Humanities Institute

Writing Austin's Lives

A Short History

The story behind the pages of Writing Austin's Lives: a community portrait begins in the summer of 2003 when the Humanities Institute put out the call across Austin for stories of everyday life in the city, taking the notion of public literacy and municipal conversation to an entirely new level. The response was overwhelming as over 800 stories, written by Austinites from all zip codes, economic groups, and experience levels, came pouring in. Launched as an interactive extension of Austin's version of the national "Mayor's Book Club" project, Writing Austin's Lives became an innovative, city-wide conversation starter.

The project began as a community partnership with the Austin Mayor's Office, the Story Circle Network, the Austin Public Library, and the Austin Independent School District, and has remained grounded in collaboration ever since. The Austin History Center Association teamed up with the Humanities Institute to make the stories publicly available in a published collection through their Waterloo Press. They also offered a permanent home for the narratives, ensuring that the diverse voices of the city will be a part of the Austin archive for generations to come.

From the over 800 submissions in 2003, volunteer readers and Humanities Institute staff painstakingly whittled them down to an eclectic blend of 127 personal tales and organized them into ten chapters titled "Places to Call Home," "What We Treasure, What We Need," "Landmarks," "Shall We Overcome?," "Ways We Live Now," "Austin Then," "East Side Stories," "Family Matters," "Keepin' it Weird," and "It's an Austin Thing." What resulted was a 412-page portrait of the Texas capital as seen through the eyes of a cross-section of its residents, illustrated with striking historical and contemporary images of Austin from the Austin History Center's collection.

What binds the diverse group of citizen-writers featured in Writing Austin's Lives is not a national tragedy, age, or life experience, but the city itself. A second-grader's meditations on her playground's pecan trees, a first-hand account of a racially segregated Austin, a humorous description of a surprise early-morning encounter with the First Lady, a bilingual description of city bus passengers through a migrant's eyes—these are just a few of the glimpses of ordinary life told in this remarkable collection.

Since the inception of the program, Writing Austin's Lives has taken on new and varied lives, drawing regular media coverage and inspiring similar projects in other cities. Austin-area professional writers led life-writing workshops for those looking to spark their imaginations or hone their skills, local director Rick Garcia staged a dramatic performance of selected submissions with Austin actors, and the anthology was featured at the 2004 Texas Book Festival. It was awarded the Austin Chronicle's "Best of Austin" Critics' Award for "Best Local Authors," and has been declared a best-seller at local bookstores. Secondary and college-level teachers use it in literature and composition classes and local and national media organizations track its evolution with interest, including features in The Austin American-Statesman, The Austin Chronicle, NPR's "Smart City," and News 8 Austin.

The book's most recent incarnation was as the 2005 Mayor's Book Club selection, setting off a reinvigorated round of public programming, including public readings given by the authors, book discussion groups, a website called Write On, Austin! where residents can post new stories, and a film contest called Filming Austin's Lives sponsored by KLRU and News 8 Austin.

The rich discussions around the book, the repeated question, "Are you planning another book?" and the surprising and continuing ability of "Writing Austin's Lives" to take new forms has made it clear Austin is a city of stories with many more to tell.

  • Humanities Institute

    University of Texas at Austin
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    Austin, Texas 78712