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Out of the Binders: Five Keys to Writerly Entrepreneurship
Written by
Kamy Wicoff
October 2014
Written by
Kamy Wicoff
October 2014

This weekend, I will be speaking on a panel called "If You Build It, They Will Come," at BinderCon, a symposium to empower women and gender non-conforming writers with tools, connections and strategies to advance their careers. (Talk about if you build it, they will come--I can't wait to meet organizers Leigh Stein and Lux Alptraum, who have put together a two-day conference featuring a who's who of writers, agents, publishers, and bloggers, as well as an impressive set of sponsors, in a matter of months.) I'm so honored and thrilled that Cynthia Manick, a long-time She Writes member, invited me to participate, and particularly on a subject so dear to my heart: when, in a writer's life, is it time to appeal and apply to the existing systems to publish, promote and support yourself, and when is it necessary (and effective) to build your own?

I am most looking forward to hearing the thoughts, and the stories, of my fellow panelists: Laura Pegram, Editor-and-Chief of Kweli Journal, Grace Anieza Ali, Editorial Director of OF NOTE magazine, and JP Howard, curator of the Women Writers In Bloom Poetry Salon. (Everyone reading this should explore every single one of those links!) I still have so much to learn about creating successful community, and am eager for inspiration and guidance as I contemplate She Writes' path from here. But I'm also grateful for the opportunity to reflect on what I see as the key components to our success so far.

1) Create the community you need. They say we write the books we need--the ones we looked for on the shelf but couldn't find, the stories we eventually ensure are in the world by writing them ourselves. I certainly felt like that about my first book, I Do But I Don't, which I wrote mostly because it was the book I wish I could have read during the months between my engagement and my wedding. With She Writes, Deborah Siegel and I set out to create the community--and resource--we needed as two published authors trying to navigate a rapidly changing publishing landscape. We started by asking ourselves what WE needed, and the answers came quickly and urgently: 1) a place to ask questions, and post answers, about the increasing and unprecedented pressures of promotion and platform on writers; 2) a place to honor the art of writing and reconnect with our craft, promotion and platform be damned, and; 3) a place to address the unique challenges faced by women who write, with the aim of empowering and educating women writers through community. The bottom line: don't create what you think other people want. Build what you need, and they will come.

2) Consciously push beyond your networks. When Debbie and I opened our virtual doors, we had already seeded the community with colleagues and friends. In the months and years that followed, we had to make a conscious, constant effort to expand the community beyond our inner circles by doing our homework and reaching out to existing organizations and communities. If we hadn't, She Writes would never have expanded beyond our friends, and friends of friends. The bottom line: Push yourself to be inclusive and expansive. The ones you really need--the ones you don't know yet--will not come if you don't find them and invite them in.

3) Be humble. Be helpful. It is easy, when starting something new, to get caught up in the brilliance of it all: We are going to change the world! Nobody has ever done this before! Nobody is doing it right! There is a place for these feelings, of course (see #1); without them, it would be hard to summon the energy required to start something new. At the same time, your new thing--whatever it is--will not exist in a vacuum. You are probably not the only person to ever have your idea. It is crucial to educate yourself about others in the space, and, when appropriate, to reach out to them with humility, to say, "I'd love to learn from you," rather than, "Look what I'm doing!" In our early years my mantra was: Ask not what another organization can do for us, but what we can do for them. As I've said before, generosity is the new currency, particularly online. And I have never regretted leading with the question, "How can I help?" as a way to start a relationship with a person or an organization. Bottom line: Give, and you shall receive.

4) Invest others in whatever you build. I think for writerly undertakings, in particular, this is key. Attempting to make yourself the center of a community, a literary publication, or a publisher (like She Writes Press), undermines the whole enterprise, because these things exist in order to provide a platform for writers, and writing, you love. Whenever I run into or correspond with a She Writes member who has a book or an article coming out, I always say, "Remember, She Writes is YOURS!" And as long as she understands that she should invest others in what she's doing by teaching or inspiring, rather than by just promoting, the platform is hers to use. Bottom line: Build a house for we, not a vehicle for me. 

5) Wear the shirt. I have Gloria Feldt to thank for this one. In her practical and powerful book "No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power," Power Tool #6 is "Wear the Shirt," which, as Gloria puts it, is a metaphor for sharing your convictions with others. When you start something like She Writes, however, it is no metaphor. You are wearing the shirt for all to see, online and in real life--and it is very, very hard to take it off. Sometimes I have hated this. Sometimes I have wished so much that I could lose the shirt, take a break, be invisible, call the whole thing off! But I am so grateful for the reminder of my commitment, and my convictions, that wearing the shirt so publicly gives me. Great things--namely She Writes Press--have come of the fact that at times, I have kept on simply because I have been too embarrassed to quit. Bottom line: If you build it, you are stuck with it, and that can be a beautiful (or at least a worthwhile) thing.

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  • I appreciate everything you wrote here. "Be humble. Be helpful" is something I translate into "tithe to others in your field with your time and attention and advice." So often I feel that writers and artists don't realize that when we give to the circle, it will come back to us. On the other hand, I would love to get your thoughts on volunteering. Where do we set limits? For example, a great project when the initial funding is gone: how do you determine how much of yourself to continue to give? The success of Shewrites, I assume, is undoubtedly because you and others put in energy and time without compensation at first. What was the tipping point where it became not only a labor of love?

  • Deborah Siegel Writing

    Love this all so much!! Such true words. And so well said.

  • nicole meier

    Love this entire concept. Important tools on how to create the writer communities we want. Thank you.

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    glad you enjoyed it Jill!

  • Jill Jepson

    What excellent advice! Thank you for this!

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    Thank you Gwen, and it is such an honor to have you as part of the SWP family! Check out Gwen's book with us: http://shewritespress.com/gwendolyn-plano/

  • Gwendolyn Plano

    This is a great article, Kamy. Two years ago I stumbled upon SWP on the internet; I had never heard of it before. But, it was SW's focus on community, on support--on care, that drew me in. I suspect many authors signed with SW for similar reasons, for "community" translates to safe haven for anyone writing about tough topics. Thank you.