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maura @ 9:37 am

By now everyone has seen the news about Amtrak’s writing residency trips, right? It’s been all over mah twitterz, though since I (unsurprisingly) follow a whole pile o’ academics* and journalists and other writerly folks perhaps that’s just me. There was this article about the joys of writing on trains,** then this one about the practicalities of the whole residency thing. Both are fascinating.

* Shocking, I know, that academics would even use twitter, because we don’t like to talk to anyone but ourselves. Nope, we don’t blog in multiple places or have websites for our research projects or send op-eds to the Times (to get rejected) or nothing, why would you think that? </Kristof rant>

** Though I have to say, her trip on the Lake Shore Limited sounded much more pleasant than when Jonathan and I took the train to Chicago many (eep, more than 15?!) years ago. That’s the sleeper car for you — 18 hrs (one-way, with delays) in the cheap seats was, at times, somewhat unpleasant.

I am, as regular readers know, a huge fan of both train travel and writing on trains. When I think about the writing I’ve done in the past almost-6 (next month!) years since I’ve been a full-time librarian + professor, what I’ve written on train trips stands out. It was on one of our 9 hour Amtrak odysseys to northern Vermont to visit family that I wrote the very first IRB application for what ended up being our huge (because we couldn’t stop collecting data, it was so interesting) research project on how commuter college students do their academic work. I took the train to DC and back a few years ago for a conference, and wrote several blog posts and other small things. And the first book proposal that emerged from the aforementioned research project was also (partially) written on the train, when I took a trip up to Saratoga Springs for another conference. Last month I took the train to Delaware for a family thing and also got lots of writing work done, this time on the theory part of chapter 1 of the book, which was particularly challenging to write. The train helped.

I love writing on trains for all of the same reasons the author of the Paris Review piece does. Travel by train is so pleasant, compared to other forms of travel, that it seems to free up more mental space to accomplish other things. Perhaps most importantly (though also perhaps most difficult to describe), there’s the suspended animation dreamtime aspect of train travel. The time component is critical: with a set amount of time to write, it’s easier to write (that’s why people use pomodoros and all of those other writing strategies). Also, on a train you are physically moving forward: if you get stuck or need to take a break it’s easy to look out the window and let the pleasant scenery rush through your brain and unstick you. On the quiet car it is even more awesome, because there tend to be other folks who are writing (and as the students who participated in our study were quick to tell us, it’s easier to work when the people around you are working too).

All of which has me wondering when my next train trip will be. Really I’d love for us never to fly or drive again when we travel anywhere east of the Mississippi river, but unfortunately train travel is still a smidge too expensive for that to happen in all cases (esp. the sleeper car, and esp. now that the kid is big enough that he’d need his own room). But it’s worth researching for sure.

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