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Alabama: A Thriving Lifeline for the Arts

Alabama: A Thriving Lifeline for the Arts

By Jonathan Rutan

With my return to school as a graduate student seeking a Master of Arts in English at the University of Montevallo, I desired only a few things: To increase my knowledge of the written word, to broaden my horizons as a student of the arts, and to make connections with teachers, students, and staff that would further allow me to gain insight into a world I already understood that I knew very little about. However, I expected only to succeed in all of this through studies of different subjects, through texts from authors long dead or just beginning in their careers—perhaps through a nice lunch or two with a new friend. Never did I think that by becoming an intern for the Alabama Writers’ Forum would I ever be offered an even greater chance to learn more about myself—and about the world—than I ever imagined.

In August of this year, I was approached via email by first Dr. Jim Murphy and then Mr. Danny Gamble about taking on an internship which would require me to do Internet work without ever getting paid. I admit I was reluctant from the start. Not with the prospect of working with the Alabama Writers’ Forum, but instead with spending my days unpaid, doing work I was not all that sure I would love. However, with the encouragement of Dr. Murphy—whose emails did make mention of how this would be a great learning experience for me—and with the enthusiasm of Mr. Gamble—who at least made me sure that no matter what I would enjoy working with him—I agreed.

I started meeting with Mr. Gamble on the 21st of August, but I wasn’t truly a full intern until the 27th. Until then I was merely an apt pupil. Mr. Gamble and I met at the library to go over my exact duties and how I would carry them out.

This was the first eye opening experience of my internship. I was about to be taught html digital code—not anything majorly advanced, but rather a limited tutorial of facts that would give me a foot into a door I never imagined would be opened. Before this my only avenues into writing had been solitary endeavors. I would sit at a computer and write a short story—or a novel—or I would get comfortable in a chair and flip on a light as I took in the pleasures of someone else’s imagination. These experiences were ones that I deeply adored, but I never believed that I could take that adoration and transfer it into a field I knew next to nothing about.

It is a strange concept, yet writing html code is the beginning of an editorial process I had never entertained. When one sits down to place an announcement of some upcoming event onto a calendar—or when one receives an author’s biography and must put that information into a directory—the code to bold a certain sentence or italicize a certain word comes with a set of brackets that encompass everything that is being used. Instantly any idea about words having an infinite space in which to spread becomes narrow and defined. Before—as perhaps this paper may prove—I followed a “more is more” approach to writing rather than a “less is more” mantra, but learning html code has helped me to see the other side.

By bolding one word instead of another, I saw how I could separate some elements of a sentence from the rest of that sentence, which in turn made other words and phrases in that same sentence not as important. It didn’t mean that I edited every bit of information I ever received, but it did mean that it became easier for me to lessen an author’s three page description of his or her life into a much more manageable paragraph.

Learning digital code was my first step into learning how to edit—a process I still need to refine, yet a process that I now understand is as necessary to a writer as the words he actually keeps on a page. Sometimes less isn’t just more—sometimes it’s more impactful.

However, beyond gaining an insight into editing, I also—almost immediately—learned through my internship about the incredible artistic nature of the state I now call home. I will admit it again: It was an eye-opening experience. As a child of a culture that seems to think that art begins in New York and ends in Los Angeles without ever actually stopping to take a breath in-between, I just never knew that an authors’ group was located in Montgomery or that book events with major novelists happen right down the road in Birmingham. It was a delight—every day—to post a new event that told of some esteemed poet coming to Montevallo or to Auburn, and I never stopped being in awe of how much activity occurs so close to where I live.

This in no way means I actually had the chance to go to every exciting moment I posted onto the Alabama Writers’ Forum’s Events Calendar page or the Workshop page or even the Writers’ Retreat page, but to come to understand something I never even considered was beyond astonishing. To me Alabama has always been a quaint state—one of the quintessential Southern cornerstones, a place laid back and reserved, genteel no matter how much of it may be without all the ivy and moss that seems to invade many a representation of plantations from a bygone era. I assumed that nothing much of note ever occurred here, and I am glad to have been proven wrong.

Alabama is a thriving lifeline for the arts. Writers of note call this place home even if they no longer live here, and events of esteem happen on every corner of the map for any lover of the written word to enjoy almost anywhere. Posting these events was one of the greatest pleasures I had during my time as an intern. As the scales fell and my vision cleared, I began to see Alabama for what it truly is—a state with a story that has enough art, and artists, within its borders to keep that story alive, and evolving, every day.

But one artistic event I did manage to witness I will never forget. It took place at a juvenile detention center, a facility known as Mt. Meigs, a track of land surrounded by fences and concrete—a place that houses the young men who live within its midst because of the mistakes they have already made during their short lives.

This blog seems to be overflowing with admissions from me, and this is yet another: I went to Mt. Meigs not expecting much. I had been informed by Mr. Gamble that the Alabama Writers’ Forum helped to guide the Writing Our Stories program, partnering with the Alabama Department of Youth Services to bring the arts to those less fortunate—those that had lost their way and perhaps would never learn about poetry or prose when they returned home. It was nothing that overly impressed me. I thought that teaching the literary arts to a class filled with juvenile offenders was a nice idea—actually just teaching them anything seemed like a very noble endeavor indeed—but the impact of such a program never entered into my mind. Or at least it didn’t until I finally made it to Mt. Meigs and heard for myself the art that was created within its wire walls.

As each speaker got up, all younger than me, some quite younger, I heard the agony they wrote into their poetry—the heartache they scribbled into stories that barely made it to three pages. However, the length of their work soon became not an issue and again less just became all the more impactful because these artists said it all without ever once saying way too much.

Suddenly, I understood why the Alabama Writers’ Forum helped to get programs like this up and running—and why they need our support so that such a program as Writing Our Stories never ends. Poetry gives any reader an outlet into their hearts. Prose too connects a reader with their feelings in ways nothing else ever can. Instead of these young students getting lost in their passions—their anger, their rage, often just their heartache—they now have a way to let it out, to grieve if necessary, so that the page can take what they are without any judgment or rebuke.

At Mt. Meigs I saw how art profoundly affects any of us. Whether it is through what we create or through what someone else has created, poetry and prose offer an anchor to this world—something stable anyone can always latch onto whenever they need to explore their emotions.

However, the Alabama Writers’ Forum didn’t just introduce me to art that is only confined to this one state. Having this internship also allowed me to come to the realization that people from Alabama—and the literature they have written—have affected this world in profound ways. Two months into my internship, Mr. Gamble gave me an extra assignment—researching information about Condoleezza Rice so that I could put her biography onto the Forum’s Contemporary Alabama Authors Directory. No matter the political bent that one may have, Condoleezza Rice is a woman who has earned much respect. Serving as Secretary of State and an advisor to the President and actually helping him to form his leadership style—Condoleezza Rice has led a life that defines achievement, yet I never once knew she was raised in Birmingham.

The final eye-opening event of my internship is a simple one—I didn’t expect to find out that world leaders actually came from a city I live only a few miles from. But knowing that a woman who was raised during some of the harshest civil rights horrors of our country came from so close by, knowing too that she walked down streets I can visit with ease and faced obstacles I will never fully comprehend is profound. Anyone can hear the story of someone else’s life and be inspired by him or her, but sometimes it takes putting a more personal face on that story to make that story as important as it should be.

Call it selfish if you will, but I had known a bit about Condoleezza Rice and still I just didn’t care. She was impressive, her life one I admired, yet it took knowing even more about her—and then knowing that she was raised nearby—for me to actually feel something about everything she ever endured to achieve her high status. The Alabama Writers’ Forum not only let me understand that Alabama has given the world some great leaders, it also instilled in me a desire to learn more about them since they once, no matter how long ago, lived where I live.

I can never truly say how appreciative I am for my time as an intern. Writing for the Alabama Writers’ Forum—taking care of its webpage, learning the beginnings of html code—gave me insight into the arts that happen in this state and insight into how I too can make my own art better. Editing became a tool I now acknowledge and know I need more of, art became something more profound since I understand even better how it can connect anyone to their emotions, and more importantly Alabama—and its’ still thriving story—became so much more expansive then I ever could have imagined. To Mr. Gamble, Dr. Murphy, and the entire staff of the Forum I can only say—again and again—thank you for this opportunity.

An alumnus of North Carolina State University, Jonathan Rutan is a graduate student in creative writing at the University of Montevallo. (photo by Cyndi Grimes)