This is my writing sample for my (public) application for the #AmtrakResidency.
Oh Amtrak. How could you even ask me why I'd want an #AmtrakResidency? Don’t you remember the moments between me and your Twitter account? You told me it was love at first sight! And who is Spencer? How could you hang out with Spencer with puns like those? Amtrak I thought you and I had a thing. Like the time I shamelessly added you to my tweet about a guy getting really excited about trains. I thought we were closer than this. In any case, I never got around to saying this but, I’m glad that you're glad that I like trains.
So much of this is a Love and Theft arrangement. The love comes from my own relationship to trains. This residency, for me, is a relationship that could never exist outside of my own memories of that HO scale Amtrak train that I'd set up in the living room and watch go around in a circle for hours. I would never consider writing on a train ride to nowhere if I hadn’t thought, for the first decade of my life, that Amtrak was what adults took when they wanted to go somewhere important. Afterall, that’s how my grandparents went from Fort Lauderdale to New York City twice a year. I just assumed that trains were for special occasions. Like a cross-continental limousine. I was also the kid that, having most of Orlando, Florida’s theme parks at my disposal, wanted to go to Train Land over Disney World. Universal Studios was okay because you got to ride a train on the Earthquake ride. I love trains so why wouldn’t I pass up doing what I love while riding a thing that I love?
But then there’s the theft. I think Vauhini Vara gets it right in her New Yorker piece when she compares the #AmtrakResidency to David Foster Wallace’s essay about traveling on cruise ships. This residency is nothing more than highbrow marketing that gives cynical assholes like me a license to sincerely enjoy something as earnest as reflecting on life as the scenery rolls by. In turn, I will let others know how Beyond Cool™ I am to just enjoy a train ride to nowhere in particular. I will help you turn the Lake Shore Limited into a Hipster Carnival Cruise. It is for this reason that I don’t think you’re stealing from writers necessarily (or primarily), you’re stealing from a society that desperately needs a continental rail system that could give airlines a run for their money. Trains shouldn’t be small luxury liners, they should be big buses. That’s what we really need from you right now. But I understand that as an organization that relies on government money, your agency is severely restrained and so you must find money wherever it lies. Indeed, you must act like all other market actors and cleave your offerings into two big categories to match the socioeconomic landscape. Your trains must either be high luxury or bargain basement. You’ll sell both, but investment to create the former will be bankrolled by the latter.
#AmtrakResidency is eerily similar to the Write-A-House Program in Detroit: a program that teaches poor kids carpentry and masonry skills by having them rehab a house that’ll be given away to a writer who only pays a modest fee to cover the property taxes. It sounds like a wonderful program until you think about the long-term repercussions of the arrangement: they’re taking poor kids’ labor and investing it in a house that will, most likely, end up gentrifying the area and kicking them out of the neighborhood that they literally built with their own hands. The #AmtrakResidency does something very similar. It gives away tickets on Amtrak’s most expensive lines, in hopes of rebranding a private-public corporation as a writer’s retreat on wheels. It can fund these land-cruises with equal parts tax money and the profits from the Northeastern corridor. Granted the lobbyists riding the Acela Express could use to have their fares raised but will we realize too late that the middle class riders of the Empire Express were bankrolling the gentrification of their beloved train this whole time?
But let's get back to how you're stealing from writers for a second. A good friend of mine compared this little part of your Official Terms to the Limp Bizkit's Guitar Center talent search:
Applicant understands and agrees that Sponsor has wide access to ideas, stories and other literary, artistic and creative materials submitted to it from outside sources or developed by its own employees and agents (together, “Sponsor Creative”); and, such Sponsor Creative may be competitive with, similar to (or even identical to) the writing sample/answers to questions created and submitted by Applicants; and, Sponsor shall have no liability to Applicant or any third party in respect to or in connection with the development, use, sale and/or commercial exploitation of all or any portion of Sponsor Creative by Sponsor and/or its designees and licensees, all of which liability, if any, Applicant hereby expressly and irrevocably waives, releases and discharges.
This isn't a good look for you Amtrak. I'd love to do this if you didn't write up terms that'd make Elsevier cringe. We could have been partners on this thing. I don't want to live in a world where Amtrak is the Limp Bizkit of trains. Or maybe the Limp Bizkit of writer residencies. I can't really tell anymore. Either way, I didn't ask my friend if I could use that comparison. It was just too good. Maybe you're on to something here.
I love you Amtrak, and I wish we weren't in this fucked up scenario where you have to turn a profit and I have to find ways to pay the bills through people paying attention to my work. But putting the two together might be too much for me. I hope one of your writers in residence writes the perfect story that renews everyone's interest in trains and they don't mind that they don't get a cut when your funding goes through the roof and you don't have to spend all of your money on rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure. I just won't be one of those writers.
This is part of my (public) Application for the #AmtrakResidency.
Photo from Flickr User Leon Kay, all rights reserved.