Saturday, February 22, 2014

Pens, Trains, and Residencies

A few years ago, I entered a contest for a $10,000 prize at ING. The competition's mission was to honor (and help fund) the saving goals of ten ING customers.

And, oh, I had a plan. A semester in Europe spent scooting from point A (London) to points B through Z (where in Europe did I NOT go?) while alternating between looking out the window, doing my homework, and writing and writing and writing in a journal had ignited a passion for writing while traveling. Specifically writing while the clickety clacka clickety clack went on beneath me. Oh, heaven. 

But rail travel in the US is expensive.

F'expensive, some might even say. 

Every time I have to go to New York, I go to the Amtrak website, look at the three figure round trip cost, battle with how much I want to buy it, and then end up buying a ticket on one of those torturous megaboltChinatown buses. I've taken the odd rail trip. The photo above is on the commuter rail from Boston to Fitchburg and back on my birthday a few years back.(Why, yes, I DID choose to spend my birthday afternoon all alone on a dingy commuter rail so I could write. Writers are odd ducks, ain't they?) And I've taken the line between Boston and Maine to go meet a friend specifically so that I could have a round trip of writing bookending the outing,. But anytime I look into doing the same now, I look at the price of a roundtrip between Boston and NYC and almost always talk myself out of it by arguing--very reasonably--that I can work in a library for free. Which is most certainly true. I can. But there's no clickety clacka clickety clack in a library. 

So I saw the ING contest as an opportunity.

I'd always dreamed of a cross-country train trip in a sleeper car, and here was my chance to start saving for one. Wouldn't this be the best possible reward for finishing my book? What could be better than doing the final copyedit of my book while the world literally rolls by my window? OK, wait. Not literally rolling by because technically I'm the one doing the rolling, but you can see why writing on a train feels so magical. I"m imagining people and worlds acting out dramas in my head while the world seems to roll past my window. Writing on a train is like the world bending to the imaginative power of the writer. And in a world where the writer's ability to explore truth imaginatively is less revered than the scientist's ability to imagine new technology or the stockbroker's ability to imagine new ways to boost wealth, that kind of acceptance is close enough to magic for me. 

So I tinted my existing train photo orange (a  requirement was a photo that featured orange) and entered ING's contest gleefully: Here's my entry essay with the boring financial savings information redacted: 

"In 2004, I left my journalism career to pursue a master’s in creative writing. After graduation I started writing a novel, but two years later I’d only written a hundred pages. Clearly, I needed some serious motivation.
I’d already fallen in love with the power automated transfers have to turn saving intentions into reality. Could ING help me finish my novel?
I opened a writing savings account...(boring savings information cut from this paragraph). But it’s not just having to write to “earn” the money I’ve already paid myself that makes my ING writing account such a powerful motivational tool. When my draft is done, the money in the account will fund my dream reward: I’m taking my train-lovin’ self on a luxury, cross-country Amtrak trip. As the wheels chug-chug-chug their hypnotic rhythm, I’ll reread my draft, plan for the revision, and take breaks to watch all the mountains, deserts, and bright city lights we’re speeding right past.
And with the money leftover after the cross-country adventure, I’ll fund a writing class here, a conference there. With ING’s help, I’ll not only bolster my discipline but finally have a reliable budget for writing expenses." 

Needless to say, I wasn't one of the ten people funded by the contest. And really, I shouldn't have been. The essay's not great and my dream didn't capture the imagination of the every man in the same way that some of the mother's dreams for their kids did. And that's fair. But the idea of a cross country train ride certainly captured my imagination. Years later when I found out that there was an Amtrak credit card that paid in points toward Amtrak tickets, I couldn't sock away points fast enough! At some point when I'm old and gray I'll likely have enough points to book a round-trip sleeper car across the country, and I'll keep using that card until I do just that.

But you can imagine how thrilled I was to learn that Amtrak is in the process of making such rolling writing residencies an actual bonafide capital-T Thing. Though thrilled doesn't exactly cover my reaction. Every vital organ in my torso came to a screeching halt...but in a good way. Put another way: If I were a puppy, I'd have piddled the floor in my excitement.

The Amtrak writing residency program is too new for such things as applications to be submitted or breathless phone calls for more information to be made. A writer (did I mention I was a writer?) might even call the program inchoate, embryonic, incipient, nascent, or, as a British friend of mine might say, it's "early days yet."

But it's not too early to dream, is it? This piddling puppy thinks not. Now if you'll excuse me I've got a carpet to clean.