It’s two weeks before Halloween, and Camryn Walker sits with a cadre of undergraduates on Morgan 301’s couches to watch The Babadook, an Australian horror film about a monster that uses a book as a portal into our world. The movie is a fitting choice for this crowd, a collection of scribblers known as the Student Writer’s Guild (SWG).
Walker, a junior, is both a writer and an English major. As such, she’s found a home in both the SWG and the English Majors and Minors Association (EMMA), two student groups founded in the fall of 2016. Membership in EMMA implies a declared major or minor in English, but SWG is open to all who want to write. According to Walker, SWG is a “really great way to meet other people interested in Creative Writing, whether they’re minors or not.” Likewise, EMMA offers introductions to peers passionate about literature, several of whom Walker later had classes with. Both groups offer a sense of community for Walker, a place to meet and mingle, to find friends and inspiration.
On a campus of 37,000 students united by little more than geographic proximity and football fandom, finding students with similar interests can be daunting, especially for students in their first couple years of college. The spur for both groups was to create an environment for folks with concordant concerns to interact, to relax, and to get to know each other.
SWG, according to its Vice-President, Casey Winsett, is about “building a community of people who like to write. There wasn’t one when we started, and I’ve never really been in one. I thought it was a really cool community to establish.” The lack of a community surprised Winsett. “I’ve always been a writer,” he said, “but when I joined the Marine Corps at 19, I didn’t have anyone to talk about it or share it with. When I came to college, I expected there be some kind of community. There’s the Creative Writing minor, and I was excited for that, but when SWG started, I thought, yes, I want to be a part of it.”
EMMA’s President, Gretchen Lund, observed a similar void for English majors: “We wanted to find each other. A lot of the founding members noticed that as freshmen and sophomores, we were floating around in our 101s or our 200-level classes and didn’t know any other majors. We wanted to fix that. We wanted everyone to feel at home.”
While the merit-based Sigma Tao Delta exists for juniors and seniors, EMMA is open to all years and to all GPAs. They strive to build a sense of community for English majors and minors. Lund explains, “Socially, we get together and watch movies, talk about books or not about books. English majors and minors think in a particular way. We’re mostly empathetic individuals that think critically about life and the events happening around us. It’s nice to have a space full of like-minded individuals to talk about what bothers or excites us. In other departments, you might get some odd looks if you come in screaming, ‘Percy Shelley is my hero!’”
Specific interests in literature can range a great deal—your passion for Shelly might be rivaled by another’s passion for Gwendolyn Brooks or Finnegan’s Wake. Though open to more people than EMMA, SWG brings together students with a more specific interest. “We’re students who like to write things,” Winsett explains, “We get together, we share what we write, we talk about books, and we sometimes write together. Other times, we just hang out.”
Mondays are hang out nights, like the one spent watching The Babadook. On Mondays, there’s pizza. On Tuesdays, there’s writing. Guild members get together and respond to prompts. They might do an Exquisite Corpse—a collectively composed poem where everyone follows the same pattern. They might write only in questions. They might write telegraph messages.
For Walker, these activities offer her a chance to pursue writing outside of her coursework. Though she wants the Creative Writing minor, she’s unsure if she’ll be able to fit it in before she graduates. “It’s really great to have the option to pursue writing even if I don’t necessarily have the minor,” she says. Lund contrasts SWG with EMMA, noting that “SWG is more hands-on writing, so they’ll meet at Waffle House and write together. They’re a more industrious group. EMMA offers a place where we can gather just for fun.”
EMMA, like SWG, has a penchant for watching movies. Recent viewings have included Dead Poets Society and Wonder Woman. The movies inspire conversation—Wonder Woman led to discussions on EMMA’s GroupMe app conversation about Greek mythology and the movie’s gender dynamics.
While Lund plays up the social aspects of EMMA, they also organize several campus activities each semester. In the fall, they paired with Alabama Students Without Borders and the Hispanic-Latino Association to kick off Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month with a Read-In in front of Morgan Hall. They hosted a Spooktacular Open Mic for Halloween and a Friendsgiving Potluck at the Strode House. The latter two events helped students to engage with professors outside the classroom. Lund wants EMMA to “give students a chance to interact with their instructors on a more relaxed level rather than having the classroom dynamic at all times.”
EMMA also offers professional development, resume building, and service opportunities. The group volunteers at Matthews Elementary School. They worked at a book fair. They run a book club, which is an especially fun and revealing adventure for Walker, who says, “Many of the younger children are learning to read, but watching them learn is quite the teaching experience for me too.”
While SWG hasn’t done as much community outreach as EMMA, they are looking beyond the confines of their meetings. SWG encourages members to read at the various open mic nights at Monarch Espresso Bar and is hoping to publish a chapbook of works generated in the writing sessions. With an eye towards publication, they hold regular workshops to critique members’ writing. These workshops differ from those that occur in creative writing courses. They feature, according to Winsett, “a much more chill environment than a classroom where people feel pressured to bring up good points. We speak more freely and open, more like a group of friends, which is what we want the community to be.”
The long-term vision of the SWG is to be something of an umbrella organization for various splinter groups. “We want to facilitate a main gathering of people,” Winsett says, “Our vision for it would allow people to break off and do what they want to do under the flag of the SWG; to make the community a place where people can do what they want to do in pursuit of creativity—go on a hiking trip for the sake of inspiration or get together and write in a coffee shop.”
That striving for community, for a sense of belonging guides EMMA as well. “If you’re an English Major or minor,” Lund suggests, “and want to get to know other English majors and minors and have a sense of community, than this is the group for you.” Lund’s offer is as much a promise as an invitation: EMMA, like SWG, welcomes students into a community that can enrich their lives. The strength of these communities emanate from their camaraderie and aspirations.