How Writer Residencies Earned Amtrak a Runaway Train of Free Press

By Grace Bello March 14th, 2014

Writers don’t usually get to ride the gravy train, but now, they may at least be able to ride Amtrak for free. A new corporate residency model has authors, brands, and organizations buzzing. Writers get compensation while honing their craft; brands and organizations advertise subtly and land relatively easy publicity. Though sponsorship is familiar in other creative fields like music, this path to creativity is fairly new in the writing world.

Amtrak recently launched #AmtrakResidency, an opportunity for writers looking to work comfortably while riding the rails across the country. Alexander Chee first mentioned the concept in an interview with PEN America, and the idea later took root when writer Jessica Gross tweeted her support: “How much momentum do we have to gain for this become real, @Amtrak?”

Amtrak offered Gross one of the inaugural #AmtrakResidency trips. She received a free round trip ride in exchange for a few tweets and a Q&A with her on their blog. Gross enjoyed her journey so much that she captured the experience in an essay for The Paris Review. She called her sleeper cabin “cozily small, like a carrel in a college library … The movement of a train conjures the ultimate sense of protection — being a baby, rocked in a bassinet.” For the record, The Paris Review post wasn’t Amtrak’s idea — it came from Gross.

Her essay on the residency sparked a flurry of interest from writers seeking Amtrak sponsorships. “Hey @Amtrak! I’m a journalist & creative writer and I can’t imagine anything more glorious than an #AmtrakResidency!! Can’t wait to apply!!” tweeted Parade Magazine assistant online editor Lindsay Lowe. Gross recently told The Wire she felt as if she had “seen a billion tweets from other writers saying ‘I want one of these.’”

The Amtrak residency isn’t the only partnership that leverages writers’ talents in order to attract the public’s interest. In Detroit, the nonprofit organization Write a House will offer three lucky writers free homes in the Motor City. In exchange, the writers must contribute to Write a House’s blog and to the city’s burgeoning literary community.

“Our mission is simple,” their website reads, “to enliven the literary arts of Detroit by renovating homes and giving them to writers. It’s like a writer-in-residence program, only in this case we’re actually giving the writer the residence, forever.”

“For writers who are bunked up with roommates and forlorn about lack of square footage and rising rents, the financial math of Detroit looks pretty appealing, free house or not,” wrote Ian Crouch in The New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog.

Whereas previous support for writers came from places like the National Endowment for the Arts, communities and brands can now power journalists, poets, novelists, and more. While many writers may find this prospect exciting, others still question what it means to have a corporate sponsor like Amtrak behind journalistic and literary endeavors.

“I do believe that serious literature ought to be subsidized and encouraged in the United States,” Evan Kindley wrote for n+1. However, he remained cynical about “the spectacle of so many writers and intellectuals banding together to help launch a viral promotional campaign.”

Amtrak’s social media director Julia Quinn had a different take. She told The New Yorker, “This is the most organic form of advertising for us — different people on our trains and exposing their audience to what long-distance train travel is like.” For today’s professional writers, a bit of content marketing is a small price to pay for a room of their own, especially if that price doesn’t cost any actual money.

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