A frequent business traveler on Amtrak’s Boston-New York route told me the following story. Early in the trip he’d go to the cafe car to buy a coffee, and the woman behind the counter asked if he had small bills. Since it was the beginning of the route, the train not yet full, he wondered why the cafe had already run out of fives and ones. He expected that, as happens in most other bar or restaurant venues, the need to make change is anticipated and small bills are procured in advance. After this happened several times, he suggested to this employee that she ask her boss for small bills at the start of the trip to make life easier for all. For whatever reason, she did not. At one point, this frequent rider and exceptionally good citizen of the rails got annoyed, went to the bank, and obtained $200 in small bills. He brought them aboard on his next trip and offered to exchange them for larger denominations in the Amtrak cafe car.
This same employee refused.
I don’t wish to pick on this particular employee, but to point that this tiny scenario is being replayed on a larger, public scale, in the Amtrak Residency fiasco. As many sages have said over the years, “How you do anything is how you do everything”. In this case “you” is an entity, and the wisdom still applies. Here are the elements of this initial microcosm: there is a lack of preparedness, a problem results, a solution is offered, the solution is rejected.
Just as it’s a good idea to have a cafe car on a train, it was a great idea to have a writers residency on Amtrak. Yet, the needs and expectations of the writers, to maintain legal rights over the content of their application, were overlooked or simply not considered. Ditto for the needs of commuters who want a fast cuppa so they can get back to work, and don’t want to fish around or wait for change, week after week. In the case of the residency, this lack of anticipation resulted in troubling language (see my earlier post), whereby Amtrak retains universal rights, not just to successful applicants’ submissions but to all submissions, and can edit, disseminate and do what they want with them. For writers who have worked hard to find their voice, the idea of giving even a paragraph away, let alone a 10 page writing sample, to a corporation who might use it for their own marketing purposes, unattributed and uncompensated, is a very, very big problem.
Solutions have been offered. Novelist Alexander Chee, the man who brainstormed the idea of the residency, has Tweeted that he’s been in touch with Amtrak to ask them to rewrite the terms. And many other writers, via tweets and blog posts, have implored Amtrak to do the right thing. It’s as if everyone is waving small bills at Amtrak, offering to make change.
In an interview with thewire.com, Amtrak’s Social Media Director Julia Quinn said that, “We are not in the business of publishing. Instead, we provide the creative and inspirational environment in which these works are created.” Regardless of her conciliatory remarks, the original, troubling language on the application stands stubbornly, like the cafe car employee, refusing to trade her tens and twenties for singles, refusing to consider that there might be another way of doing things that would benefit all. One could say that Amtrak is also not in the business of efficiently selling coffee yet it provides the “creative and inspirational environment” in which to consume hot beverages.
To the thousands of people who have already applied for this residency under the initial terms, have you ever considered that “how you do anything is how you everything”? Do you let the thought of winning something, anything, precipitate hasty action? Do you often prefer fantasy to the reality in the fine print? I hope, rather than being on autopilot, you consciously chose to cede control over your work for the chance at a $900 train ride on a railway with a rusty reputation. And if you are one of the winners, I hope you’re not so naive to expect that everything will go smoothly on your trip. While Amtrak will likely cover your meals, it might not pay for midnight snacks to fuel a writing binge. At the very least, be sure to bring small bills. It might not hurt to pack your own toilet paper, either.