The #AmtrakRedsidency application process is (hopefully) a work-in-progress

Ever since writer Jessica Gross' random tweet earned her a residency with Amtrak, the Internet's been clamoring for the railway company to make it official.

It made sense then that when Amtrak announced Saturday that it was formally rolling out that #AmtrakResidency program, that every writer on the face of the planet (including your sister who blogs about food and your mom who crafts really long Facebook posts and of course, me, the person competing for the world record on how long it takes to finish a book) got totally excited. Never mind that only 24 applicants would be accepted, you can't get what you don't try for, right?

And then just as soon as everyone got excited, so started the backlash.

The Washington Post called the program "a sham," criticizing (among other aspects) the high price of travel on Amtrak, the company's tax subsidies and its stipulation that recipients act as a "spokesperson / endorser of [the] Amtrak brand."

Applications and writing samples that pass an initial evaluation will then be judged by a panel “based on the degree to which the Applicant would function as an effective spokesperson/endorser of [the] Amtrak brand.” That brand, it seems to me, is inertia. Slow-moving and price-gouging. Exclusive yet shabby. Especially when measured against the affordable high-speed rail in Europe, China and Japan. Amtrak, with its residency program, is exploiting the romance of the railways to endear itself to a demographic that likely can’t afford its prices. 

Oh, OK then. Let's conflate the entirely of Amtrak's corporate problems with this particular program. Sure, why not.

Of more concern, of course, is that Amtrak's application came with some terms that an applicant must consent to in order for his or her entry to be valid.

One clause in particular has caused a bit of a furor:

I get it, that wording does lead to some major hesitance.

But is it "poison"?

Does even applying for the residency make you a sellout?

To their credit Amtrak has responded at least once, clarifying that any and all use of a writer's work would be done so with the writer's prior permission. Make that prior, post-application, post-selection permission. And, reportedly, Alexander Chee--the writer who inspired Gross' initial tweet--is in talks with Amtrak to help the company clarify its language and make the application process/program more writer-friendly.

Here's hoping Chee--and other critics--will give Amtrak some insight into copyright laws, not to mention the creative process, and why people are so rightfully protective of their works.

That said I'm not willing to dismiss out of hand the program and its outcome. At least not yet.

I think it's a great idea with great potential. But, obviously, this is just the rough draft.  Amtrak officials have some things to learn and some points to refine. And, frankly, I don't think this is just about good P.R., it's put an interesting and valuable spotlight on the writing process and the value of one's words.

There's definitely value on that.



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