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Amtrak residency for writers: New train of thought

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The notion that a train ride is conducive to writing is hardly, well, novel. Something about the isolation of the berth, the sway of the cabin, and the sweep of the landscape encourages ideas or, at least, blocks out distractions. So it’s welcome news for writers — and possibly for readers — that Amtrak has launched a fledgling residency program, offering free train rides for the express purpose of writing.

The idea came, indirectly, from the novelist Alexander Chee, who made an offhand wish for an Amtrak residency in an interview with Pen America magazine. When Chee’s idea took off on social media, Amtrak was listening. This winter, the train service gave New York-based writer Jessica Gross a free trip on the Lakeshore Limited from New York to Chicago and back. Chee has booked his own trip from New York to Portland, Ore., this spring.

The cost to Amtrak is limited — one free ticket per writer — and the tradeoffs are minimal. Amtrak has asked writers to tweet and blog about their journeys if they see fit, and to answer a Q&A for the Amtrak website at the end of their visits. Yes, it’s good promotion for railway travel. But it’s likely that most of these writers, like Chee, would be gushing about trains anyway, for free.

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