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.