this really is their (some of their) grand dream–because, okay, dreams are highly personal, and just because this isn’t at the very top of my list doesn’t mean it’s not at the top of a whole bunch of other writers’ lists.

But the thing is, if something really is your grand dream? Entering contests and buying a lottery tickets isn’t the usually way to obtain one’s dreams. (I dream of returning to Iceland, too, and so I’ve entered contests for free IcelandAir tickets, but I’ve never seriously believed that was the way I was really going to get back there.) A dream as grand as some Amtrak Residency applicants seem to believe this is calls for strategizing, and marshaling/saving one’s resources, and thinking through what else one can do if saving resources isn’t enough. (Maybe a shorter journey is required to make it happen, or sleeping in coach, or getting off the train at the end of the day and sleeping in hotel rooms or a tent in the towns one passes through.)

If the trip is truly that deeply, earth-shatteringly important to a writer, maybe it even calls for striving to sell one’s work at fair market price in order to put the profits towards making it happen, rather than blowing that work and those profits on lottery tickets.

The problem with wanting a dream this badly and thinking a lottery ticket is the only way to get it is … then you become desperate, and willing to pay too much for the lottery ticket you think is your only shot. I hear that desperation in other comments in that online discussion, comments along the lines of “don’t you want to be read?” and “it’s not like you don’t have other work” and “what’s the big deal, it’s only ten pages?”

That air of desperation may be what’s making me most uncomfortable, and what’s taken the luster away from something that was, initially, a nifty idea. Because train rides are a heckuva lot of fun. They’re just not worth selling my soul or even my words for a one-in-eight-thousand chance of getting one.

22 thoughts on “On the Amtrak residency: residencies versus contests, dreams versus desperation”

  1. The thing that bothers me about this post is the fact you seem to be labeling every writer interested in this as desperate losers who are selling their souls or worse, selling out. You could not be more wrong and your snide remark about writers saying it would be a “dream come true” is insulting. So what if it’s a dream come true? How does that affect you and your work? It doesn’t.

    Regarding the rights issue: Had you correctly read the legalese in the form you’d understand that you are in no way handing over your copyrights in exchange for a potential trip. You are, however, granting them a license which is standard procedure for things of this nature. To me, giving them that license to use my application or my writing is a fair exchange.

    Maybe getting this chance is a long-shot but for this writer, it would be a dream come true. It’s an extraordinary chance to do something new and different, something I’ve never done before. Will it make me into a brilliant writer? Absolutely not. But it might, MIGHT open my eyes a little bit and give me the chance to write something completely different for me. That, to me, is worth it in the long run.

    1. If I did come across as labeling writers interested in this as desperate losers, that wasn’t my intention, and I geniunely apologize.

      I never, however, said this did affect me and my work. What I did say was that I think this is an unwise business decision, and I laid out why, because warning each other about unwise business decisions is something writers do.

      Do note that I never said anyone is giving up copyrights. What they’re giving up is specific rights to their work, which is not the same thing. Writers assign rights to their work all the time while retaining the copyright, and they nonetheless look critically at whether these are rights they’re willing to assign.

      No doubt there are some writers who’ve thought through the rights they’re assigning and decided a contest entry is worth that cost, but I am hearing a lot of writers saying, “I just don’t care if I give up some rights, this is too awesome an opportunity to miss,” even though they give up those rights whether or not that opportunity pans out for them. That’s the big thing: an actual ticket would be a reasonable thing to exchange rights to one’s work for. A possible ticket, well, that’s an expensive contest entry if one looks at the going rates for publishing articles.

      I think those for whom this is a dream come true should absolutely go for it, and apologize if I didn’t make that clear, too. But I also think that entering Amtrak’s contest is neither the most business savvy way to make that dream come true, nor the way with the greatest chance of success, given that train tickets can be obtained outside of this contest, too.

      1. Of course it’s not the most business savvy idea out there! I doubt many, if any, writers, viewed this as a business opportunity. I cannot speak for every applicant but it would not surprise me if a strong majority said the reason for applying had to do with an opportunity to do something different and stretch their legs, figuratively and literally.

        Also, I noticed you mentioned exposure. Most writers I know (as well as photographers) already know the “It’ll give you great exposure” line is straight up malarkey. Exposure, as we all know, doesn’t pay bills. But, as I said with regards to the business opportunity: My guess is that most don’t care so much about the exposure as they do about the experience. I can get my own exposure, however little it may be.

        I’m doing this for the experience and because travel (especially when it’s more than 300 miles from home) is often out of my reach financially. Applying for this opportunity gives me one tiny glimmer of hope that maybe I can travel without having to stress about the costs nearly as much.

        1. I do think it’d be an awesome experience, and I do hope you get it! My concerns definitely weren’t with wanting the trip, just with what’s being asked in return for it. Others, obviously, will (have) come to different conclusions–mostly I think it’s important to consider the terms carefully and decide whether they’re worth it, not that it’s wrong to want the experience itself at all.

          (I have heard people talking about the exposure as if it’s worth it itself … but of course, that’s anywhere near everyone, either, and everyone is coming to this with a different take, something that can get lost online.)

  2. You know what, though, people will enjoy the chance to travel. And yeah, of course they get excited about it, and exaggerate their feelings. Most writers do, yaknow 🙂

    1. Well, sure. I love riding traveling and riding trains too. But I don’t need to sell rights, even non-exclusive rights, to my work for a 1 in 8500 chance at a “free” ticket to do that, because Amtrak gets those rights whether or not I get that ticket. While if I sell the work for real money, I can use that money to buy a ticket. This isn’t anyone’s only or even best chance to get to travel, which is how would-be riders are acting. It’s a long shot shot at something that’s obtainable in other ways.

      I also do feel a writer’s job is less to exaggerate their feelings than to convey them as truly and compellingly as possible, which isn’t the same thing. If thousands of writers are exaggerating their interest in riding a train for dramatic effect, that’s a whole other issue!

  3. The idea that getting a chance to travel in a train suddenly turns you into a brilliant, famous writer is about as ridiculous as my next novel selling 500,000 copies because I took a ride in a car to the grocery store today.

    So ignoring any of those who think that Amtrak is going to perform magical qualities to their writing skills…It’s an amazing opportunity. The question was already posed to Amtrak about using work already published on the applicant’s website and was approved that this was acceptable.

    It’s standard legalese. They are asking for the right to use your work, not take the copyright from it, not change it, not slap their name on it and say, “Hey, look what I wrote.” It’s promotion for Amtrak. So if my ten pages of blog posts get tossed around by Amtrak as their idea of promotion…sure, why the hell not. My name’s on it. It belongs to me. Worst case scenario, I get a few more readers on my blog.

    I don’t think any of the serious applicants are doing this with the idea that they are going to suddenly become famous authors. We’re not selling our soul for a “lottery ticket” to the big times.

    We applied for a free trip…on a train…to write all day. Whoopee.

    1. Two things I’ve learned as a professional writer: One is that we need to read our contracts critically, and question them rather than dismiss anything as “standard legalese.” Because it’s what’s in the contract that counts in a court of law, not Amtrak’s answer to someone’s question online about what they would really do if push came to shove. If Amtrak’s intent is not to use anyone’s work until they talk to them and come to an agreement, as they sort of indicated when asked about it, then that’s great! Why not put that wording in the actual contract? If they really want to and they’re well-intentioned and mean well but their lawyers won’t let them … well, it’s their lawyers who would be defending them if this became an issue later, and they’d no doubt listen to them then, too.

      The other thing I’ve learned is that exposure and even a few extra blog readers don’t pay the bills. (Neither does, admittedly, writing this post … but that’s why I do try not to let blogging time get in the way of my actual writing time … and if this post is unpaid, at least it’s still fully mine.) But one of the surest signs someone isn’t offering me enough for a project is when they suggest that the “exposure” will be worth it. It’s a pattern most writers see repeatedly throughout their careers.

      I just don’t think this is all that amazing an opportunity, ultimately. I was excited at first, because it is a genuinely fun idea, but it’s one that comes with a cost … while also being an opportunity that isn’t at all once in a lifetime, and that is highly obtainable in ways that don’t involve giving away rights to one’s work merely to play the odds.

      1. I love the continued idea that a “professional writer” and one who uses blogging as “actual writing time” cannot be one and the same thing. It is one more leap into the offending accounts of “delusions” you refer to in the title of this post. I’ll continue to agree that our opinions are on opposite ends of the field here, but can be proud at least in knowing that I am capable of giving mine without offending others within my writing community. It is a community, dear. One meant to be supportive, or as a “professional writer” have you forgotten that?

        1. I probably should have been clearer that yes, blogging can be professional writing–it just happens for me it isn’t, and I was attempting to make clear that I understand I’m putting in unpaid time when I post blog posts and that I’ve made that decision consciously, and do try to make sure I don’t spend more time on it than I can afford, much as I do enjoy it. Of course for others the balance will; be different.

          As for the rest, well, we may just be interacting with different writing communities, but my own interactions with the communities I’m a part of indicate that a great many of us do indeed consider sharing business information and opinions on the terms in potential business contracts to be highly supportive, both when we agree on those terms and when we don’t.

          It may indeed be different in your writing communities, and as you say, we’ll have to agree to disagree there.

  4. Also, the argument of “don’t you want to be read” is meaningless here — Amtrak hasn’t promised to publish anything. They just want the rights so they POTENTIALLY could. Is it likely they’ll use the application and writing sample for promotional materials? Maybe parts of it. Is it likely they’re going to make promotional materials which contain the entire 10 pages of your writing sample, so that someone can enjoy a complete narrative? I seriously doubt it.

    I mean, if this residency were a kind of “take this long train ride with author x! Meet and greet and chat over meals!” and I were Amtrak, I’d want the biggest names I could get, but as it is, it sounds like they’re going for less of a “get your name out there” feel, and more of a “get OUR name out there.” Which is totally fine, and legit, but it isn’t going to give you overnight popularity as a writer, or magically result in your “being read.”

    I’ve had the unique opportunity to ride the rails from North Dakota to New York, and it was fantastic and fun, and I did it again, in the opposite direction, in a sleeper car (which if you’re traveling east of Chicago is a must, but maybe less of a must WEST from Chicago, depending on your desire for privacy — and even sleeper cars only offer a very limited amount of that.) I spent the time reading and watching the in-train movie channel and trying to decide if I could go 36 hours without having to use the bathroom (because the private toilet in my sleeper room was right against the curtained window, and *I* could see out into the hall, which meant the hall could see *in* to me, and I didn’t really want to flash the train.)

    While I think it would be a blast to ride the train long-distance again, and even better, for free, I think I’d need to see what Amtrak is going to do with my work and my name before I’d be ready to commit to something like this. Would it be a fun outing to attempt to write through, sure. Am I likely to get much writing done in those conditions? I know myself well enough to say “Nope. But it’d be a good experience to draw on later FOR a story.”

    1. And to be fair, Amtrak is making no claims to the work created once on the train. It’d be a ton of fun to go and see what happens, I think. But if I ever decide to do it, after looking at the “costs” involved, this wouldn’t be the way I’d go about it.

  5. Thoughtful as usual Janni. I was also struck by Amtraks requirement that applicants have a significant presence on social media. I get that they want attention for what they’re doing but it goes agin’ my ideas and/or hopes for a residency. My ideal is peace and quiet and an ability to disconnect from the wider world.

    1. Yeah, I understand the reason for the social media presence requirement–for them this is about the PR, but I suppose given that the other requirements aren’t all that surprising. Seen as a PR contest rather than a writing residency it makes sense for them … just not for us as professionals.

  6. Excellent perspective and analysis of these details. It’s a neat idea in theory, but the terms are a total deal-breaker for me. And the language around it is more than a little bit disconcerting!

    1. It is! And yeah, the idea itself is pretty fun, and it does make me a little sad that it didn’t become what, with only a few changes that wouldn’t have even diminished the PR aspect, it could have been.

  7. Yes! Thank you!! I’ve spent two days watching and listening to those conversations, and it is indeed very uncomfortable.

      1. I agree.

        It would have been nice if Amtrak had amended their contract to say what they “really mean” rather than depend upon residency applicants to tell everyone what they “really mean.”

        1. Yes.

          This is an issue that comes up with mainstream publishing contracts, too. “We would never do that.” “Well, then why not say you would never do that?”

          I forget who first suggested to me that contracts should be looked at with an attitude of, “Sure, we’re both well-intentioned people, but what if, say, our heirs have to battle this out without us?”

          Well-intentioned people leave their jobs all the time, or else get over-ruled. And contracts can get re-sold to new, less sympathetic entities, too. All sorts of reasons a verbal promise of good faith, no matter how well-intentioned, isn’t enough.

          1. Yep. I always ask myself if I’d accept the contract terms if the other party was my sister’s ex-husband. If the contract hands over a level of power and control I wouldn’t want him to have, I don’t sign it. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *