ArcLight Stories shows us there’s power in telling our stories.
Written by Lindsey Osborne
Photography by Beau Gustafson
Ask ArcLight Stories founder Taylor Robinson just what ArcLight is, and he will take a deep breath and, with a sparkle in his eye, say, “ArcLight is stories.” You will probably laugh a bit and then say, “But wait…what do you mean? What do you mean ‘It’s stories’?” But ArcLight is just that—it is stories. Well, it’s people telling their stories.
ArcLight Stories was born in 2010 from Robinson and a friend’s imagination after they’d gotten hooked on a podcast called The Moth (themoth.org). Listening to The Moth is kind of like sitting around on someone’s front porch after dinner—someone suggests ice cream and someone else says something like, “Did I ever tell you about the time…” And so the storytelling begins, and often, it goes on and on. Robinson felt like The Moth captured the essence of that experience, and he wanted to create something that did, too. He says that at the time, ArcLight came about partly as a reason for him and his friends to keep in touch—it was just a fun side project they could work on together. They came up with a name, gathered some people to tell some stories, and put a date on the calendar. “In my mind, the way ArcLight began was as much as trying to do something like The Moth as it was trying to come up with a way to have an ongoing reason to hang out with these people I used to work with,” he explains. “So we kicked [the idea] around, and one day, I said, ‘We’re doing it! It’s going to be on this day and we’ve got two months to get ready.’”
The first ArcLight was held in October of 2010 at 2nd Row Studio and about 40 people attended. “For all of our purposes, it was a success, because we’d never done one before,” Robinson says with a laugh. “We had a good time.” From there, ArcLight was put on every other month. So what happens at ArcLight? Well, a lot of people sit in front of a stage. Then one person—the storyteller—gets on stage and tells a story. The clincher is that the stories have to be true, but they can be about anything. You might tell a story about the time you went camping and a bear tried to steal your food or the time your mom shared some advice with you that changed your life or the time that…well, anything happened. ArcLight believes that everyone has a story and can tell it.
Robinson, who is also a video producer, says that in the beginning, the most challenging aspect of ArcLight was explaining its purpose and recruiting storytellers. “It became very clear very quickly that the hardest thing about ArcLight was finding people to tell stories. Explaining what ArcLight is to someone is hard enough, because it’s not like anything that most people have ever heard of,” he says. “I would say, ‘It’s like stand-up comedy, but it’s not comedians, it’s just regular people standing in front of an audience with a microphone, telling a story of something that happened to them.’” To help explain it, the ArcLight team began recording each story and sharing it via podcasts (these podcasts can be found at https://soundcloud.com/
Slowly but surely, ArcLight began to grow, both in audience and in storytellers. The event moved from 2nd Row Studio to Urban Standard and then, last year, to the Avon Theater to accommodate the growing crowds. Along the way, leadership transitioned, and Robinson became the sole guy in charge. He says something that was vital to ArcLight’s expansion—and his sanity—was allowing others to step in and help. “I came to realize that there were a lot of people who loved ArcLight, and they, since it started, had been begging me to help, and I was like Lenny from Mice and Men. I was squishing it because I didn’t want to let go of it,” he explains. “I had a party about a year ago, and I invited everyone over. I apologized for being such a control freak, and I said, ‘Now, I’m going to let go, because this has the opportunity to grow into something special.’” It was the turning point for the organization, since it gave room for the workload to expand and for fresh perspectives to help shape the future.
Another contributor to ArcLight’s growth is the radio show that began on WBHM in 2014—the first episode, on Christmas Day, was a collection of holiday stories. “I had just been grassrootsing it, beating the bush, sending letters to people, sending tickets to people. I would say, ‘Here are free tickets, saving you five dollars!’” Robinson explains. Some of those people he invited were from WBHM, and they liked what they heard. The radio show is a way to not only inform people that ArcLight happens, but it also helps explain what it is, since actual stories are aired (much like podcasting the stories helped in the beginning).
ArcLight events are held every month now. There is a roster of seasoned storytellers who can be called upon to share stories—each event has a theme around which the stories revolve—and the team welcomes new storytellers (you can submit a story by visiting arclightstories.com.) There are also people on the team called story coaches, who help storytellers work any kinks out of the presentation of their stories.
These days, people stand in lines outside the Avon Theater hoping to get in, and most ArcLight events sell out. When storytellers drop their first punch line, they’re met with a boom of laughter. When they’re nearing the climax of their stories, they look out and see hundreds of people on the edges of their seats, reliving the moment alongside them. Watching the interaction, the power of live storytelling is so evident: The audience and the storyteller are on the same ride. They’re connected.
Robinson explains that this connection was the reason behind ArcLight Stories. “When we put a first-time storyteller in front of the audience, almost every single time they get up there, and they’re nervous, and you can see it. But there’s a moment—they get that first laugh or they get that first gasp—and they realize what I’ve been telling them the whole time: The crowd is on their side. It clicks, and they’re there with the audience, and they’re all along for the ride.”
ArcLight Stories is changing names—from ArcLight Stories to Arc Stories; should you see their new name, rest assured that it’s the same ArcLight. Their next event will be on June 27, back at Urban Standard. The theme is “Do-Over: Stories From the Vault” and the night will showcase some of the best stories from ArcLight’s past. There are only about 100 tickets available, and they can purchased ($10 in advance, $5 at the door) on ArcLight’s website. You can follow ArcLight Stories on Facebook to stay updated on all forthcoming events.
In the same way that the podcasts and the radio show help explain just what ArcLight is, we wanted to share stories with you. The stories on the next few pages are real ArcLight stories told at real events—they’ve only been edited to work in a print format. You’ll also find a URL directing you to the audio version of the story.
Here’s to stories—those in magazines and novels, those on front porches and stages, those that are mine and those that are yours. Here’s to that thing that connects us all.
Dumped for God
Written by Erin Moon
There’s nothing quite as terrible as getting dumped. I know this because I have been dumped in almost every iteration possible: I’ve been cheated on, I’ve been dumped regarding an altercation involving the attractiveness of Asian people, I’ve been dumped for being “too aggressive” at intramural flag football, I’ve been dumped because a used cassette tape featuring “Whoop! There it is” was not considered a socially acceptable birthday gift, I’ve been dumped because of 9/11, I’ve been dumped because I was “too needy” and “a lot right now” for someone who waited tables at Outback Steakhouse, I’ve been dumped via letter, via email, via other people, via other people’s parents…the list could actually go on into infinity.
But nothing, no matter how harsh, compares with the first time you get dumped.
When my mother was pregnant with me, her water broke during the fourth stanza of “I Surrender All” during the invitation at the First Baptist Church in my hometown. I have been a good little Baptist girl my whole entire life. I knew nothing about other denominations: I spent all my time with Baptist friends. I had a couple of Methodist friends who were sprinkled as babies, which seemed very glamorous and possibly heretical to me. But outside of that, I was an impressionable little cucumber pickling in Baptist juice.
Now, there comes a time in every girl’s life when she needs to rebel. I needed to bust out of this Baptist cocoon. I needed to resist this tyrannical upbringing and be my own person. I wanted to riot: maybe drink some alcohol or take advantage of my recently puberty-delivered boobs. But my firstborn people-pleasing issues, as well as some strong Baptist guilt, was preventing me from really stepping out there.
When I got to high school, I somehow ended up in a class with juniors and seniors. And there was this one guy, a junior, whom I really hung my hat on. He was impressively tall, he had dark-hair, he was charming, funny, and carried around a well-worn copy of Walden constantly. His name was Chris and he was a 16-year-old dreamboat.
I liked Chris, and as luck would have it, Chris liked me. I have no idea why. I was 14 and I could not go anywhere alone with a boy unaccompanied by a chaperone, but this did not deter Chris. He was genuinely interested—he wanted to hang out with me. We were walking out of school on Friday and he mentioned something about going to church the next day. A Saturday. Church isn’t on Saturday. Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening, yes. But not Saturday.
And maybe I didn’t know much about Thoreau, but I could suss out some context clues, and that’s when it hit me: He’s Catholic. Sweet lady of high school revelation, this guy is Catholic. He might as well have been from another planet, this was so exotic to me. Catholics crossed themselves with some kind of incantation. They prayed to Mary! I’m such a rebel. This is perfect. He attended a Catholic church with holy water where they had yearly German sausage festivals. There was kneeling and confession and men called Father wearing what amounted to dresses handing out real wine, not grape juice. From a chalice. From a golden chalice. He might as well have been some sort of alien bird of paradise, the perfect way for me to rebel. A Catholic. How sexy.
Not only was he Catholic (how much does it say about me that Catholicism was considered to be so provocative?), but Chris was a sweetheart. He wrote me poetry that compared my eyes to stars, he walked me to class, he even respected the rule my parents set up about me not actually being allowed to date. So…anytime we went somewhere, there was my mom. This was a man, a 16-year-old man with his own car, who knew about things like Walden and infant baptism, and he was willing to adhere to the rules.
About this time, the movie Titanic came out. And we all wanted to see Titanic. First of all, what’s more romantic than the sinking of the Titanic? Catholicism, obviously, but other than that, nothing. It starred Leonardo DiCaprio, Celine Dion sang the hell out of the theme song, and it was PG-13, so we all knew there was gonna be a least a little bit of nudity.
I desperately wanted to see Titanic with Chris. I just knew that whatever love story was in Titanic was going to be the catalyst for Chris telling me that he loved me, that we were meant to be together, and that our love, much like our future marriage, was going to bridge the divide between Baptists and Catholics, just like the trailer showed love bridging the divide between the rich people and the poor people on the Titanic. I begged my mom, pleaded with her. And she finally relented, with the caveat that she would chaperone. I don’t know if you’ve had the pleasure of sitting between your mother and your 16-year-old boyfriend while Leonardo DiCaprio sketches Kate Winslet’s boobs, but it was an experience that’s been branded into my subconscious since. A high moment.
On the way home, Chris was very introspective. It’s worked! The movie has inspired him. He wants to tell me that he loves me, and our love will not die like Jack and Rose’s love, because we are not on a boat. It’s all coming together when he looks and me with those big, beautiful brown eyes and says, “Can we talk?”
“Yes!” I was still so young, and I didn’t know what those words meant. It was one of those moments when you want to take it all in, remember the smells and how the air felt and what you were wearing. I could already hear the words coming out of his mouth before he said them, “Erin, God has told me I’m going to be a priest.”
I’m ashamed to say it took me a moment to realize what it meant to be a Catholic priest. And when I did, when it all came crashing down around me, I really felt what it was like to be persecuted for my beliefs. Those Catholics and their celibacy. Mind you, this was not the cool pope of now, this was some other pope who wasn’t having any of that.
Chris never became a priest. He went to seminary for a year, dropped out, and became a bartender. So either I was a formative guidepost during his spiritual journey or it was an elaborate ruse to dump a little girl who took Titanic way too seriously.
Getting dumped sucks. And I began my dumping list by getting dumped for God.
To listen to the audio version of this story, visit https://soundcloud.com/arc-
A Boy & His Bike
Written by Steve Davis
I discovered the true meaning of love at the age of 43…in the back of a barn.
I’m from Texas—actually from Southeast Texas, which is confusing because it was a few miles from the Louisiana border, so you had the shrimp and the gators, but you had the Texans and the longhorns. It was a small community—we didn’t even have a dot on the map yet. Some wise ass at the map store drew a big circle and just called it the Piney Woods. Sort of sounds like a Stephen King novel.
I grew up on a sandy dirt road that was sandwiched between two paved county roads that enjoyed more potholes than daily traffic. The road was long, narrow, and lined with tall pine trees that were held together by muscadine vines and dense humidity. The humidity and the dust, when mixed, created problems. My mother would do a nightly naval check. You laugh, but I gotta tell you: If you mix enough humidity with just a wee bit of dust…you’ve got a major compaction problem. That old road played an important role in my life. In my younger years, it was a playground for me. In my later years, it was my way out of town.
Growing up in the center of nowhere in the middle of the woods, we were as creative as we were poor. We didn’t have Legos, video games, Power Rangers. We had a tree house, 1,000 acres, a BB gun, and the Holy Bible. We were expected to make our own fun or do chores. And I was deathly allergic to chores.
My eighth birthday was rapidly approaching, and I wanted a bicycle. I didn’t have a bike. My buddy down the street, Robbie, had a bike. It was a cool bike—yellow, banana seat, blue flames on the side with the basket on the front where you can carry your guns and ammo. We rode up and down the dirt road playing cops and robbers. You ever play cops and robbers with only one bike? It’s impossible.
Times were tough in the 60s. Our little cocoon was changing. The whole world was changing. Some for the good and some in a very sad way.
My dad was a shift worker at a plant. My mom wrestled three kids every night. We had a large garden with corn, peas, beans, and okra. It was tough. We ate lots of grits and collards. At first, I didn’t like grits and collards. But you served grits and collards enough, you learn to love them.
Each night leading up to my big day, I dreamed about my bike. I had one dream where I donned a white scarf wrapped around my neck, flying down a hill… you know, with this beautiful blonde sitting on the back. My Zorro cape flapping in the breeze. But as you might have guessed, the birthday came and went…no bike. I was bikeless.
I got other things though. A large bundle of Hanes underwear. Something about my mom and dad that you need to know is that they wanted you to grow into things…and I can tell you this, I didn’t have much of an ass. It’s not like it is now. Anyway, there’s two things that happen with underwear too big. Either they ride down or they ride up. Both are very uncomfortable.
I got a new can of BBs for my gun. Got a set of Lincoln Logs, but technically that was a joint gift between me and my little brother, who shared the same birthday with me, which sucks. I was disappointed and I was heartbroken and I was angry. I didn’t want to be the robber that always got caught.
I figured that I would be bikeless well until I could secure employment, so I turned to the want ads. There’s not a whole lot that an 8-year-old can do. And of course, when my father he noticed my interest in employment, he reminded me, “Look out in the fields, son. I have more work than 10 people can do.” Of course, he was right. Dad worked me like a sharecropper my entire life.
A few weeks later my buddy Robbie and I were kicking around a trash dump. We spent a lot of time in trash dumps. People throw away really cool things at dumps. I’m not sure if you’ve been to one before. I mean, whiskey bottles, just a little drop or two in there. We built our entire tree house from things from the dump. It was a cool place. Beneath an old spring mattress, we discovered this bent frame of a bicycle. It was rusted; it was bent up, looked like it had hit a log truck or something. Some guy probably got killed on it.
But it was there. So my buddy and I put it on our shoulders, carried it back to my house and we promised each other that we would work on this bike everyday until I could have my own. After school, we would leap out of the yellow school bus, and run the mile from the bus drop to my house. We would grab a bottle of Nehi and chocolate chip cookies, and we rushed out to the barn to work on the bike frame. Sanding this bike, cleaning this bike. It was bent like a “V” so I’m not really sure how we thought we were going to fix that, but we really didn’t care. We knew we would have to buy tires, but figured we’d turn to the “Green Stamp” book. That book had everything in it.
Robbie and I worked day after day, week after week. The barn was located about halfway distance between garden and my house, and I remember my dad stopping one night, peeping through the window to see how our progress was going. It was the look on his face that I remember most. I had seen that look many times. Mostly trying to balance a checkbook that had more pages than money in the account. It was a face of hopelessness.
About a month later, I stepped off the school bus down by the missionary Baptist church, which is exactly one mile from my house. It was late fall, so the sun was going down to the west, and you have to know—remember the dust and the navel—there was dust everywhere. The bus pulls out, I glance up the road, and there’s my dad walking. My first thought was that there’s something wrong. But, as he grew closer, I noticed he was carrying something on his shoulder.
He was carrying a black bike. A brand-new one.
He smiled and set it down in front of me, and I rode it home. From that day until I graduated from high school, I rode like the wind.
Forty-three years later, I was standing in this same old barn with my mom. I could see Dad out in the distance, working in his garden. He was not a big guy. His arms were lean and tan and his face weathered, glued together by cracks and gray stubble. He was a hard worker. I stood for a moment and watched him out in the garden. And of course, my mom was busy doing things. She was always busy, cleaning stuff out and really enjoyed my involvement—“Move that thing over there to here…No, I don’t like that, move it to here. What about back there…hmmm. Nope to here, back there, what about over there?” She looked like a traffic cop in Manhattan.
As I was pushing and pulling large pots of plants, I happened to look up into the rafters. There it was: the old bent bike from the dump. I grabbed Mom and said, “Oh my God, what is that bike still doing here?”
Mom came over, hugged me, and said, “Oh, you and Robbie worked on the bike so hard.”
I said, “You know, we never actually finished it, did we? Times were tough back then weren’t they, Mom?”
She looked up at me and said, “Yes, baby, they were. But you know what? We grew stronger from it. “
I glanced out the window and watched my dad wipe the sweat off his brow and I said, “Mom, how did Dad ever find the money to buy me that bike?”
The tears started down her face. The lump in my throat grew. She grabbed my hand, squeezed it, and said, “Your father sold his vacation at the plant. He worked six days a week and worked the seventh day in the fields with your grandfather just so he could buy you that bike. He needed a tractor, he needed a new car, but he could not stand to see you work on that bike anymore.”
I grabbed my mom and hugged her tight and I said, “Mom, that’s very nice. I didn’t know.”
She wiped her face and said, “Look, please don’t ever say a word to your father about that; he didn’t want you to know.”
I nodded in silence.
Mom smiled at me. “Your father said that it was the best vacation he ever had.”
Hear the audio version of the story by visiting https://soundcloud.com/arc-
My Reasons for Rap
Written by Al Elliott
I used to stutter terribly as a child. I remember receiving services from a speech pathologist in the third grade prior to my parents getting a divorce. At that time, I wasn’t self conscious about my speech impediment because I believed, in time, this speech pathologist could and, eventually would, cure me of my stuttering. Before she had time to work her magic on my condition, my mom and dad divorced. I transferred to a school without access to a speech pathologist. There were so many different things going on at the time, I initially didn’t think much of attending different schools nor of the speech services I would no longer receive. It didn’t take long before my new teacher in my new school was calling on my to read aloud as was customary in elementary schools. I stuttered and stammered during my attempts to read aloud and a few of my classmates laughed at my efforts. In their defense, they were not used to hearing a stuttering classmate with a Tennessean accent as thick as pancake batter. Needless to say, I was not amused. Because of this experience and numerous experiences similar, I eventually associated reading with stuttering and being embarrassed. I began to read less and less until I was reading two grade levels behind by the time I entered the fifth grade.
There was also a type of culture shock I was experiencing as well. This was the middle of my third grade year and I left a predominantly white school setting and transferred to a school with a very different cultural experience. My mother remembers me coming home on the first day after attending this new school and asking, “Where are all the white people?” This was the first time I had ever attended a school where there were no non-brown people.
Time passed and, like many children, I adjusted. By the time I was in the fifth grade, my mother had moved us (my older sister, younger sister, and baby brother) out of her mother’s home into our own. I was attending a different school with a similar cultural and socioeconomic make up as my third and fourth grade schools in and near Bessemer, Alabama.
When students are reading two grade levels below what is expected of them, they are sometimes placed in a special education class. This is what happened to me. I remember being in a classroom at certain times of the day with other students who were also reading below grade level. Sometimes, near the end of class, I remember break dancing with classmates at school. This might not sound like the best teaching pedagogy, but I like to think I had a teacher who was bold enough to let her students express themselves with dance. This was during the early 80s and hip hop—rap music especially—was becoming popular with children my age, and we would break dance because we loved this music. I began to notice when riding around with my mom, listening to the radio, that I didn’t stutter when I sang along with my favorite songs. Not only that, I could actually recite these same songs without the radio and not stutter. I began to wonder what would happen if I wrote the rap. Would I be able to get my words out as smoothly as I spoke the words of my favorite rappers?
Here is the first rap I remember writing and not stuttering:
“The baddest frat might be alpha phi beta,
but they ain’t got nothing on the caped crusaders
Batman is his name
but without that mask, he is known as Bruce Wayne.
A rich man like this, he should be driving a Seville
But he’d rather be seen in his Batmobile
That old machine can kick up quite a thunder
Right by his side is the famous boy wonder
You may wonder where a cat like this will roam
Well I hear Gotham City is his home
You can contact him by using a bat flashlight
They are two super heroes
running through the night! Word.”
I remember how pleased I was when I would perform this rap of mine at school for my friends and for my family. I would end it with the “rapper’s dismount” by folding my arms in front of my chest and lean over to one side after the customary, “word!” at the end of my performance. It was one of the coolest feelings ever! I fell in love with rap because it gave me a way to be cool and a way to express myself. I had rap in common with my friends. Hip hop helped me feel less awkward and more in tune with my family and my friends.
The more I wrote raps, the more I was reading and writing, and the more I began to sound less like a stuttering kid from Tennessee and more like a rapper, even when I wasn’t rapping. I kept rapping throughout my middle and high school years. I was in talent shows as a high school and college student and eventually landed a record deal with Chip Records by the time I graduated UAB in 1996. My first year teaching, I would go to the studio at night and work on my album after teaching sixth graders in Bessemer. I thought I was about to become the next big thing in rap. I quickly discovered that I could not support my growing family with my rap career, and I went back to school and earned my master’s degree in education while working a part-time job.
I did continue to rap during this time. Rap served different purposes for me during different parts of my life. Now, it was a tool I used to identify with young people who are drawn to its magic. I work with Real Life Poets, Inc., and we help students articulate their truths with both written and spoken word. Rap is rhythm and poetry.
As fate would have it, my son, who is now 15, wants to be an emcee. This is cool to me because I can really only give him personal advice on how to become a teacher or a rapper. Rap now serves as a bonding tool for my son and me. Sometimes we disagree on certain matters that have to deal with rap. For instance, I think his favorite rapper should be his dad. He respectfully disagrees. (He does get points for being honest.) We also sometimes don’t see eye to eye on what he should be doing to move his rap career forward. He thinks he needs a booking agent, and I think he needs to focus on writing more music. Having seven songs completed and posted to your Soundcloud account doesn’t necessarily equate to needing a booking agent, in my opinion.
I understand that his purpose for rap is to make money. I also understand that he is only focusing on one purpose. I want to make sure that my son understands the value of discovering multiple purposes for rap as well. Purpose is what fuels dreams. If your only purpose is to make money, what is there to fuel your dream if and when you don’t make money at it? As parents we are sometimes so consumed with making sure our kids have what we didn’t have, we forget to make sure that have what we did have. I discovered that I didn’t need to make money in order for rap to serve a purpose. I want to make sure that my son learns that we sometimes find our purpose by simply loving what we are passionate about.
Find the audio version of this story at https://soundcloud.com/arc-