Tears and Laughter: The endless art of Alabama writing

Writing, for the most part, is a solo sport. You can only talk about it for so long before eventually having to go into the back room and write. Writing classes won’t make you write if you aren’t already compelled, but they do serve as a good way to learn techniques for when an idea or inspirations strikes.

I have had the opportunity over the past few months to teach creative writing in Monroeville, and if you teach writing in Monroeville, the natural starting point is somewhat set. In 1997, by a joint proclamation of the Alabama House and Senate, Monroeville was declared the “Literary Capital of Alabama.” The town was given the title because of the many famous authors that have called Monroeville home including Harper Lee, Truman Capote, Mike Stewart, Cynthia Tucker, and Mark Childress.

Most widely known of them are Harper Lee and Truman Capote who were friends and neighbors during the 1930’s. It was interesting to hear kids from the Monroeville area talk about the town from their perspective. Some of them were fully aware of who each author was while others had never considered why there are mockingbirds painted on the sides of building.

As it happens, the class takes place within the shadows practically of the old courthouse. Even the youngest of children can appreciate the significance of learning about the craft of writing in a setting where a young Harper Lee and Truman once played.

To further the point, I told them how if they could talk their mamas into taking them to Mel’s Dairy Dream to get a hamburger sometime, that they could have lunch with what is left of where Harper Lee and Truman used to be. The small drive-in restaurant is located in the spot where Lee’s childhood home stood, and next door are the remains of Truman’s. It’s not much in one respect. No one can run through the halls. But their spirit is strong, and the energy is there both on sunny days, and when rain is falling. And I also explained that while things have changed over time, the chances of seeing either of the two great authors remains about the same as always.

It isn’t just Monroeville that produces writers. It seems the state itself has an endless list of famous writers. Winston Groom grew up in Mobile, and is best known for Forrest Gump. Rick Bragg, from Piedmont, is a current Professor of Writing at the University of Alabama and is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist as well as the author of several books. Fannie Flagg was born in Birmingham and is most well-known for, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café. Wayne Flint has written over a dozen books focused mostly on the historical, economic and social fabric of Alabama. Kathryn Tucker Windham grew up in Thomasville and considered herself a storyteller as much as a writer. And author and screenwriter, Eugene Walter, took a shoebox of Alabama red clay with him to Paris to remind him of home.

There is an ongoing conversation between writer types about what it is in Alabama that helps produce so many writers. Some say it is elements in the soil and water, possibly the air too. Others will say it is history blended with a culture of storytelling. I don’t know. Maybe it takes a little of it all, but for sure the only way it continues is through our young writers.

Amanda Walker is a columnist with The West Alabama Watchman, Al.com, The Thomasville Times, and The Wilcox Progressive Era. For more information, visit her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/AmandaWalker.Columnist.