I was excited, too, when I saw Alexander Chee's story about his offhand remark that resulted in a sweet train ride--during which he was free to write or revise, stare out the window as the country rolled by, or nibble on free food, delivered at appropriate intervals, to his "suite." I mean, who wouldn't want that?
[PS, there's a TL;DR at the bottom, if you're that sort.]
I even tweeted at Amtrak, immediately afterward. I am supposed to do some research in Florida and Virginia--and have no idea in the world how I will finance either, but there's a train between them. How perfect would that be? I could even write up my notes from one while on the way to the other--hard to do when driving your own car down the highway.
Except, that's not what's on offer here.
I'm not even talking about the terrible item #6 in the terms & condition of the application which Amtrak has totally not at all remedied in any legal way (or the ominous paragraph that precedes six, which not everyone is even noting--but which essentially alleviates any of Amtrak's liability if Amtrak's marketing team just happens to produces copy that is similar or identical to what you sent them).
When was the last time a residency application asked for your Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram links?
Instead of your writing being the most important part of your Amtrak application, your analytics will be. How many friends, how many retweets: what is your reach potential? Good lord--maybe even...your effing Klout scores?! (At least someone will be looking at those, I guess.)
You will be judged not on your ability to move people with your writing, but on your ability to sell people on the idea of train travel. They will look at your profile pictures, the comments that have been left on your posts--are you exciting and do you instantiate conversation? Are you... marketable? Will your selfies be good for the brand, or bad for the brand ifyougetwhatimean? Is your network a valuable market?
Can you work for Amtrak for five days--with only room and board for pay? They have already received over 8,000 applications.
But real residencies provide the gift of time because they support artists and writers--even though that support almost never makes them any money. Amtrak is providing twenty-four $900 train tickets so that it can mine two dozen social media portfolios for new creative copy.
And an army of writers are so starved for even just five days of time to write without cost--that to many, this looks like a good deal. Damn, it looked like a good deal to me, at first too, so I get it. It's been a really hard winter, you know?
But, seriously. If Amtrak had a job posting for a creative writer to join its marketing team, you know, with an actual salary and benefits--that would be worth applying to. Instead, all they have to do is shell out around $21,000 and they get twenty-four brand-new on-the-job trying-to-impress-the-boss publicists. Unlike actual creative employees, who are traditionally a pain in the ass. And if this lark doesn't really increase revenue, they can just drop it. Unlike an actual employee, who they'd have to go to the trouble of firing.
And UP TO NINE HUNDRED DOLLARS for a trip that will last on average 5 days? This is guaranteed to fail, because that rent is too damn high. This program will only underscore just how out of reach train travel has become for most people. Yes, there's the ambiance of the rattling cars and the movie of the landscape that rolls by like old film--but that sort of thing appeals to a very particular type of person (artists) who are not usually the type to have a grand lying around for one week's worth of one-way travel. I mean, if you can afford the train, why on earth wouldn't you fly and spend the extra money by the hotel pool?
TL; DR: Other companies will co-opt your social media skills for actual compensation. Search them out, instead.