Tag Archives: writer-in-residence

All Aboard! Writer-in-Residence Program on the Rails

I travel 12-15 times a year on business, so flying is second-nature to me. I can’t say I enjoy it, but I’m used to it. Recently, I had the opportunity to take two train trips on Amtrak from Hartford, Connecticut, to Trenton, New Jersey. I must confess, when it comes to traveling, I prefer trains. The seats are comfortable, there’s more leg room and there are electrical outlets and wi-fi for internet connectivity.

A colleague at work told me about an intriguing program. Though it’s not advertised, Amtrak has started a pilot writer-in-residence program. Here’s the deal: a writer can book a trip on long routes and travel for free, as long as she blogs about it on social media.

The idea came from an interview with Alexander Chee, which was linked from a tweet. Chee said he liked the train best for writing and wished Amtrak had a writer-in-residence program. Writer Jessica Gross read the interview and tweeted about it. Amtrak offered Gross a free round trip from New York to Chicago on the Lake Shore Limited. All Amtrak asked was for Gross to tweet about the trip and give an interview with their social media team.

What’s so great about writing on a train? In an interview with The Wire, Gross described the train ride as a “unique environment for creative thought,” one that “takes you out of normal life.”

Gross detailed her experience in depth in the Paris Review. She wrote:

“Writing requires a dip into the subconscious. The lockbox, at times kept tightly latched in our daily lives, is pried open, and things leak onto the page that we only half knew were there. Boundaries help to contain this fearful experience, thereby allowing it to occur. Looking around at my fellow passengers gives me an anchor to the world: my fantasies, my secret desires, aren’t going to get anyone killed. We’re all okay here; we’re all here, here.”

The train is an ideal environment for writing. It is a confined space, yet the writer has a sense of movement. There are stops in different cities to break up the routine. It’s great for people-watching. And it’s a comfortable place to write.

Amtrak officials say there is no application process set up and they are not sure whether they can offer a free ride to any writer, since there is a cost to the cash-strapped rail service. I am intrigued and I want to check it out.

What about you? Would you find the train an appealing writing environment?

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Writing on the Spot-Prompting Waves of Anxiety

I never appreciated the value of writing prompts. They struck me as devices other writers used when they couldn’t come up with original ideas. After last weekend, I’ve changed my mind.

On June 1, I attended a fiction writing workshop presented by Ken Cormier, writer-in-residence at the West Hartford (Connecticut) Public Library. Ken’s pre-workshop instructions were to bring a pen and pad and leave the laptop at home. We would be writing on the spot, using prompts. Nothing brings terror to me like being asked to write on demand. What sort of rubbish would spew from my pen? Though I am a pantser, when I come up with an idea for a story, I do a lot of pre-writing in my head and then I prepare a basic outline of milestone events before I sit down to write. I would not have the luxury of this type of preparation this time. I was at sea without a life preserver.

Ken read to us a hilarious flash fiction piece about a crazy, drunken grandmother at Christmas, which set the stage for his first prompt. He instructed us to write about an episode involving one of our relatives. We were given 15 minutes. Sticking with the grandmother idea, I wrote about my Nana, who was deaf, and her attempts to carry on a telephone conversation with her sister, Theresa, who was also deaf. The words just flowed. I wouldn’t call it brilliant but it was the best work I’ve done in weeks.

The second exercise was interesting. He asked us to write a basic character sketch (name, age, address, occupation, most important person, and that person’s relationship with the character). Then we handed our character sketch to the person on our left and they had to write a story based on it. Again, we had 15 minutes to do it. The results were fantastic. Every writer in the room wove a vivid narrative that made each character come alive. I was amazed to see what a talented group of writers could do without the time to think.

I left the workshop feeling energized. I had been suffering through a serious creative block the past few weeks, for a variety of reasons. These writing prompts unblocked me.

To read more on writing prompts, check out these sites:
Writer’s Digest resource

Creative Writing Prompts

The Teacher’s Corner

Good essay on the value of writing prompts

Poets & Writers page

Do you use writing prompts? Do you find them helpful?

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