Inspiring Future Writers at the University of Alabama
Photo by Jim Bauer from Flickr Creative Commons
It was not supposed to rain tonight.
As dozens of people crowd into Monarch Espresso Bar in Tuscaloosa, I survey the crowd and sigh. The rain came out of nowhere, and now, instead of the typical back porch, open to the breeze and decked out with delicately twinkling lights, University of Alabama’s Creative Writing Program’s biweekly poetry reading has been relocated to the inside of the coffee shop. Though it is also cute, there are many patrons there who want nothing to do with the reading, and the noise and atmosphere do not match the quiet gravitas of the back porch.
Nonetheless, we press forward with the event and after a few hiccups, even against the background of loud and laughing coffee drinkers, the biweekly “Pure Products: is a hit. Monarch is packed, and the three readers—one of which is me—deftly handle the interruptions. Despite the challenges, most of the audience will come back in two weeks for the next “Pure Products,” attracted to the lively creative spirit.
A few will attend every one this semester, and some will even branch out to the many other events held by creative writers on the UA campus. These include writing workshops and marathons hosted by the Writers Guild, fun social events such as an ice cream social and trivia night and, of course, future poetry readings hosted by the English Majors and Minors Association (EMMA), the Alabama Student Association for Poetry (ASAP), the departmental Visiting Writers series—Margaret Atwood and Andre Dubus have visited—and more, including Name This!, reserved for undergraduates.
Many of the faculty—grad students included—in the creative writing program at UA will tell you how important their in-person events are to the program itself. In fact, the English Department actually requires that students attend a certain number to ensure that they are exposed to their peers’ creative content and perhaps have the opportunity to practice performing their own work. These gatherings serve as network opportunities, places to get inspiration, to try out new material and see if it works—but, unfortunately, it’s been months since the last in-person event occurred. “Pure Products” in particular was rebooted only a few years ago, with the express purpose to “cultivate and maintain a local creative writing community,” according to Dr. Sara Pirkle, the program’s director.
Programming During Quarantine & Beyond
The spring campus shutdown canceled all kinds of student events, and the difficulty in providing opportunities for student engagement continued through the summer and well into the fall semester. As of October, there is little hope for that same kind of packed, intimate event any time soon. Social distancing rules and limitations of what sort of on-campus events may be held prevent it.
Despite the challenges, the Creative Writing Program has forged forward with programming for their students. Though they may not be able to meet in-person, and though Zoom poetry readings fall prey to the same awkwardness present in every Zoom social event, the faculty persist in replicating some measure of that programming experience. Several different online poetry readings have occurred, and different clubs have moved forward with hosting meetings through various online messengers—the Writers Guild, notably, created a Discord server, wherein students can communicate easily with one another and talk more comfortably for long periods of time during workshops or writing marathons.
After all, the Creative Writing Program at the University of Alabama boasts “an 80-year tradition of distinction” that produces “working writers” as its alumni. Their graduates have gone on to publish in The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, Paris Review and many of the “Best American” anthologies. You do not form a track record like that by giving up when normal life gets disrupted.
However, the transition hasn’t been perfect. The faculty faces many challenges in trying to keep the spirit of inspiration going through these hard times.
To learn more about the department’s plans and line of thinking, I talked with Dr. Sara Pirkle, the assistant director of the Creative Writing Program. During my first year of my own undergrad experience, I interned with Dr. Pirkle and a few other students to help plan and facilitate social events for the undergrads, including movie and trivia nights and write-ins during midterms and finals.
Victoria Carl: What kind of events does the department usually put on for creative writers?
Sara Pirkle: Typically we host readings by new and established writers, both from the UA community and from around the world. In addition, we host open mics, write-ins during National Novel Writing Month and National Poetry Writing Month, social events like movie nights, trivia nights, the back-to-school ice-cream social, game nights, the holiday party in December and professional development workshops for students considering applying for graduate school.
VC: What kind of events is the department holding now?
SP: All of our events have been scheduled to occur online via Zoom. We considered trying to hold some of our events in a hybrid mode (partially online and partially in person), but the logistics were a bit difficult, and we didn’t want to risk hosting an event in person during a pandemic.
VC: Have they been effective, popular, useful?
SP: So far I think they have been going well; the numbers are a little lower than we have had in the past for in-person events, but the attendees seem to be getting a lot out of the events. More than anything, I think a lot of people are craving connections during this time, and we’re trying to provide that service for our writing community.
VC: What have the challenges been in trying to continue hosting creative writing events during quarantine?
SP: I think the primary challenge is combatting Zoom fatigue, which is a very real issue. A lot of people are tired of looking at a screen by the end of the day, so drumming up enthusiasm for yet another Zoom event (even if it is not a class or meeting) is a challenge. Getting readers to commit to an online event is a bit more difficult than I’d anticipated, but asking people to show up in person was even more uncomfortable, and I didn’t want to ask people to risk their health for our programming.
VC: Do you have any advice or recommendations for writers trying to stay active and inspired during the pandemic?
SP: My primary advice is to unplug when possible. Yes, a lot of classes and meetings and events are happening online, and the technology that makes them possible is incredible. But, there is still a big world out there that can be explored without devices. Tuscaloosa has plenty of parks and trails for hikes and picnics, and the weather is perfect right now for getting outside and breathing fresh air. Plus, art galleries like the Sarah Moody Gallery are still open, and the Creative Writing Instagram has been posting writing prompts weekly to encourage writers to keep working on their art.
What You Can Do to Stay Creative
For those not local to Tuscaloosa or Alabama, you can check out your Parks & Recreation Department’s website for more information on what parks are nearby and their current hours. Additionally, your area may also have community writing or art clubs you can investigate joining. You can also look online for hiking trails and state/national parks nearby.
For sure, most areas have Municipal Liaisons for National Novel Writing Month. You don’t have to write a novel, just meet a certain word count, and especially this year, the liaisons will be working hard to create a sense of engagement and community among participants.
Those located in Alabama should also check out the Alabama Writers Forum for more information on writing events in the state—and stay tuned for an upcoming article on the F. Scott Fitzgerald Museum in Montgomery. Not only is the museum a fun and safe, socially-distanced activity, but it is also an opportunity for a writer’s retreat, since you can actually rent out rooms in the museum through Airbnb.
In the meantime, keep an eye out for future events from the CWP open to the public by monitoring the English Department website.
And remember to, like Dr. Pirkle said, unplug when possible. It can be hard to stay creative and avoid fatigue when your usual methods of socialization may be on hold, so explore different ways to restore your energy. Whether going for a walk or popping into a Zoom poetry reading, there are plenty of ways to keep yourself going during this pandemic. You don’t have to do it alone.