Contributed by Amanda Wells, founder of FLOW

What a time to be alive in St. Louis! When it comes to the arts, our city can be proud to claim a robust, engaged community of creatives. Stacked community arts calendars, highly-regarded art institution newsletters, and indie art venture websites attest to the thriving art scene. FLOW, St. Louis’ new literary arts center, couldn’t be more excited to engage this energy. We’re doing that through building strong communities by fostering meaningful writing and storytelling experiences. And the stARTup Competition, only one of two competitions like it in the nation, has allowed us to do so on a much higher, organized scale than we envisioned.

The stARTup Competition is FLOW’s first major award to support the development and execution of research-based community-building programs that connect individuals through writing. The road to this first award has been one of following intuition, engaging curiosity, and building relationships. I could not have predicted the place we now find ourselves when I started dreaming a decade ago.

The FLOW concept was born as a small thought when I set out to embrace my writing life and explore literary resources in St. Louis. We are fortunate to have a city bursting with opportunities for writers and the writing-curious, though I found those opportunities a little overwhelming to navigate. I wondered how we might be able to give all the resources and groups a centralized hub, cohesiveness, collaborative support, and greater visibility in the art community. I wasn’t exactly sure how FLOW would take shape back then, but I spent the next ten years getting to know hundreds of writers, enjoying the company of writing organizations, and pursuing a Master’s degree in English Composition. I followed where my curiosity led, each time building new relationships and a deeper understanding of writing, community, and St. Louis writers.

I’ve come to believe that the most impactful moments of our lives are often the quiet ones, the ones that sneak up when we aren’t looking. The stARTup Competition is no exception. I had applied after seeing an ad pop up on my Facebook feed. My gut reaction was that I had nothing to lose in submitting my idea. I wrote my application the day it was due, basing my answers on all the experiences and relationships I’ve been privileged to build over the years. When I was chosen as one of six finalists, I was ecstatic but confident. And on June 1, 2017, I was caught completely off guard.

I had been at an appointment, going about my day, happy that at least I had made it to the second round of finalists. That itself was an accomplishment, and I was satisfied that I’d taken a shot at forwarding my idea. On my way home from my appointment, I received a text message from a co-worker at Edward Jones. She asked if she had just heard my name on NPR. Then came a phone call from a high school friend. Then more text messages. And more. And then some voicemails. I figured I’d just been mentioned as one of the six finalists in relationship to the competition overall. When I returned home, though, I saw my email notification flash up on my screen. And there it was: One new message.

My legs gave out from under me in my kitchen. I cried. I couldn’t speak. This is the impact when someone else hears your dream and all the planning and hard work you’ve done and gives you a stamp of approval. Your seed is no longer just a seed. Your idea is now a program, a living thing, a community happening. And this is one of the most intense feelings I’ve ever known.

With the initial cash grant, FLOW has been able to purchase all the necessities for stARTup ventures - web space, business cards, insurance, software, professional consulting, pens, and yes, as you might assume for a crew of writers, our beloved coffeemaker. We’ve put the business pieces together, set up our executive team, eaten countless pastries, and written our official strategy.

In addition to those details, we’ve had a physical, professional space to work in at the Centene Center for the Arts. Having our essential business needs addressed has given our team the freedom to dedicate our energy to the deep work of bringing our knowledge and experiences to fruition. Instead of having to worry about initial startup costs, which are daunting to say the least, we’ve been able to spend our sweat equity on what really matters - our community-building program development.

Receiving the funding, space, and support through the stARTup Competition translates to over 30 unique programs scheduled in one year - and that number is still growing. We’ve been able to do this within our first eight months because we haven’t had to worry much about how to pay the liability insurance, scramble for meeting space, or constantly grind for support while we are building our organization. We’ve been free to create a home for writers and the writing-curious, and now we’re pleased to be opening that home in multiple ways.

We began with large-scale social events like The Rag and Bone of Now poetry reading, capturing a crowd of 200 for old school poetry readings by regional poets. Then we held our first SPARK: Ignite Your Creative Magic, a more intimate evening where we came together to generate new creative energy and ideas, with requests to make this a quarterly event. And now, we’re about to bring a regular literary arts planning meeting, smaller writing collectives, seminars, and community writing days to St. Louis. And there will be more.

Would we still be doing these things without the stARTup Competition? We would, but on a much smaller level and with fewer resources at present. We certainly could not be doing them on the scale that the Arts & Education Council has given us the freedom to do. And all it took was the invitation to lay out a dream and expertise on paper.

You’re being invited, fellow creatives. What will you do to engage this great city? Get it on paper. Submit. FLOW is excited to be part of this adventure with you.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This guest blog post was contributed by Amanda Wells, founder of FLOW, one of the winners of the Arts and Education Council's 2017 stARTup Competition. Applications for the 2018 stARTup Competition for arts entrepreneurs are due March 15. For more information and to apply, click here. To support programs like the stARTup Competition, make a gift to A&E today.