This world really is full of magic. At just about the same time that I was dreaming up Gertrude’s Writing Room, Stephanie Steinberg, writer/journalist, was having the same dream. She too wanted to open a space where writers could gather to write, read, learn and play. As I was doing research for Gertrude’s whilst writing my business plan, I googled writing and Detroit – and the Detroit Writing Room appeared at the top of the search.
I was all: WHAAAATTTTTT!
I nearly fell out of my chair in excitement – there’s a writing room in Detroit too?! I quickly searched the site and found Stephanie’s email. I wrote her a message to tell her about Gertrude’s and to share the fact that we’d both had the same dream! She responded right away! In August, it will be a year that we’ve been connected. Though we haven’t yet stepped foot in each other’s spaces, we’ve talked and we’ve done yoga and written together! Last Saturday, I joined a Yoga & Writing workshop that the DWR offered. Of course, pre-COVID this would have been the opportunity to do the workshop in the space, but life shifts and we adapt. It was a lovely workshop. I did Yoga, which considering I hadn’t done it in ages, was a real accomplishment; and I had the time to write in my journal and share my thoughts with the other gals in the workshop. We are also offering a cross-border Yoga & Writing Weekend workshop in August – more details at the end of our Q & A. Here’s hoping it’ll be able to happen by then.
In any case, I’d love for everyone to get to know Stephanie and the amazing work she’s doing at the Detroit Writing Room. It’s a beautiful space in the heart of Detroit, complete with everything a writer needs to be productive including a kitchen, tables, comfy chairs and sofas, and private nooks and crannies for quiet writing.
VS: When you were a child – did you love to read? Or write? Did you ever think that someday your career would be about writing?
SS: I actually knew since I was in second grade that I wanted to be a journalist! I know, it’s unusual to know what you want to do in second grade, and actually do it. It’s a long story, but the short version is that I was on a local kids TV show called “Kid Stuff.” I was a “cub reporter” and would interview locals. For example, I interviewed Detroit Zoo zookeepers, Santa Claus at holiday parades and the owners of a local cider mill. I also did book reviews from Borders. I had so much fun telling stories and interviewing people. I knew I wanted to do that for the rest of my life. I just went the print route, instead of the broadcast route, as I discovered in high school that I loved writing for the school newspaper.
VS: You’ve been a journalist for many years. Can you give us a bit of info about your writing life?
SS: My high school journalism advisor, Nikki Schuller, inspired me to further pursue a journalism career. She really showed me the power of the pen and how your words can make a difference in the world, even if you’re only 16 or 17. After high school, I attended the University of Michigan, which doesn’t have a journalism program, but it does have the greatest college newspaper in the country: The Michigan Daily. I truly learned everything I needed to know to pursue a journalism career from my peers (there are no adult advisors at the student paper). I also had tremendous mentors at internships, including CNN, USA Today and the Boston Globe. I majored in Communication Studies, but I often say my degree is from The Michigan Daily.
After graduating, I got a job at WTOP Radio, the main traffic, weather and news station in Washington D.C.. I edited their online content for a few months and then got a job at U.S. News & World Report in Washington D.C. as an assistant health and money editor. (It was fun working for a radio station where politicians and celebrities often stopped by for interviews, but U.S. News was a better fit for my editing and writing pursuits.)
Fast-forward a few years and I met my husband-to-be Jake Serwer in Washington D.C.. He happened to be from Metro Detroit and a Michigan Wolverine. We started reading about Detroit’s resurgence from afar, and we both couldn’t resist being a part of it. Thankfully, I got a job at The Detroit News as a features reporter and came back in 2016 to report on Detroit entrepreneurs, arts & entertainment and whatever cool story I stumbled on.
VS: When did you start thinking about the writing room as a viable dream to make come true? (What is the origin story of your DWR dream!)
SS: While interviewing Detroit entrepreneurs — many who were my age — who had started restaurants, coffee shops, boutiques and art spaces, I caught the entrepreneurial bug and wanted to do something that would help uplift the city. At the time, there were few co-working spaces downtown. The ones that existed catered to the tech or entrepreneur fields. I felt there was something missing for creatives like me who needed an inspiring, quiet workspace to write, design or create. Coffee shops didn’t cut it, especially when you feel guilty about sitting there all day and only ordering one cup of coffee.
I also felt the lack of spaces to give book talks. I had produced a book in 2015, ‘In the Name of Editorial Freedom: 125 Years at the Michigan Daily’, that was a collection of essays by journalists whose careers started at the Daily. I had gone on a 15-city book tour, and when I arrived in Detroit, there was nowhere to give a book talk downtown that made sense. So I wanted to create a space where local and national authors could stop to give a book talk when they’re in Detroit.
Lastly, as a journalist, I’m often asked by friends and family to look over a college application, or resume or other piece of writing. While reporting, I discovered many entrepreneurs also needed help with writing content, but also graphic design and photography. I started to think, what if there was a one-stop-shop where people could go to get one-on-one help with editing, design or photography? And what if there were coaches, who were the best in their field, that anyone could sign up with? So I gathered 25 of the top journalists, authors, photographers and graphic designers in the area to offer hourly coaching sessions for anyone in the community. (These are typically at the DWR, but they’re all virtual right now).
VS: How long did it take you to find the space that is the DWR? What was it like when you walked in – love at first sight?
SS: Finding the space was the hardest part. I had the idea for the DWR in late 2016. We didn’t open doors until June 2019. I looked at many spaces in Detroit that were too expensive, too dark or just needed too much work. I have to give my amazing husband credit for finding our space. He saw it listed online in March 2019. I was actually about ready to give up at that point, but he encouraged me to take a look. The irony is it was located right across the street from where we used to live (we had since moved), and you could see the space from our apartment balcony. Perhaps it was destiny. We went to take a look, and I’ll admit, I didn’t immediately see the potential. It was a former headquarters for a veterinarian, and there were medicine cabinets with needles and old medicine still left inside. But I did love the natural light throughout the space, and I hadn’t found that anywhere else. Not to mention, the space is a short walk from bars, restaurants and shops, which I wanted so people could go out after co-working, coaching sessions or DWR events. So we took it (and removed all the gross medicine cabinets). This week, it will be exactly a year since we signed the lease.
VS: It’s a large space – who cleans it?! That may seem like a silly question, but cleaning takes time! I just wonder about the day-to-day practical things like cleaning, getting food/supplies – is this all your job?
SS: Haha, I’ve never been asked that question! Only someone who has a similar space would think to ask that 🙂 We do have a crew who comes in to clean it after events, but I also take care of, well, everything. Everything from running the dishwasher to making sure the fridge is stocked with water (and beer and wine for writing happy hour after 3 p.m.) — that’s all me! I don’t mind though. I made my dream come true, after days when I seriously doubted I’d be able to pull it off, and so I’m happy to take out the trash every day. Because a trash bag full of coffee grounds and paper means it’s all real.
VS: Do you like to write in the DWR – like, for yourself? Is there a special project you’re working on?
SS: It’s funny, when I imagined the DWR, I pictured a space where I’d be able to write all day, either freelancing journalism pieces or working on my next book. But the reality is, there’s always something to work on for the DWR. Whether it’s planning a book talk, one of our Speakers Series, or giving tours for people interested in booking a private event, my day fills up pretty quickly.
Currently, I’m working on a virtual journalism camp for high school students this July. The two-week camp will be led by our writing coaches and any high school student is eligible to attend (even Canadians!) since it’s virtual. The students will learn a different topic each day by a different coach (i.e. news reporting, column writing, food writing, photography), and they’ll report and write their own story that we’ll feature on our website.
Our nonprofit arm, Coaching Detroit Forward, is also going to offer a free photography camp for Detroit high school students in August. We established the nonprofit arm so that we could offer free programs, like the photography camp, for Detroit students. So I’ve been spending my days writing lots of grant applications!
VS: What book(s) are you reading?
SS: Right now, I’m reading David Maraniss’ ‘A Good American Family.’ He gave a book talk at The Detroit Writing Room in the fall, and I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. That is one perk of quarantine — I can catch up on some reading!
VS: What writer would you *love* to have come to the DWR for a book launch, workshop? (Alive or not…!)
SS: I’d love to have Detroiter Mitch Albom give a book talk at the DWR. He is a writing machine, and I’d love to host him for whatever his next book may be. Of course, if Michelle Obama wanted to come to the DWR for a talk, our doors will always be open for her! But we’re open to all authors — if you’re interested, just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
VS: What are your hobbies…things you enjoy doing when you’re not working?
SS: Lately, I’ve been doing more yoga at home. I’m also taking a lot of walks with my goldendoodle Magglio, known as the DWR’s Chief Morale Officer. My husband and I also discovered we have a shared love for checking out vineyards and wineries. Once the border opens, my goal is to go wine tasting at the wineries in Windsor!
VS: The style at the DWR is clean, sophisticated, inviting – who did the decor? Do you have any interesting stories about where you got your furniture/decor?
SS: I give my mother-in-law Sally Serwer all the credit for helping with the design and decor! She’s an interior designer and antique dealer. She started collecting pieces of Detroit history years ago when I told her about my dream to open The Detroit Writing Room. I’m so thankful for that too, because we got the keys in mid April and had about 6 weeks to renovate. Sally already had many of the books, photos and artifacts stored away so we just had to move it all in. There are certain things she found though, like our 100-year-old chandeliers, that I have no idea how she managed to do that on a time crunch. Besides the chandeliers, some of my favorite items are vintage typewriters and a 1940s Detroit wheel barrel that we turned into a coffee table.
VS: What are some of your ultimate goals for the DWR?
SS: Right now, it’s to open the doors again as soon as it’s safe to do so. We’ve pivoted to offer online workshops and events like Yoga for Writers and open mic nights that we’re doing over Zoom. But we really count on our in-person events and private rentals for parties, fundraisers and even bridal showers and small weddings, to pay the rent and other monthly expenses. I never thought 9 months into opening that we’d be forced to close because of a virus. Like so many business owners, that thought never crossed my mind. The community has been really supportive though and has been signing up for virtual experiences or coaching sessions. So my goal is to make sure we weather this storm so that we come out of this ready to hold book talks, open mic nights and other literary events again.
VS: In the life of a ‘new small business’, the DWR is nearing toddler-hood! What have you learned so far as a business owner that has affected who you are – as a writer, reader, good person!
SS: I love this question. It’s such a good one! As a journalist the past dozen years, I’ve come to expect immediate satisfaction. For instance, I may work on a story for days, but I know it will be published on a certain day and there is a guaranteed outcome. Or you may pour blood, sweat and tears into reporting a breaking news story, but it will be posted online by the end of the day. With running a business, the “outcome” may take weeks or months to be realized. It’s nothing like reporting where you see the result the next day. I’ve had to learn to be patient and realize that it takes time for people to discover you, come to an event or sign up for a coaching session. We’ve been lucky that Detroiters have found out about us through word of mouth or news stories we’ve been featured in. And I’m finally reaching a point where I don’t always get a blank stare when I tell someone I’m the founder of The Detroit Writing Room. So my answer to the question is I’ve learned you must have patience as a business owner. Building a community takes time and it won’t happen overnight.
VS: Certainly, what’s happening across the planet right now is a new experience for everyone…what motivates you to continue to believe in your dreams? (Ooo, that’s a deep one…)
SS: Truly, it’s the fact that now other people believe in my dream too. I’ve had people send us messages on our Instagram account, telling us they’re rooting for us to get through this. Some have never even been to the DWR before, but they support what we do. Or it’s the fact that we had 20 people join our virtual open mic night from across the country to support us at this time. (Our next one is April 27 if you want to join in and share a poem, song or creative talent! Note: There is a $5 virtual cover charge). I’ve also realized there are other people who are now counting on us to reopen the doors and be there for them when it’s safe to gather again. The DWR is ultimately my dream writing space, but it’s now other people’s too. And that keeps me motivated to keep going and plan more virtual workshops so that we can fill a need and want for creative experiences right now.
VS: The DWR is taking advantage of technology like Zoom to offer workshops/events – has it been difficult to a) make the choice to continue to offer things b) learn how to use the programs?
SS: We had not offered a virtual workshop before March 18. It’s amazing the things you can do when you’re forced to get creative and pivot! Thankfully, many people already know how to use Zoom, so it’s been fairly easy to move many of our workshops to Zoom. The platform also allows a presenter to share their screen, so if they have a PowerPoint or images, they can easily share those with attendees. Truly, I am so grateful Zoom exists because it’s keeping us going right now!
Also, we started a weekly series called Coaches & Cocktails. Every Thursday at 5 p.m. we feature a different DWR coach who will share writing or publishing advice, and you can ask them questions. We encourage joining in with a cocktail, beer or wine. Who knew virtual happy hour would become a thing? (You can see the upcoming lineup and sign up at detroitwritingroom.com/events).
VS: What is your favourite place in Detroit to eat? Hang out? When you’re not at DWR?
SS: Oh my gosh, there are SO MANY good spots! Where do I even begin!? Ashe Coffee Supply or Dessert Oasis or Great Lakes Coffee or Drifter Coffee (which is in Ferndale) for coffee. If you’re in need of something sweet (I have a big sweet tooth), I love For the Love of Sugar for cake and cookies and Bon Bon Bon for chocolates. I wrote a story about Bon Bon Bon for the Detroit News in 2016 and have been hooked since. I love grabbing a glass of wine at The Royce, a winebar a block away from the DWR. My husband and I are also big fans of Eatori in Capital Park to grab a drink or bite to eat. If you can find it, Bad Luck Bar is a favorite spot for a drink (tip: It’s in an alleyway). Savannah Blue is a hidden gem that’s fun to take out-of-town guests because you can point out the People Mover passing by the window. Also, any spot that has outdoor seating, I’m there.
When it’s nice outside, I enjoy walking along the riverfront or the Dequindre Cut, which features murals and graffiti along the pathway. I also enjoy Campus Martius when they bring out “the beach” in the summer (they fill the area with sand).
And when I really just need some self-care time, I’ll escape to The TEN Nail Bar in Capitol Park for a manicure. They serve complimentary champagne (what could be better?). I covered their opening a few years ago, and also their expansion, so I enjoy watching their growth.
VS: What/who is your favourite book/author for inspiration?
SS: Again, I’m a huge fan of Mitch Albom. I think I’ve read all his books. I’m also a sucker for Jane Austen stories. For anyone who wants to be a better writer, I always recommend “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser.
Thank you Stephanie! Wow! So cool to continue to get to know you and share in our dreams to gather writers and creative people together!
As mentioned above, I will be leading the writing portion of a Yoga & Writing Retreat this upcoming August in Harrow & Kingsville. The yoga will be lead by Lindsay Madison, owner of Visions Incorporated.
Here’s a link to the details…though do stay connected as we go with the flow of the isolation rules!
Yoga for Writers Retreat to Canada – Friday, August 7 – Sunday, August 9, 2020*
*You can come for the whole weekend or come for a day or two! The schedule is flexible to reach your creative needs.
I hope that you find the Detroit Writing Room as wonderful as I do!
Happy writing everyone!