I’m writing this blog post on Amtrak’s Northeast Regional, but I want to make it plain that it’s not on Amtrak’s dime. So I’m free to complain about the woman across the aisle from me on the quiet car who keeps talking on her cell phone, the stopped-up sink in the bathroom, the stifling heat and the stale air.
I mention this because the railway has succeeded recently at creating positive buzz over its new writer residency program, in which it offers writers a free round-trip ride (but no pay) as a sort of mobile writing space. The New Yorker reported that the program was inspired by a comment this past December from train-enthusiast and novelist Alexander Chee, who said that he wished Amtrak offered residencies for writers. The comment was shared among writers on Twitter, and Amtrak jumped into the fray and offered one of those writers—New York-based freelance writer Jessica Gross—its first free ride in what will soon become a formal program, based around the official hashtag #AmtrakResidency.
Amtrak is still trying to figure out the particulars of the program. Gross’ ride was just a test run, and the railway was probably not expecting such a clamor for free rides from writers. While Amtrak basks in this wave of goodwill and takes deserved credit for being so quick and clever, it might want to take seriously the question of quid pro quo raised by New Yorker writer Vauhini Vara and Poynter.org writer Al Tompkins’ comments that while it’s fine for a novelist or songwriter to accept a free ride from Amtrak, journalists should always avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
It’s all too easy for a suddenly popular promotional vehicle to turn bad, so Amtrak will have to work out clear guidelines before sending the next writer out on the rails. For instance, how will Amtrak handle it when a writer complains in a blog post about the stopped-up sink, the lack of fresh air and the blabbers in the quiet car?
Damn, it’s hot in here.