Friday, July 22, 2011

Managing a State Writers' Organization

I've often marveled at those who felt compelled to propel writing in their home state. State writing organizations take serious time and love to maintain. When they have so many types, levels, and traits of writers to deal with, I've wondered how they keep such a group going without self-destructing from internal strife. 

But every state has its organizations. Some are huge with almost a thousand members. Others are small with a couple hundred or less. But they love writing. They crave to learn more about writing. And they keep going because they want to see each other grow and succeed. 

Deborah Marshall is president of the Missouri Writer's Guild. I came to know her well while presenting at the 2011 Missouri Writer's Guild Conference. She graciously offered to be a guest for my blog. While I was connected to her for yesterday's blog post about writing conferences, I ventured into her current role as president of a state-wide entity and asked how does she manage to keep it together and satisfy the needs of Missouri writers.

HOPE: You graduated from conference chair to President of the Missouri Writers Guild.You must love torture! That's a lot of responsibility. What is your basic role as the President?
DEB: Our organization is coming out of a stagnate perioda.  Membership declined and the checkbook grew flat. Many non-profits suffer similar symptoms, especially in our current economy.  My primary role as president is to educate writers about the benefits of belonging to our chapters and statewide organization.  I'm planning to visit our 17 chapters this year to rekindle the relationships between them and the Missouri Writers' Guild. I'm actively recruiting new members, encouraging renewals and developing  new benefits.  We recently launched a Members Only website to encourage communication between members, as well as encourage exchange between members and the board of directors. I will also organize our annual President's Contests with awards to be presented at the conference banquet.  I serve in an advisory role to the 2012 conference committee.
HOPE: Do you have specific goals or projects for the year? How many of these are yoursand how many decided by the board/organization? Surely you went in with plans of your own.
DEB: My primary project is to launch an updated and interactive website.  The Members Only site is the initial phase of this.  I hope to eventually be able to host online writing classes.  Then there's my signature project.  The launch of the Missouri Warrior Writers Project is something I've been developing for a couple of years.  It's a creative writing endeavor to capture the stories of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  These stories will be published in an anthology next year. Many of our professional writers possess the skills necessary to lead workshops for these veterans, so we're launching a pilot program at the Jefferson Barracks VA Medical Center in St. Louis on August 4th.

We're currently in the middle of two additional projects which stem from the horrible disaster in our state when a tornado hit the town of Joplin in May.  Since we have a chapter there, MWG is sponsoring an anthology in conjunction with their local chapter.  Proceeds will be directed toward the purchase of books for four school libraries and a teacher resource center destroyed by the tornado.  Writers are very enthusiastic when it comes to providing books, and with the help of people like mystery author and hometown girl Elaine Viets, we received donations from across the country.  We delivered more than 10,000 donated books.
HOPE: What does being a nonprofit organization do for your finances, outreach, and credibility?
DEB: Non-profit status enables us to take advantage of grant opportunities, which is beneficial to us financially and from a credibility standpoint.  There's nothing like completing a grant application to determine whether your group holds enough water to appear viable on paper.  With community projects comes exposure, so we are now recognized as an organization that is a part of the entire community, not just the writing community, and we're no longer viewed as a group of writers who just want to sell books.  We have also forged partnerships with other statewide organizations, such as the Missouri Humanities Council, which has provided laptops for the veterans participating in our Warrior Writers Project.
HOPE: Why should a writer join a state writers organization?
DEB: A statewide organization benefits a writer by offering opportunities beyond the local level.  Most of our larger chapters host workshops or conferences featuring very noteworthy speakers, but it's the responsibility of the larger organization to bring in the so-called big guns.  Agents and editors and nationally-known speakers are beyond the budgets of most chapters, so an annual conference becomes the mission of the state or regional organization.  The larger organization also provides writers the opportunity to be recognized by their state, usually through contests like our President's Contests.  This year I asked our governor for a proclamation.  Once he signed the proclamation for "Missouri Writers Week," I challenged writers to get themselves recognized by scheduling school and library visits, readings, interviews, and book signings.  I'm aiming for a proclamation for the entire month of April in 2012.
HOPE: Can you name some successes of the organization that make you proud to belong?
DEB: I'm proud of our organization's longevity, dating back to 1915 and the our tremendous growth within the past several months.  We've had our fair share of bumpy rides.  One of my goals as a writer was to qualify for membership in the Missouri Writers' Guild, especially since it was founded as a part of the University of Missouri School of Journalism.  Since that time, it has become more of an organization for novelists and freelancers, while the Missouri Press Association serves the journalists, but members still have to be published for membership at this time.  There is, however, one thing that makes me extremely proud.  I grew up near Mark Twain's home in Hannibal, which was also where I was employed by my first newspaper.  It made me very proud to make Samuel Clemens a posthumous honorary member this past year and to add his name to the membership roster as one of our Missouri writing colleagues.  It seems like a little thing, but it means a great deal to me personally.
HOPE: Do you promote other conferences, or do you have any other conferences that you consider "competition?"
DEB: I'm happy to promote other conferences, because I understand their value.  Writers will choose certain conferences to attend over yours and nothing will ever change that.  You just have to have confidence in your program.  My conference wasn't perfect, but I'd put my program with my speakers up against any other conference out there. Many of our Missouri writers travel to conferences in Arkansas and the very popular Oklahoma Writers Federation (OWFI) in May.  This year, several of their organizers attended and my counterpart Linda Apple was a presenter.  I plan to attend OWFI in 2012.  Despite what appears to be a rivalry, we do it all in fun.
HOPE: What words of advice do you have for other writing organizations or groups that are struggling for direction?
DEB: We tend to learn best from those who've succeeded before us.  How do we learn how to get published?  Much of our information comes from those who've already traveled that road.  Leadership in organizations have to drop their pride and take a long, hard look at where the group has been and where they hope to go.  One of the greatest fatal flaws for organizations is "we've always done it this way."  If that doesn't kill it, having the same people doing the same things will.  This is not your grandmother's publishing world anymore, so leaders must be willing to either establish goals to give the group new life or prepare to write the eulogy.  Allowing an organization a rebirth is not a short-term project, so be sure to establish a means of continuing the groundwork from year to year or all the CPR in the world won't keep your organization alive.
HOPE: What other words of wisdom do you have for writers?
DEB: Research and network!  Both require time and initiative on the behalf of writers, but there are valuable resources available to help you build your writing career.  Use them.  Successful writers also know they do not work alone.  They network and they network A LOT.  Ask questions and share information whenever you have the chance.  I want to put "Ask me what I write" on every writer's T shirt just as an opening line.

Join a writing or a critique group this year and be sure to participate once you've joined. Finally, attend at least one conference a year, no matter how small or large.  It's a great investment in yourself and your writing career.

Thank you again, Hope, for allowing me an opportunity to share a little information with your followers.  One of the main reasons you played a large role at our 2011 "Just Write!" Conference is that you make it so easy for writers to get a wealth of reliable information to help their writing careers.  Our conference evaluations proved that!

Good luck with your book in 2012!

Deborah Marshall
President, Missouri Writers' Guild


BECKY said...

Great interview, Hope! I'm happy and proud to say that not only am I a MWG member and chapter president of Saturday Writers in St. Peters, Mo, I'm also a friend of Deb's. She is the hardest worker I've ever met. I don't think the woman EVER sleeps!

J.D. said...

Kudos to Deborah and the successful event she put together! This was an awesome interview that sheds light on new ideas for writers chapters/organizations. Thanks for sharing this with us Hope!