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On Travel

Writing the Lake Shore Limited

February 19, 2014 | by

Trains as writers’ garrets.


A postwar ad for the Pennsylvania Railroad.

I am in a little sleeper cabin on a train to Chicago. Framing the window are two plush seats; between them is a small table that you can slide up and out. Its top is a chessboard. Next to one of the chairs is a seat whose top flips up to reveal a toilet, and above that is a “Folding Sink”—something like a Murphy bed with a spigot. There are little cups, little towels, a tiny bar of soap. A sliding door pulls closed and locks with a latch; you can draw the curtains, as I have done, over the two windows pointing out to the corridor. The room is 3’6” by 6’8”. It is efficient and quaint. I am ensconced.

I’m only here for the journey. Soon after I get to Chicago, I’ll board a train and come right back to New York: thirty-nine hours in transit—forty-four, with delays. And I’m here to write: I owe this trip to Alexander Chee, who said in his PEN Ten interview that his favorite place to work was on the train. “I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers,” he said. I did, too, so I tweeted as much, as did a number of other writers; Amtrak got involved and ended up offering me a writers’ residency “test run.” (Disclaimer disclaimed: the trip was free.)

So here I am.

Why do writers find the train such a fruitful work environment? In the wake of Chee’s interview, Evan Smith Rakoff tweeted, “I’ve been on Amtrak a lot lately & love writing while traveling—a set, uninterrupted deadline.” The writer Anne Korkeakivi described train travel as “suspended impregnable time,” combined with “dreamy” forward motion: “like a mantra, it greases the brain.”

In a 2009 piece for The Millions, Emily St. John Mandel describes working on a novel during her morning commute on the New York City subway. “It felt like extra time,” she writes. “I began scrawling fragments of the third novel on folded-up wads of scrap paper, using a book as my desk.” Mandel polled around and found other writers used the subway as a workspace, too. Julie Klam: “Part of the reason I like it is because it has a very distinct end. It’s not like having six hours at home. I tend to have great bursts of inspiration that last about six stops.” Mark Snyder: “I think the act of working, surrounded by other people living their lives, can be quite a compelling act for yourself. It makes me feel less alone.”

These reasons are all undergirded by a sense of safety, borne of boundaries. I’ve always been a claustrophile, and I think that explains some of the appeal—the train is bounded, compartmentalized, and cozily small, like a carrel in a college library. Everything has its place. The towel goes on the ledge beneath the mirror; the sink goes into its hole in the wall; during the day, the bed, which slides down from overhead, slides up into a high pocket of space. There is comfort in the certainty of these arrangements. The journey is bounded, too: I know when it will end. Train time is found time. My main job is to be transported; any reading or writing is extracurricular. The looming pressure of expectation dissolves. And the movement of a train conjures the ultimate sense of protection—being a baby, rocked in a bassinet.

Writing requires a dip into the subconscious. The lockbox, at times kept tightly latched in our daily lives, is pried open, and things leak onto the page that we only half knew were there. Boundaries help to contain this fearful experience, thereby allowing it to occur. Looking around at my fellow passengers gives me an anchor to the world: my fantasies, my secret desires, aren’t going to get anyone killed. We’re all okay here; we’re all here, here.

* * *

My father is a foamer. That’s the technical term for a rail fan so enthusiastic he foams at the mouth at the sight of a train. There’s a black-and-white photograph of my dad as a child in a onesie, his nose in a book called Wheels and Noises. When I was growing up, he routinely spent weekends “chasing trains,” or driving alongside impressive steam engines and hopping out of the car to film them chugging by. (He still does this.)

His dream, I think, was for my brother and me to grow into fellow foamers. But whereas my dad was fascinated with the mechanics of trains (“note the slender pipes pointing toward the rail in front of each drive wheel,” he wrote in one of his “Train Picture of the Day” e-mails), my “foaming” is pure emotion. His fascination is with the train itself. My fascination is with me on the train.

My father was so dedicated to his passion that he made trains his job. Throughout my childhood, he traveled weekly to Indiana to manage a particular product line within a freight transportation company: vehicles that were equipped to travel on both road and rail. Something like two decades ago, when my brother and I were children, we accompanied my dad on a trip to the headquarters of his company. On the way home, we rode the Lake Shore Limited, the train I’m on now.

Here are my scattered sense memories of that trip: a sleeper cabin shared with my brother. We slept in bunk beds; my dad slept across the hall. Dinner in the dining car; delight in the compactness and efficiency of our little cabin. A desire to live on this train—but, underneath that, a comfort in the knowledge that we wouldn’t, that the trip had an end, that we would leave, that we’d be home.

Jessica Gross is a writer based in New York City. 




« Older Comments
  1. Andrew | February 19, 2014 at 2:44 pm

    You’ve got to read Tony Judt’s article from NYRB about the romance of train travel from 2011. Absolutely right.

  2. Jessica Gross | February 20, 2014 at 9:20 am

    @Andrew Foiled by the paywall! Thanks for the suggestion — I’ll find my way to it somehow. (And thanks for reading!)

  3. Barbara Delaney | February 20, 2014 at 4:15 pm

    I was perplexed to read that your father both chased steam engines and was photographed wearing a Onesie. Gerber created the infant snap-crotch style just a little over thirty years ago, and they’re more than a little touchy about the copyright of the word.

    Perhaps your father was wearing a Babygro one piece, they were marketed in the 1950’s by Walter Artzt. The RoadRailer hub is in Fort Wayne, is that where you visited?

  4. John Vanderslice | February 21, 2014 at 12:20 pm

    My wife would think she’d gone to heaven if she could a writer’s residency on an Amtrak train. I really cannot thing of anything that would make her happier.

  5. Scott | February 22, 2014 at 11:20 am

    This was an absolutely beautiful and touching essay. Thank you. :-)

  6. Paul Levinson | February 23, 2014 at 1:07 am

    Glad to see this! The Consciousness Plague has a major section that takes place on The Lake Shore Ltd.

  7. James Seamarsh | February 23, 2014 at 4:53 pm

    Life pauses as I move from departure to arrival, surrounded by strangers whose connections flourish in my imagination.

  8. Brent White | February 24, 2014 at 9:31 am

    I, too, love writing stories and composing verse while riding the rails. Most recently on the Lakshore Limited. More stories and verses than I can count

    Another great rail to ride and compose is the trans-alpine from Greymouth to Christchurch, NZ, and then north all the way to Aukland (ferries are also fantastic places yo compose – check out the ferry from Newfoundland to Labrador, also the ferry from Port Townsend to Whidby Iskand, WA).

    My first rail trip was catching the midnight train out of Dodge City, KS toNavy Boot Camp in Great Lakes, IL. Been hooked ever since. But I prefer the diner car … meet scads of fascinating folks and lots of fodder for writing.

  9. Janet Krasner | February 25, 2014 at 12:48 pm

    Wonderful. I loved your description of the living compartment and the emotional feelings that brought forth in my own countenance.

  10. Alan Scally | February 25, 2014 at 8:23 pm

    You spoiled bras are in sleeper cars on Amtrak. Ride coach overnight or 2 days from Chicago to Portland and you will hate Amtrak. You will be tired from being unable to sleep, broke from paying highway robbery prices for food, disgusted from the restrooms and general cleanliness, and just weary. You writers are pampered little wimps afraid to ride coach. I worked for Amtrak for 5 years and rode thos trains. Amtrak sucks.

  11. danny bloom | February 26, 2014 at 1:46 am

    lovely piece, Jessica. i have had a lifelong aversion to flying in aeroplanes, called fof or fear of flying, a phobia really, and i have been riding trains all over the world with complete abandon: the train from Anchorage to Fairbanks, with norther lights and moose! – the train from Tel Aviv to Israel and feel like i was back in Moses’ time while daydreaming through desert areas — the train from Tokyo to Hokkaiado in Japan, and oishii food too — the train from Taipei to Kaohsing in Taiwan, the milk run stops at every village along the way, windows open, smell the farmland as you go by, shieh shieh..

  12. dan | February 26, 2014 at 1:46 am

    comments off?

  13. Q | February 26, 2014 at 8:36 pm

    Wow. I actually get that feeling of wanting to live on the train and remember it from trips with my family as a child. But you’re right it’s also knowing that you had a home and that the trip would end that made it so exciting.

  14. Opal Privette | February 27, 2014 at 4:24 pm

    I am a writer and I love train whistles, but I haven’t been on one since I was eighteen. I would love to take a trip on a train as I a writing a novel sent on Bozeman , Montana.
    It would be wonderful to finish this novel on a train
    Opal Privette

  15. Opal Privette | February 27, 2014 at 4:28 pm

    I haven”t been on a train since I was 18 years of age. I rode the train from Chattanooga, Tn to Farragut, Idaho.
    I am writing a novel set in Bozeman, Montana and I would love to finish this novel on a train west
    Opal Privette writing as
    Lacey Blevins

  16. Sudarto | March 2, 2014 at 10:26 am

    Your story reminds me when I was young. I also travel a lot by train. Moreover, the train is an important means of transportation in many countries at that time. I like to take the train because I can enjoy the incredible views. Through the woods, fields, mountains and city. It’s fun.

  17. Shekhar | March 2, 2014 at 11:14 am

    How about looong-distance ‘Honeymoon trains’! Far from the madding crowd on a bliss journey of exploration and creativity. Fantabulous idea!

  18. Tim | March 9, 2014 at 9:00 pm

    Barbara, I have a hard time believing that the author using the term onesie generically perplexes you. Do work for Gerber by any chance?

    Alan, are you saying you wouldn’t ride in a private sleeper if offered the chance? I understand you don’t think much of Amtrak, but I hope that’s not necessarily an indictment of rail travel in general.

  19. MF | March 10, 2014 at 5:08 am

    Really? Riding on trains for over forty hours and this is all you’ve got? … Well, um … oh well, I must start somewhere … I’ll just start by writing about the basic ingredients needed to write about writing, whilst being on a train and then see what comes out of that. Lame! If this was a (visual) artist’s residence equivalent the result would be the artist presenting an assemblage of tubes of paint, brushes, blank canvas and piles of empty sketch books as their finished art work. The accompanying statement would be something like “I choose to present these tools as a visual representation of riding trains for forty hours and unfortunately gaining absolutely no original idea from the experience … here’s a blank canvas … and that’s all I got out of this experience folks.”

  20. Shelley | March 11, 2014 at 11:33 am

    For all his faults, as a writer I cannot even think of a train without being haunted by the ghost of Thomas Wolfe.

  21. Robert Zverina | March 13, 2014 at 3:48 am

    I fell in love with Amtrak as a 4-year-old on a family vacation and haven’t looked back since–unless you count standing at the rear of the train watching the rails recede. I’ve been publishing photos and stories online since 1998. Here’s a link to some Amtrak-related posts which I compiled as part of my residency application. Enjoy!

  22. Bob Hale | March 21, 2014 at 12:25 am

    Before a full and rewarding career in broadcasting I worked the college years with the Burlington and the Great Northern. The Burlington job was a reservation agent at Chicago Union Station; the Great Northern assignment was for two summers as assistant passenger agent stationed at Glacier Park Lodge! All-in-all not bad summer duty for a college kid. Even as a broadcaster I was able to keep the railroad interest alive – a Burlington Zephyr ride contest; dedication of songs to rail passengers while on a train. Now as a freelance writer Amtrak’s writers promotion has a magnetic quality to it. However, in noting the incredible high response from writers I don’t see much of an opportunity to “walk the aisle, check the kitchen, stroll the stations, and hob-nob on the high iron. I suspect there are far more writers than Amtrak counted on, or has space for. That’s what happens when arriving at the platform way too late! I missed the “‘boarrrrrrd!” Smooth ride, all!

  23. Remy | March 28, 2014 at 2:32 am

    As a Conductor for Amtrak on one of the legs of a long distance train, I think this is a great idea and should be very interesting to read some of the experiences (good and bad). I wish they would have allowed us employees to apply as well. I originally went to college to be a writer but through many long stories ended up on the railroad as a freight conductor first, and then with passenger service. It would have been fun to include some of us onboard employees to write about our experiences as well. Of course that would interfere with me actually doing my job and probably wouldn’t go over well with passengers and/or my boss. ;) I hope some of the lucky writers ride with me for our stretch along the rails in your journey. Most of all enjoy the ride and the beauty you see out of your windows. I truly believe I have the most beautiful moving office on the planet.


  24. James McCommons | March 30, 2014 at 10:33 am

    I rode Amtrak 50,000 miles in the past six years, researching and writing about passenger rail in America. There’s good journalism and important issues to be covered by writers. My book: “Waiting on a Train.”

  25. dan | April 5, 2014 at 7:46 pm

    I’m glad it only took a 44 hour trip to bang out this great blog post.

  26. Angshuman | April 18, 2014 at 1:30 am

    I wish Amtrak were open to international submissions. I grew up in India, but lived in the United States for seven years. India is the land of trains — the largest network in the world — and I wish I could write about my comparative experience. I made a couple of journeys on Amtrak while I lived in America

123 Pingbacks

  1. […] test-run for Amtrak Residency was done by Manhattan-based writer Jessica Gross, whose piece, Writing The Lakeshore Limited was published in February by The Paris Review. What followed was overwhelming support on Twitter […]

  2. […] Of course, she was “on board,” and the results can be seen partially in a piece published by The Paris Review, in which Gross ruminates on (of course) train travel, among other things. A brief […]

  3. […] she was “on board,” and the results can be seen partially in a piece published by The Paris Review, in which Gross ruminates on (of course) train travel, among other things. A brief […]

  4. […] for writers,” he said during a recent interview with literature advocacy group Pen. Writer Jessica Gross picked up the cause on Twitter, which eventually led to a response from […]

  5. […] very lucky Jessica Gross on a trip from New York City to Chicago. She recounted her experience in The Paris Review (proceed with caution — wanderlust like this is infectious). And now, Chee himself has set up […]

  6. […] New York City-based writer Jessica Gross took the first ”test-run” residency, traveling from NYC to Chicago and back, Amtrak confirmed that it […]

  7. […] took a 44 hour trip from New York city to Chicago and back again via the Lake Shore Limited and wrote about the experience. Once the story of her adventure went live, Twitter lit up with the hashtag #AmtrakResidency. I […]

  8. […] Amtrak’s social media team caught wind of a tweet by Jessica Gross, a writer based in New York, who quoted the previously mentioned answer. Not only did they see it, they offered Jessica a test run via twitter. You can read what came of her Amtrak adventure here. […]

  9. […] Check out Jessica Gross’ essay from her train ride on the Paris Review. […]

  10. […] replied and set the ball in motion for a trial by Manhattan based writer Jessica Gross whose piece, Writing The Lakeshore Limited penned on an Amtrak train was published in February by The Paris Review. A full programme – […]

  11. […] of traveler, one who is all wired up and tweeting train tickets and hashtags.  I know, I know, Jessica Gross still lost money on the trip in spite of her free train […]

  12. […] New York City-based writer Jessica Gross took the first “test-run” residency, traveling from NYC to Chicago and back, Amtrak confirmed that it […]

  13. […] wrote about her experience for The Paris Review, aptly titled Writing the Lake Shore Limited.  In her written piece, Gross stated that she enjoyed her 44-hour-long journey across New York, […]

  14. […] wrote about her experience for The Paris Review, aptly titled Writing the Lake Shore Limited. In her written piece, Gross stated that she enjoyed her 44-hour-long journey across New York, […]

  15. […] Ea este primul scriitor care a experimentat această iniţiativă, întreprindere despre care a vorbit mai […]

  16. […] New York to Chicago and back on board the Lake Shore Limited. She wrote about her experience in the Paris Review. The response was positive, and soon Amtrak rolled out the official […]

  17. […] sleeper cabin en route to Chicago, blogging about the writers’ residency “test run” for The Paris Review. Tremendous response among aspiring and established writers prompted Amtrak to officially launch […]

  18. […] The response to the beautiful piece that came out of this has been great. You can read that piece here.  […]

  19. […] Or, at least it is at Amtrak and The New Republic. And, it seems, at The Paris Review, which published an essay from the program’s first free rider, Jessica Gross, featuring the following bout of […]

  20. […] by vocal demand, and a popular twitter hashtag. Amtrak gave the pilot residency trip to a writer, Jessica Gross, who used her time to write an article about the appeal of trains to writers. Gross quotes other […]

  21. […] by vocal demand, and a popular twitter hashtag. Amtrak gave the pilot residency trip to a writer, Jessica Gross, who used her time to write an article about the appeal of trains to writers. Gross quotes other […]

  22. […] The idea was born from Alexander Chee’s interview with Pen America. He stated that his favorite place to write was the train, wishing that “Amtrak had residencies for writers.” After reading the interview, Gross tweeted her agreement to the sentiment. The Twitter Gods answered. Amtrak responded to Gross, asking if she would take part in a trial trip to Chicago and back.  She agreed, hopped on board, and poetically detailed the whole experience in the Paris Review. […]

  23. […] A set deadline, calming movement and the company of strangers: US railway service Amtrak gave writer Jessica Gross a free ride from NYC to Chicago following a Twitter conversation in which she and others pondered the idea of an Amtrak writing residency. The programme is now set to become official with writers offered space on one of Amtrak’s 15 cross-country trains – read Gross’s musings on the subject here. […]

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