Amtrak sponsors train residency


Kendall Levison

During long commutes and travel, there are typically at least a couple people typing furiously on their laptop, perhaps doing some of their most efficient work of the day. Among those passengers spotted could be three NYU professors, recently selected to be a part of a residency program by Amtrak that allows writers to go on a long train ride and write. 

Farai Chideya of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, Jeff Stanley of the Tisch School of the Arts and Darin Strauss of the CAS Creative Writing Program were chosen to participate in the program.

Starting last December, writer Alexander Chee mentioned in an interview that he enjoyed writing on trains so much, he wished Amtrak sponsored a residency. The idea eventually gained enough traction on Twitter that Amtrak took up the call to make Chee’s dream a reality.

The program’s inspiration resonated with Stanley, who recently moved to Philadelphia. Despite his trepidation about having a two-hour commute to and from New York, Stanley found that the time affords the opportunity to accomplish many things. 

“I realized I loved [the commute],” Stanley said. “It’s like my little private world to grade papers in, do my own writing.”

All of the writers will be traveling for about a week on one of Amtrak’s 17 named routes, although their itineraries are still under discussion.

Chideya, who has visited about 26 countries and 48 states, was drawn to the adventurous nature of the program.

“I love train travel and thought this would be a kick,” Chideya said.

For Strauss, the program offered the opportunity to go back in time to when long-distance train travel was the norm.

“I’d never been in one of those sleeper cabins on trains, and I’d just seen old movies where it looked fun,” Strauss said.

Chideya, who reported from Los Angeles and New Orleans while working for NPR, hopes to take the Sunset Limited, which begins in New Orleans and winds almost 2,000 miles through the Southwest before ending in Los Angeles.

“There’s something evocative about that route, because a lot of Creole people from Louisiana moved to Los Angeles,” Chideya said.

Stanley settled on the California Zephyr, which stops in Colorado, Utah and Nebraska on its way from San Francisco to Chicago. Strauss said he will go to the West Coast.

“I wanted to pick something in a part of the country that I’m least familiar with,” Stanley said.

Amtrak is not asking writers to produce any specific piece of work on their trip, and the program’s NYU participants plan to take advantage of that freedom. While Strauss and Stanley say they plan to work on projects they have already started — a novel and a screenplay, respectively — Chideya hopes to produce original travel articles and possibly radio segments about her journey.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Oct. 6 print edition. Email Kendall Levison at [email protected].