In which Miriam Peskowitz interviews Lori Tharps about how and why she created the WordSpace writers group.
In 2006, after publishing Hair Story
, enjoying a successful career in New York as a magazine writer, and moving to Philadelphia, Lori Tharps
craved ongoing connections to her other writers. Her vision was to create the writers’ version of the office water cooler, a place to share industry tidbits, daily wisdom and professional advice. Thus began WordSpace, a writers group with a change-up: no one shares their actual writing! In the four years since, Lori has published the memoir Kinky Gazpacho
, has joined the Temple University faculty as an assistant professor of journalism, and is getting ready for the release of her first novel (yay!) Substitute Me
, (Atria), this August.
When I joined WordSpace, I, like the others, was a published, midlist author. My first trade book, The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars
, had been out for a year or so, and though some readers loved it dearly, it didn’t sell all that many copies. I was trying to figure out what’s next in a writer’s life, grappling with questions like, What is the pace of writing books? Can we ever support ourselves by writing books? Does everyone thrash around in the jumble of free lance work, paid blog writing, teaching, and finding a few moments to write from one’s heart?
WordSpace became the monthly place to be part of these conversations, to realize that other writers were in the same muck I was, and to grow and change with other writers. Sometimes the conversation is all check-in. Sometimes it’s about a topic, like setting up websites, or discussing how to write while you’re teaching college comp classes, and every so often we meet a special visitor, like publicist LiRon Anderson-Bell
or talking via Skype with author Heidi Durrow
about book promotion, just a week before her novel The Girl Who Fell From the Sky
Profession-based writers groups are a model that can be replicated by anyone. They help us demystify the industry, and find our own clarity. They help us mentor each other, and be mentored and supported when we need. They help us level the playing field. They work because we are generous, and we can give and receive. Here is Lori's take.
Miriam Peskowitz: Hey Lori, you started WordSpace in 2006, but your vision wasn’t to share writing, but to share advice, wisdom about promoting our books, and the nuts and bolts of building a career. How did you come up with this vision?
Honestly, the original inspiration for starting WordSpace was because I was new to the city and was lonely writing in my attic by myself. I wanted to find a community of writers and when I couldn’t, I decided to create my own.
Once I decided to create the community I quickly realized that I didn’t want or need a group to help me write—I’d figured out how to do that already over the years—I wanted a professional support group of sorts. I needed a place where other writers, at more or less the same place in their professional career as myself, were grappling with the same types of issues. Issues like self-promotion, utilizing technology, building an author platform, dealing with less than perfect agents.
Not to mention, there’s dealing with issues like taxes, and wealth-building. I was trying to make a living off my writing, so I really needed to think like a professional. Putting several heads together to find solutions always seems like a good idea to me.
Miriam Peskowitz: What do you think are the most pressing issues that we writers face, aside from the creative challenges of putting words together?
I think one of the biggest challenges all writers face is getting their work into the hands of their intended audience. The publishing industry itself does very little to help the majority of their authors make contact with the public. So this falls on our shoulders, and it takes a lot of time, energy, and money to do it well. Until a surefire system comes into play, I think this is going to be a problem for a long time. On the flip side, though, social media is helping to level the playing field a bit (as are initiatives like She Writes that help to empower authors to be better promoters of their own work).
Obviously, the other issue is making a living with your writing. It makes me very sad to think that only with the grace of Oprah would I ever be able to work full-time and help support my family with my writing. There always has to be that second gig.
But again, that’s why I created WordSpace, so that as a group we can try to tackle some of these issues and come up with ways that we can write and make money and be happy. I have not given up.
So, She Writers:
What are your experiences working in groups?
Do you have formal groups or informal connections with other writers that are your “water cooler”?
Where do you figure out the big picture possibilities for being a writer and building a career?
What are the possibilities for creating full-time employment from creative work? Is anyone optimistic?
Up next week: Adventure with E-Books! Join me for an interview with She Writes member Amy Tiemann, whose new book Courageous Parents, Confident Kids was released first as an e-book. Find out why she chose this path, and what she learned along the way.
-Photo by John Barone, courtesy of Lori Tharps