Train of thought

Writer Marianne Kirby was one of the first people to hold a writer’s residency on America’s national rail system, Amtrak, in 2014. She shares what spending her days writing on a train across America actually felt like.

Writer Marianne Kirby was one of the first people to hold a writer’s residency on America’s national rail system, Amtrak, in 2014. She shares what spending her days writing on a train across America actually felt like.

The first question people ask when they find out I spent almost two weeks travelling on Amtrak is whether or not the rocking of the train helped me sleep. No-one asks whether or not it was hard to stay awake.

When I stepped onto the train and the porter helped me into the cabin that would be my home for the first leg of my journey, I had great plans to start writing immediately. Instead, I fell asleep almost as soon as we left the station.

Four nearly-identical versions of that tiny room were going to serve as my home for the next 6,750 miles. I’d been selected to take part in the inaugural 2014 Amtrak writer’s residency. The programme was born on Twitter, after novelist Alexander Chee mentioned in an interview that he liked to write on trains.

Jessica Gross, a freelance writer, tweeted at Amtrak suggesting a residency – and Amtrak tweeted back. After Gross’s test run, Amtrak began organising a larger effort. Twenty-four writers were chosen out of 16,000 applicants the first year, each riding on a self-designed, long-haul trip, using the time as we saw fit.

My route started in New Orleans, where I took the Sunset Limited to Los Angeles. From there, I took the Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Seattle. Then I rode the same route back.

At the time, I was a full-time editor with a freelance writing side-hustle and a couple of unfinished novels. I worked to hit day-job deadlines and stockpile paying articles.

I had scheduled almost every minute of my day around work of some sort. I was edging into burnout territory and knew it. I had vague memories of sleeping through the night, but during that period, I was more likely to wake every hour or so.

When I heard about the residency programme, I knew I had to apply, even if it was just as a daydream. I never win anything, I told myself.

Even after I’d made it to the second round with my writing sample, I cultivated as much calm and distance as I could. There was just so much hype over the residency that being chosen seemed impossible. I dreamed about trains, though, remembering the darkness of my teenaged bedroom and how the whistle of the train passing by woke me up in the middle of the night. That sound became a kind of comfort, and I missed it when I moved away.

Some practical details seem necessary, because train travel is actually a very practical situation. Every inch of space has to have the kind of efficiency you usually only find in those model IKEA apartments. But also comfortable, as you spend a considerable portion of your trip in the space.

The Amtrak Superliner Roomette is three-and-a-half feet by six-and-a-half feet, about the same size as the room I’d reserve overnight for my dog at the fancy dog boarding place. Two seats face each other with a fold-down table in between. A large picture window keeps it feeling open and ensures a good view.

The table slides away and the seats get pulled down to convert into a lower berth. The upper berth pulls down from above. Each sleeper compartment has a porter assigned to it, who converts the berths for passengers at night and then puts them away in the morning, so you don’t have to figure out the mystery behind the disappearing trick.

Neither berth will give you as much room as a twin bed. The thin mattresses, with their striped covers, reminded me of cots at a summer camp.

My first day on the train, I sat in my cabin and stared out the window. I’d had great plans for pulling out my laptop and getting right to work. Instead, I felt pressed into my seat by momentum, pushed back into the upholstery by all the effort it had taken to get there. As the train picked up speed, I slumped down in my chair and watched the landscape change.

Once you’re seated and comfortable, the sense of the rocking train car – unless you’re prone to motion sickness – is likely to fade. It becomes the same sort of soothing white noise that a ceiling fan or an air-conditioner generates. The constant rhythm is your heart and your blood and your pulse.

At slower speeds, the country outside the train pulls you with it and, if you’re tired, tells you that it’s just fine to rest. It’s different from the way the highway dulls your senses, where you can only focus on the blur.

So I rested. My laptop stayed in its case. My eyes were open and my hands were empty of any busy task. My eyes were closed and my head was full. I dozed and woke in half-hour cycles until the porter came to create my bed.

Even though I slept for most of the first day, I woke up every day thereafter with bubbling energy and excitement, the speed of the train reflecting my rushing thoughts.

The routine of the people working on the train shaped my days and nights. The sleeping car attendants are responsible for everything passengers might need – they answer questions, serve meals and drinks before dinner, prepare and put away those magic berths, provide luggage service. They’re busy.

If the attendant can put up and pull down all the beds in any given car around the same time, that’s at least one thing they can check off their never-ending to-do list. I was happy to comply with the voluntary programme, but for me that meant both going to bed and getting up earlier than usual.

After two days of the new routine, with another eight travel days ahead of me, I was well on my way to getting accustomed, even though I’d always thought of myself as a night owl. There was no wifi, no cell signal, just the train, the miles travelled, and the sunlight to tell me when it was time to sleep and when it was time to be awake.

Absent any other schedule, time stops mattering all that much. I napped and I wrote. I marked what day it was by where I was on the journey. I woke up on the Coast Starlight in the mountains of Oregon. The view was nothing but huge trees covered in snow and I knew it was probably a Saturday.

Another day I blinked awake, out of some of the soundest and most peaceful sleep I’ve ever enjoyed. In the quiet of everyone else sleeping and dreaming, I could feel that I was making my way back home. But there was none of the pressure that usually comes with the end of a vacation. There was no racing need to stay awake and fit in more experiences.

When I felt the tide-like pull of the train going around a tight switchback curve, I rolled over in the safe shell of my compartment, obeying the will of the tracks. I suspect my fellow passengers did the same.

I got off the train in New Orleans, where I’d started a full 10 days earlier, with a completed novel draft and the clearest head I’d had in a long time. I was already thinking of what answers I’d give when people asked me what I did on the train for that long. Somehow the truth didn’t seem like enough. So I focused on the little bit of time I’d spent off the train instead, told people about meeting with friends in different cities, like that was the point of the experience.

It’s been two years and the next batch of residents are on their own journeys. Now, when I’m asked what I did with the journey, I’m honest – I got to step outside of time for a little while. I did a lot of writing. But I also slept, and I appreciated that sleep like the gift it was.

Marianne Kirby is a writer and editor. Dust Bath Revival is her first novel.

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