Alabama author Marlin Barton believes in the power of storytelling

Stories can change lives. Just ask the author and the educator Marlin Bartona man who has witnessed the transformative power of stories.

Barton grew up in Montgomery and Forkland, listening to stories read and told by family and neighbors. These stories helped a young Barton overcome a learning disability and become an award-winning short story writer and novelist with six books to his name and a seventh on the way.

Stories are central to his work teaching creative writing to graduate students from College Converse in South Carolina and teenagers in Alabama Mount Meigs penal institution for minors. He sat down with us recently to talk about his personal story, the life-changing power of sharing stories, and his writing.

Q: How did your childhood experiences influence your love of words and writing?

Marlin Barton: My mother read to me constantly. And my grandmother was also a big reader, so if you can inherit the love of reading, that’s where mine came from. I was diagnosed with dyslexia when I was in kindergarten and started doing therapy called “patterning” to rewire my brain. Every day, while my mother followed me, she read to me just to pass the time. It worked. I only participated in the program for about 18 months.

Q: What were the other influences from your childhood?

Barton: My grandfather in Forkland, at the fork of the Black Warrior and Tombigbee rivers in Greene County, had a general store that sold everything from overalls to pump handles to buckets of lard, but people came also there to socialize. He had chairs in a front window and a small heater where they sat and talked, and I listened. When my cousins ​​came to visit me, my father and grandfather also told stories. I’m sure listening to all these stories is part of what made me a writer.

“Children of Dust”, Marlin Barton’s sixth book and third novel, draws on the ancestry and family traditions of her Forkland roots. (contributed)

Q: Do these childhood experiences and stories show up in your books?

Barton: Yes. I think place shapes us and my fiction is pretty much set in a fictionalized version of Forkland. The two places – the imaginary and the real – are not exactly the same, but there are certainly many similarities.

Q: “children of dust“, your latest novel, is a story about race, gender, relationships and a mystery that spans five generations of a rural Alabama family. Is it all based on the story from your own family?

Barton: The husband and wife in the novel are loosely based on my great-great-grandparents and I have drawn on many family histories, history and traditions.

Q: In addition to teaching college-level creative writing, you’ve also spent 25 years teaching writing to juvenile offenders through the Write Our Stories (WOS) Program. How is it to work with such a diverse range of students?

Barton: I love teaching in Converse College’s low-residency MFA program because I can teach writing at a higher level. But sometimes I feel like the most important job I do is teaching in the Writing Our Stories program. We strive to help students become better readers and writers, but we also believe that the program has therapeutic value because they write about things they have experienced and gone through very difficult difficulties. And when they see their work in print and read it to an audience, they feel a great sense of pride. Many of these kids have been told or feel like they’re no good, but when they hear praise and applause, it makes them feel better about themselves.

Q: Does your own experience help you when teaching?

Barton: When I work with children who have reading and writing problems, I sometimes recognize that they are dyslexic or that they have a reading disability, but that does not mean that they do not have the sense of language. In the beginning (with WOS) one of my students wrote a poem and I couldn’t read it, so I asked him to tell me what he wrote line by line, then I wrote what he had said. By the time he got to the end of the poem, I could see he had an innate sense of metaphor and he ended up writing a great job. I guess my childhood helped prepare me to work with this child (and others).

Q: I know it’s like asking if you have a favorite child, but would you rather write short stories or novels?

Barton: I wrote three novels and as soon as I had the idea for each of these books, I immediately knew that they were bigger than a short story. They were going to be longer and more complex. But I consider myself first and foremost as a novelist. News is always my first love.

This story originally appeared in Living in Alabama Magazine.

Lola R. McClure