train wreck

train wreck

1. I hear about the Amtrak Residency program through a friend’s post and immediately apply with spastic, hopeful glee. Wheee! So fun and so romantic! I’m goin’ on a train! I’m the little engine that could! Choo choo!

2. I begin seeing analyses of the program on Twitter and fb, and my guts seize with fear.

amtrak fine print

What? Absolute, worldwide, irrevocable? Including my writing sample?! [*insert bloody implosion here*] My dream train slides up to the platform, opens its mouth, and gobbles my children. That shiny new train in my head morphs into a completely different type of train, one that involves a long line of users waiting for their turn to screw me over.

3. I can’t sleep. All night long, I hear trains hooting in the distance, mocking me. What have I done? What can I do? Nothing. I’m trapped forever on a train going nowhere, with no window and no door, nailed inside a coffin on wheels.

4. I read the fine print over, searching for a way out. In a feeble attempt to nullify my application, I break the rule and apply again. (See this? I’ve applied twice! That means my entire application is null and void. Right?) I apply a third time, attaching someone else’s work as a writing sample. (This writing is not mine. I stole it. It’s plagiarized! That means the agreement is off, right? Right?!)

5. At this point, I’m just trying to figure out what I can get out of this experience. Help me out. Insert moral of the story here:


BTW, applications for Amtrak’s residency are being accepted until March 31st. You still have time to join me!

* (Fine print: by inserting moral of the story here, you are hereby relinquishing all rights. That’s right, I will own every word you say forever. Every word you think, even. Plus, I will say your words and act like I made them up myself.  I will sell your words to any scumbag who’ll pay.  Aren’t I a smartie? Shut up, you don’t get to speak for yourself anymore.)

(The only way to get out of this is to send chocolate.  Send chocolate or cheese and give me a foot rub or maybe do something about my lower back and I might let you out of the deal. )


About Anna Fonté

Girl in the Hat, aka Anna Fonté, is an author who writes about invisibility, outsider status, everyday monsters, and her attempts to befriend the neighborhood crows. The things she writes want you to look at them.


  1. What a mess that was, right? Lesson learned: If it sounds too good to be true, it’s probably a scam. xo

  2. This reminds me of the Congreve line: Married in haste, we may repent at leisure. I thought the Amtrak Residency initially sounded cool, too, but I’ve been conditioned to read the fine print first. There is always “fine print” in giveaways.

    Also, I have a specific dislike of Amtrak as a company.

  3. I initially thought this was a decent idea too, but my real world experiences with Amtrak (like 7 hours to take a 2 hours trip) kept me from entering. Amazon’s annual contest is pretty much the same deal. A friend of mine entered, and on learning of the Draconian rules, withdrew. We just have to remember that the droids in charge of marketing never look at these things altruistically. They never ask, what can we do for other people, only how can we manipulate things so that we profit?

  4. It applies to your writing sample only, correct? Not to what you actually write during the residency.

    • Just the sample and the application, Jenni. But I (stupid, stupid) submitted a piece of writing I cared about. (I can’t think of any of my writing I don’t care about.) And do they have rights to your name and email address to sell to anyone they want and use as they wish? Even if you don’t get the train trip? Gah! (Amtrak has backpedaled on Twitter, but that doesn’t count since they have not amended the agreement.)

  5. I feel you. Thanks for the cautionary tale that is sadly, not fictive.

  6. As Paul Simon said: “Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance, everybody thinks its true.” As my father always said: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” I’m glad I read this post, I was kicking myself for being too slow to apply for the Amtrak residency, but now I’ll just happily eat the lunches I pay for, keep the train at a distance and let myself off the hook. I do feel bad for your disappointment, though. It will be interesting to see if your observations are the beginning of a backlash against Amtrak for being so self-serving.

  7. I stopped paying attention to this residency when I read that they were only interested in journalists/writers with large Twitter followings or other media presences who could, basically, promote Amtrak and its residency during and afterward. I don’t have a big enough presence to interest them, and also, I’d rather take a real writing residency instead of one where I’m required to shill for them. But this? This is way worse, and makes me so glad I didn’t bother spending more time learning about the residency. This is absolutely shameless. I think that sound we all hear is an Authors Guild lawyer shrieking in fury.

    • I hear the trains from my house. I used to love the sound of them. I hope I’ll be able to hear that sound again someday without a rush of bile. (You smartie, I shoulda asked you.)

  8. Todd

    Being a smarmy sales schmuck myself, I figured there would be all kinds of catches and self-serving scamology in a deal like that. So I skimmed the terms but didn’t find any requirements for a second ticket purchased at full price or State sales tax not included– for each State passed through. It did say the destination and schedule was up to them. That of course means your excursion will be in February on the night train between Detroit and Pittsburgh. I didn’t really mind them owning what I would write, but then I’ve never written anything worth a $900 train ride. The worst part I thought were the restrictions on WHAT you can write… “may not contain content that advocates violent, reckless, irresponsible or otherwise unhealthy behavior”. Well dang, who the hell wants to read it anyway then?

    • I will consult you next time, Todd. You can help me refine my inner shit detector. I have optimistic tendencies that get me into trouble. (But it could have been so fun! But I’d love to see Detroit!)

      • Todd

        Your fascination with Detroit is fascinating. For me the name conjures a bleak decaying landscape of rusted out factories, vacant homes and sad unemployed people. I heard that the mayor was replaced with some kind of executor to manage the bankruptcy. I’ve never been there so you must know something I don’t. I always like the surprise when I find my preconception is totally wrong.

  9. Wow. That is huge and horrible. I had a print publication offer revoked when I couldn’t agree terms awhile back and it’s haunted me ever since. But I recently found the emails where I explain my concerns with the contract and god damn, I was right!

  10. Oh, man, this is such a disappointment. Even though I wasn’t actually planning to do it, it seemed like such a splendidly creative idea. So glad you read the fine print in time to illicit the train wreck on your own schedule. Sheesh.

    • It was! It was such a splendid idea! I’m not sure my feeble efforts to derail the disaster would hold up in a court of law, but certainly they offer evidence to the fact that I’ll go down fighting.

  11. Darlin’ girl, Amtrak is a quasi-government organization…, and just when did government ever pass up the opportunity to put the screws to anyone??? Nothing, NOTHING, is ever FREE !!! Somehow, some way, sometime you WILL pay !!! It took me years to figure that out, Anna, but now it’s firmly locked in my decision making process and flashes like neon when the word FREE flashes before my eyes. Great post !!

    • I’m such a sucker for a good story, Paul. Really.

      I was willing to toot and tweet and blog about the experience. That would be worth the ticket, for me. I’m not willing for them to own my words or use me forever for nothing. Deal with the devil there.

  12. Mike

    Take comfort: Your writing sample is probably not useful for their marketing purposes, and it will still be cool if you win.

  13. Have to admit, I can see why you’d enter this. What a romantic little sojourn to writer land! Not to worry, you have tumbled off the moving train before it reached implosion – no real harm done. I think you should enter again with this piece, though, just to be sure 🙂

  14. I like Alama’s suggestion to enter this blog! If you really, really wanted this, the chance of winning would be slim due to the number of people applying. But since you now want to cancel, the universe will probably push you to the top of the list. I’ve written on a train, riding Amtrak for 21 hours straight, and with all the bouncing around I could barely read my writing afterwards. Well, I can barely read my writing normally, but this was worse. So when you win, take a laptop rather than pen and paper. Seriously though, I do hope you can find a way to cancel out.

  15. Everyone wants a piece of us. Fuckers.

  16. Step 1: Take your own train ride. Step 2: Exercise your irrevocable right to write up and post the experience as you see, feel, hear and smell it. Caveat: Being confined for hours and forced to dine among strangers is spooky but provides abundant fodder for scribblers whether the train runs on time or not. Editorial: Amtrak needs all the help it can get.

    • Hi Bill! Every time I hear the train, I imagine wrapping some food in a bandana, hanging it on a stick over my shoulder, putting an extra layer of clothes on, and hopping on. Being confined with strangers and a moving picture sounds dreamy, but I’m not going to help Amtrak if they don’t give me something in return. Not fair!

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