When you think about the traditional writer’s retreat, perhaps you envision a quiet, secluded resort somewhere out in the woods, far away from the distractions of the civilized world.
To me, that sounds more like a good place to take a nap than to work on your novel. Besides, why limit yourself to a single location when you can experience the ever-changing scenery of a do-it-yourself writer’s retreat on rails?
In 2013, Amtrak announced its writer’s residency program, giving writers a chance to hone their creative craft while riding along one of the rail giant’s long-distance routes. Unfortunately, by the time I heard about the program, the application period had long since ended. But I didn’t let that derail (sorry) my plans. Instead, I decided to create my own private rail-bound residency, and it turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had as a writer. How was it rewarding? Read on.
When I started planning my trip, I wanted to go somewhere I’d never been. I also wanted to be sure I’d have enough time to get solid writing done. But when you’ve got young kids at home like I do, you can’t afford to get away for more than a couple days.
The key is to get ample time to write. I ended up choosing a route that would give me approximately five hours each way, with an overnight stay at a destination that interested me – Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I ended up compiling material for an article about the general experience of writing on a train and about things to do in Harrisburg.
When I got on the train, I sat in coach. I’d never been on a train before, so I picked the first seat that was available. Later when I got up to stretch my legs, I discovered the café car and decided to relocate there. Not only does it offer a better view from both sides of the train, but the space is more heavily trafficked and offers more opportunity to meet a variety of travelers, including a guy traveling across the country by train from New York to Utah. (Talk about some solid writing time.) If you’re anything like me, even if you’re not engaged in a conversation, the background activity provides the perfect level of white noise for writing à la your corner coffee shop. Besides, it’s closer to the coffee (and wine), which is always a plus.
I had so many tasks I wanted to accomplish when I set out on my trip: Write a blog post (or three), work on my book, make a list of writing goals for the rest of the year, catch up on reading. While I managed to accomplish a little of each, my time would have been better spent if I’d made a detailed plan and then focused on just one or two things. Before you climb aboard, be judicious about choosing writing projects you’ve been putting off, and then do your best to stay focused and productive. In my case, the passing scenery sparked creativity, and the uninterrupted, oh-so-valuable alone time helped me focus on my writing, which is not so easy when you’re a stay-at-home-dad freelancer.
A train ride provides beautiful scenery that transforms with every click-
clack on the track. This ever-changing background can be inspiring, and it can get creative juices flowing. It also means you can waste a lot of time daydreaming. Most writers are easily distracted – which can be helpful for gestating ideas. So go ahead, enjoy the view and let it inspire you. Just remember the real purpose of your trip: writing.
When I was choosing the stop for my overnight stay, I wanted to go somewhere I knew nothing about. I wanted mystery. I wanted adventure. And going somewhere new really appealed to my inner explorer. Harrisburg may not sound glamorous as a destination, but it suited me perfectly because it was manageable.
After getting off the train, I spent the afternoon walking around the city, taking in the sights – the state capitol building, the Cathedral of St. Patrick, the Midtown Scholar Bookstore – talking to locals about the best places to eat and must-see attractions and gathering notes for potential blog posts and magazine articles. I felt like an explorer in a foreign land, searching for hidden treasures to write about and share with others. It was exhilarating. Even my hotel was an adventure. It was in a seedy area far from downtown, with no wifi and no nearby restaurants. Worst of all, there was no hotel bar, which is always a great place to strike up conversations that can lead to even more writing ideas.
The next morning, I set up shop in a local indie coffee house and, consulting my notes from the previous day, penned the first draft of a travel piece that I planned to pitch to regional magazines.
Later that afternoon, I hopped back on the train and headed home, making the most of the final few hours by drafting a new blog post and making a list of other rail residencies I’d like to take in the future.
If you’ve been looking to get away from it all and have some solid, uninterrupted time to focus on your writing, a do-it-yourself writer’s residency on rails is an effective option. I knew writing on a train would be fun, but I never imagined how inspiring it would be, not too mention how much work I’d get done in such a brief time. It was truly an adventure. And a productive one, at that.
Valentine J. Brkich is a freelance writer from Beaver, Pennsylvania.
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