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5 reasons a writer might decline to apply for the #AmtrakResidency program

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This month has seen a lot of excitement over the newly launched #AmtrakResidency program, which gets a hashtag for a name because the idea to offer writers fully paid residencies aboard a cross-country sleeper car arose from a conversation on Twitter. For a writer who enjoys taking her work on the rails, the offer to do so for 2 to 5 days with sleeper accommodations on Amtrak's dime can sound like a dream come true. But there's nevertheless good reason to think hard before getting your application in by the March 31 deadline.

The dining car isn't quite like your favorite coffee shop.
The dining car isn't quite like your favorite coffee shop. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (public domain)

The dining car isn't quite like your favorite coffee shop.

The residency involves being in transit for up to 120 uninterrupted hours. It sounds like a no brainer, but if you're going to apply for a chance to win an expensive train ticket, you'd better enjoy using that train ticket. I adore writing on trains, but I know of people who can't stand it. Trains often run late, the restrooms are cramped and tend toward entropy, using the showers requires a certain amount of physical agility, the roomettes are best described as well-appointed closets, and there is an inescapable amount of background noise and commotion.

Also, there's other people. If you write in a coffee shop, and barista's choice of music or a small child's behavior changes your writing environment from productive to impossible, you can simply go home. If you are on a train, your escape avenues are more restricted. Yes, the sleeper accommodations that the #AmtrakResidency program will provide do afford some privacy, but they do not make the rest of the activity in your car disappear entirely. (I can here attest that, train fan as I am, I have acquired certain negative associations with that station in Memphis. People who board the City of New Orleans in the middle of the night do not appear to realize that it's called a sleeper car for a reason.) And though your meals come for free, they are community-style seating, and sometimes you just don't want to spend your mealtime making small talk with strangers who feel entitled to know every personal detail about you and your trip. (Dear Amtrak: Writers are often introverts.)

I'd be the last to try to argue you out of your writing retreat on rails, understand. Two or three times a year I pay good money to see the country by rail and take the slow, scenic route to my destination. In the coach car, Gods help me. But for many people, the irritations endemic to this trip will outweigh the enjoyment. Be reasonably sure you're not in their number before you apply for the #AmtrakResidency program.

A scenic view of Chicago Union Station.
A scenic view of Chicago Union Station. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (public domain)

A scenic view of Chicago Union Station.

You're seeing places, but you're not really going there. If you're a fan of train travel like I am, this might not bother you, but it's worth pointing out that you're vying for a chance to spend time on trains, not to take the train to some fabulous vacation spot. As Natalie Burg points out, Jessica Gross (the recipient of the pilot residency) pretty much got off the train in Chicago and got right back on the return train to New York. Again, if you're in it purely for the chance to spend several days writing while looking out a train window, this won't be a problem for you. But for some people that would be a disappointment.

All alone in your sleeper compartment: But will you write?
All alone in your sleeper compartment: But will you write? U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (public domain)

All alone in your sleeper compartment: But will you write?

If you already have problems finding time to write, it's possible that a train trip won't solve your problems. Another point Burg makes is that there's a lot of unearned romance bound up in the idea of writing on trains, and the idea of getting away to write in general. "Writing isn't that romantic," she says. "It's a thing you make time to do when you want to do it badly enough." In other words, if you aren't already in good habits of making time for writing in your daily life, it's likely you'll find yourself avoiding writing while you're on your dream train ride. I say this as a veteran procrastinator who has spent hours aboard the California Zephyr playing Plants vs. Zombies while critiqued copies of a short story languished, unreviewed, in my bookbag.

Now, I'm not one of those Tough Love For Writers advocates who's all about how Real Writers Get Up At 4:00 a.m. And Don't Make Excuses, Rawr! Life is chaotic, and sometimes time simply can't be made. But, that said, if you truly can't find time to write in your day-to-day, you might have a hard time stealing a week for your #AmtrakResidency. (But, that said, if you can, rock on with your bad self. You deserve a vacation.)

Imagine yourself as a very remote part of Amtrak's PR team...
Imagine yourself as a very remote part of Amtrak's PR team... David Gubler (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Imagine yourself as a very remote part of Amtrak's PR team...

Amtrak isn't really looking for writers; they're looking for social media advocates. It's a fine distinction, true. But if you examine the application, you might come away with the suspicion that they're inordinately interested in your ability to promote Amtrak on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Now, this isn't bad in and of itself. I certainly wouldn't mind being paid in free rail fare to spread the word about the awesomeness of train travel. I love train travel, I love being on trains, and I want the rest of the U.S. to get on board with the idea that train travel is worth investing in. But at the same time I've got to face the likelihood that the #AmtrakResidency program is primarily an advertising and promotion venture.

I could be surprised. Please, ten years from now, please make me eat my words as Amtrak proves itself a great patron of the literary arts. That would make me happy. Just, for now, I'm not banking my heart on it.

What you write while looking at this view is yours. What you write when you apply, on the other hand...
What you write while looking at this view is yours. What you write when you apply, on the other hand... U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (public domain)

What you write while looking at this view is yours. What you write when you apply, on the other hand...

The Official Terms of the program are not author friendly. I saved this for last because it's the big one. Multiple writers and writer organizations took a close look at the fine print and were disappointed, even alarmed. Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware looks askance at Section 6, and so I must admit do I. Its current iteration begins as follows:

In submitting an Application, Applicant hereby grants Sponsor the absolute, worldwide, and irrevocable right to use, modify, publish, publicly display, distribute, and copy Applicant's Application, in whole or in part, for any purpose, including, but not limited to, advertising and marketing, and to sublicense such rights to any third parties.

This applies not only to your contact info (which, it were all, would be bad enough!) and to your answers to such questions as "How would this residency benefit your writing?" but also to the writing sample you are required to upload. This right there gives the lie to Amtrak's claim that "There is no cost to apply for the #AmtrakResidency program." The cost to apply is to give up all rights to a piece of your writing. To a working writer, this is a demand that we give up the product of our business for free with no guarantee of anything in exchange--for a lottery ticket, as Janni Lee Simner rightly summarizes.

This is a distressingly common request that writers have to put up with, because for some reason our work is not as universally understood to be worth compensation the way, say, a plumber's is, or a even a publisher's. Tee Morris's sarcastic, even scolding response to writers' and writer advocates' concerns can be seen as a symptom of that bias against writers valuing their own work. Writers ourselves are obviously not immune to that bias. Worse, we're prone to making ourselves feel better about that anti-work-valuing bias by embracing it in order to prove ourselves less naive than those crybabies whining about rights grabs.

Now, Morris argues that "Well, if you get the #AmtrakResidency, you're getting a free train ride across the country. And it's round-trip. If goods or services of some kind are exchanging hands, you are getting paid." But that's not what's happening here. You're exchanging those "absolute, worldwide, and irrevocable" rights not for goods and services but for a very slim chance to win goods and services. It would be one thing if these terms only applied to those selected to actually receive an #AmtrakResidency. But they don't. They apply to everyone who applies, from the moment you submit the application. So thousands of writers are actually giving away those rights in exchange for nothing at all.

(If Morris would like to scold me as roundly as she scolds Diane Duane for valuing my work more highly than she approves of, or for using more italics than she deems appropriate, well, she's free to. I appreciate any occasion to keep company with an author I admire as much as Duane.)

Back around March 12, word was that Amtrak was going to fix clause 6 to make it more author-friendly. For a brief time, Amtrak disabled the file upload portion of the form. But as you can see, everything's back in place and nothing has changed. And in the end, Amtrak simply have no incentive to change their official terms at the behest of writer advocates. They've already got upward of 8,000 applications submitted under the terms as is.

It can be argued that Amtrak surely doesn't intend to exploit their newly acquired rights of upward of 8,000 applications. Surely they only intend to publish some nice answers to "Why Do You Want an Amtrak Residency?" Amtrak's Social Media Director, Julia Quinn, confirms these benign intentions. The Wire quotes her as saying that "the idea would be to potentially use the applications as a way to promote the program," which could include "[featuring] the selected residents with an excerpt from their application.... This would happen through a conversation with the applicant."

But the problem, as Strauss points out, is that intentions, assumed or stated, aren't legally binding. Your relationship with Amtrak when you submit your application is governed by the actual terms of the agreement, not by the intentions behind them. And despite what Quinn says, there is no requirement in the terms as written that Amtrak have that "conversation with the applicant." You grant those "absolute, worldwide, and irrevocable" rights the moment you push the SUBMIT button.

In that Wire article, Quinn goes on to reassure us that Amtrak is "not in the business of publishing." But that's not quite true. Amtrak publishes Arrive Magazine, "the magazine for northeast business travelers." Rather than throw away your writing sample as the cost of entering the #AmtrakResidency lottery, you could potentially sell them an article and put the resulting check towards the price of two-way roomette accommodations between Denver and San Francisco.

And if they don't buy the article, you can try to publish it elsewhere, because reputable publishers do not claim rights to those submitted manuscripts which they have declined to publish.

If you take nothing else away from this article, please, take away this: Value your work, writers. Value it enough to sell it dearly, for guaranteed professional rates, under professional contracts with favorable terms. You do not owe anyone your writing for free.

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