Do you remember the first-ever Treehouse of Horror episode on The Simpsons back in Season Two? The one that spoofed the classic Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man,” where Kang and Kodos abduct the Simpsons and Lisa finds a cookbook called How To Cook Humans and is convinced the Rigellians are going to eat them and then Kang blows dust off the title and it reads How To Cook For Humans and then Lisa blows off more dust and it reads How To Cook Forty Humans and then Kang blows the last of the dust off and it finally reads How To Cook For Forty Humans?
And then Lisa says “Well, why were you trying to make us eat all the time?” and Kang says “Make you eat? We merely provided a sumptuous banquet and frankly you people made pigs out of yourselves” and then Serak the Preparer starts crying and then Kang says “Well, if you wanted to make Serak the Preparer cry, mission accomplished,” and they drop the Simpsons off back at home and tell them, “We offered you paradise. You would have experienced emotions a hundred times greater than what you call love. And a thousand times greater than what you call fun. You would have been treated like gods and lived forever in beauty. But, now, because of your distrustful nature, that can never be.”
Amtrak is Kang, Kodos, and Serak the Preparer all rolled into one, and we are Lisa Simpson. Read on, if you would examine your own soul:
After all the hype and excitement over it new residency program for writers, Amtrak officially announced guidelines for the new program…A closer examination of the program’s official terms has some writers tempering their interest. Specifically, they are balking at the fact that Amtrak wants rights to their submitted writing samples…
Included in the application for the residency program is a required writing sample (no more than 10 pages), to ensure that Amtrak is sending actual serious writers on a residency and not just someone looking for a free ride. After reading the quoted portion of Section 6 above, however, writers are questioning whether or not they cede rights to their submitted samples simply by applying. The fear is, essentially, that Amtrak can do whatever it wants with submitted work, even work that they have been planning to use elsewhere.
You have a garbage soul and you look for garbage; you smell for it, you seek it out, you keep your head low to the ground and when you have found garbage — as garbage-seekers invariably do — you congratulate yourself as if you have done something, as if you have accomplished something. It is a free, optional goddamn train ride for a couple of writers, who are a categorically useless type of person, and complaining about it is not allowed.
“Oh, but they’re asking for the rights to republish my work.” I’m sorry. Were you or were you not just afforded the opportunity to be one of a handful of people to BOARD A STEEL BEAST AND RIDE IT ACROSS THE IRON SPINE OF THE GREATEST GODDAMN COUNTRY IN GOD’S ENTIRE GODDAMN SUN-FILLED GREEN EARTH? Are you John Donne? Are you Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, beloved Nigerian author whose third novel has been called “brilliant” by The Guardian for “changing the way [readers] look at the world”? Is anyone publishing your work right now, you pathetic Midas-in-reverse, frantically looking for gold to transmute into something dull and base in a desperate attempt to keep attention away from the fact that you have accomplished nothing with your dead-eyed, miserable life despite the fact that you have more resources and opportunities than every single one of your ancestors could possibly have dreamed of? Were you planning on simultaneously submitting those gems to the New Yorker? No. No one is looking to publish your work or mine, do not blame trains for the fact that you can’t drum interest up in your work of disaffected suburban alienation or that essay about your friend whose dad died one time, you joyless hack.
You have no poetry in your soul and your blood is not the blood of a true American. If Walt Whitman were alive, and if he could see you now, he would vomit tears of betrayal and rage, you fundamentally unloveable clod of dirt. You want a free cross-country train ride and then a hearty handshake and best wishes from Amtrak at the end of it? Oh, they’d own my application materials, my precious application materials. It is a contest. It is an Amtrak promotion. Why on earth would they not want to reserve the right to use your willingly submitted work in their advertisements? Save it for your dream journal if it’s too precious to trade in for filthy lucre, friend.
Frankly, if every train in the country suddenly decided that it had the right to all of my work, both published and unpublished, I would thank them for building America and sign the reversion cheerfully. The blood of John Henry and the spirit of Paul Bunyan and my own personal honor would compel me.
I rode a train once; a sleeper up the California coast. We whistled to the towns as we passed by. I slept in a cubby-compartment and rocked back and forth in the belly of the train as we barreled silent and dark past the sea. In the morning I ate breakfast off of a table with a white tablecloth. An old man came into the dining car and saw me looking out the window. He was traveling with his wife, this old man, traveling with his wife around the country after a lifetime of hard work and making do.
“Do you know what you’re seeing right now?” he asked, inclining his grey head to the picture window. “That’s America’s backyard passing by.”
Sweet Christ in the nine heavens, a train is a place where a woman can rest easy of a morning and eat her breakfast off a white tablecloth while watching America’s backyard pass by. Why would you seek to diminish this? What possible satisfaction could you eke from smearing the good name of trains?
A train is a steel horse that breathes steam in order to carry gentlemen and gentleladies about the country swiftly and safely — it cannot fall out of the sky, it cannot sink into the sea — and someone wants to put you on one of them for free because you have a five-year-old laptop and one or two aging bylines (I see you; you wrote for VICE or The Atlantic once and then immediately added it to your Twitter bio and then never pitched them again because all you cared about was getting that word next to your name, not becoming a consistent and disciplined practitioner of your goddamn cunting craft).
America’s goddamn backyard, that’s where trains go. Ride on a goddamn choo-choo for goddamn free, that’s what you had the chance to do. And you people took a shit on it.
Don’t be Lisa Simpson. Don’t go looking for that cookbook. (Also, you shouldn’t be simultaneously submitting in the first place; it is not the 1960s. You are not mailing fat manuscripts out to various publishers 3000 miles away; you’re getting auto-rejections within 48 hours, you piece of seething, roiling, superheated trash). If you should get that golden ticket, board that train and don’t look back. I shouldn’t even have to explain that to you.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.