UMSL alumna brings lessons in composition and rhetoric to broader St. Louis community with FLOW, her grant-funded startup

Amanda Wells, UMSL alumna and startup grant recipient

Last summer, the Arts and Education Council named Amanda Wells, MA English 2013, one of two winners of its first-ever stARTup Competition. The grant includes $10,000 as well as a year’s lease in the Centene Center for the Arts that now houses her just-launched brainchild, FLOW. Wells is pictured here in the St. Louis Mercantile Library at UMSL, a university she credits with helping her grow a nearly decade-long dream. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Amanda Wells typically goes through plenty of drafts when it comes to her writing projects, but she didn’t do that with her grant application to the Arts and Education Council (A&E) last spring. After all, what she wanted to communicate had already been bouncing around in her mind for years.

Upon seeing the call for submissions to the regional organization’s first-ever stARTup Competition pop up on her Facebook feed, she thought, “What do I have to lose?” and immediately submitted her idea.

“I literally typed the answers into the textboxes the day it was due,” Wells admits. “One of the wonderful things about the application was that it was so open-ended. It was just five or six questions asking about your dream in the arts and what you want to do that would meet a need or challenge in the local community.”

A couple months later, when she was selected as one of six finalists from among the 31 applicants, the University of Missouri–St. Louis alumna could hardly believe it.

“Especially as a writer, we get used to rejection,” says Wells, who earned an MA in English with a concentration in composition and rhetoric in 2013. “It was at that point that I thought, ‘Oh my God – we really need to formalize this idea that we’ve been thinking about for almost a decade.’”

She then developed a seven-minute presentation to sell her idea – for a center open to all local writers “and the writing curious,” in her words – to the judges. In June, she got great news.

“I was sitting at a stoplight and saw that one of my coworkers at Edward Jones had texted me, ‘Did I just hear your name on NPR?’” Wells says. “And I usually have it on but did not, and I said, ‘I don’t know.’ As soon as I got back I saw that right after I had left for my appointment, A&E had emailed me to let me know I was a winner.

“And I just absolutely broke down. It’s a strange thing to dream about something for years and then all of a sudden, within five seconds, it’s an actual, funded possibility.”

The prize included $10,000 from the PNC Foundation, a free-for-the-first-year lease in A&E’s Centene Center for the Arts in Grand Center and ample opportunities for professional networking and mentorship.

Now Wells is hard at work alongside a team of volunteers devoted to bringing that dream to fruition. They’ve just launched FLOW, a space where writers in the region can gather to connect in fresh ways, create more visibility and also engage the larger community with the craft of writing.

“My initial idea for the name was ‘Tributary,’ but it’s too long to be a good marketing word,” she explains. “I needed something more concise that was also not unfamiliar to writers of all styles and levels. Whether I’m working with a rapper or a grandmother writing her memoir, all of them talk about flow. So I thought, ‘You know what, that’s what it’s going to be.’”

While Wells is quick to note that St. Louis’ rich literary scene already brings many writers together at various readings or workshops, she and others see a need for additional and different sorts of interactions, too.

“There’s a lot of really great groups in St. Louis, but it’s all kind of fluid and a little bit spread out,” Wells says. “And I thought that if we could all get together and have a space we can call home and meet on a regular basis to share resources, support each other’s programs and see how we can engage the community with writing – man, that would be great. So that’s really my dream, is to have kind of a homestead for us to learn and share stuff.

“And if we want to assert St. Louis as a city with a high degree of cultural capital, we have to bring visibility to the arts. We do that really well with jazz and dance and theater, but we haven’t really had a way to corral the writers and give them representation.”

The lessons she learned as a graduate student and writing tutor at UMSL – as well as an adjunct instructor of English more recently – are at the heart of what Wells and crew are aiming to do.

“My time at UMSL has literally influenced every decision I’ve made,” says Wells, who earned certificates in gender studies and university teaching in addition to her master’s degree. “The faculty really built my understanding that writing is more than language – it’s our prejudices, it’s our beliefs, it’s who we are and who we think other people are. And the more we start to understand that, the more we can learn to communicate in ways that actually reach other people.”

In October, FLOW put on its kickoff event, in which local poets gave readings of some of the most beloved authors in the traditional literary canon. Wells wasn’t sure what the response would be like, but organizers actually ran out of chairs.

“When you can fill a ballroom for a poetry reading, you know you’re doing something right,” she says. “So that was very encouraging to me. And that was really the realization for me that this collective dream was ready to be born.”

That meant big decisions for Wells, who initially had planned to continue her work as a web author for Edward Jones alongside the arts initiative but ultimately has chosen to devote her efforts to FLOW full time. By Thanksgiving, she gave her notice, and her last day at the company was a month ago.

It wasn’t a career move that the single mother made lightly. The most important conversation, beforehand, was with her daughter, whom Wells says “grew up” on UMSL’s campus in a sense. She watched and at times physically accompanied Wells’ return to school for a graduate degree, and the now-teenager was quick to give her blessing – and the final boost of confidence her mother needed to proceed.

“She said to me, ‘Mom, when you went back to school at UMSL for your master’s, you said you were doing this for a dream,’” Wells recalls. “‘And I think this is your dream.’”

On Feb. 10, FLOW will hold its first income-generating event – Spark: Ignite Your Creative Magic – at The Chapel located at 6238 Alexander Drive.

“We are getting together some established poets and some musicians, and we’re basically doing a guided, generative-energy evening with programming on stage to help fuel creativity,” Wells explains of the three-hour gathering. “We’re going to let people bring their projects as long as they don’t require a ton of space or an external power source, and there will also be typewriters available, sponsored by december magazine. Basically it’s sort of like a creative rave, but with nothing illegal.”

Back at the Centene space, Wells is in the planning stages toward a variety of initiatives ranging from six-to-eight-week-long workshops – some of which will be free and others with scholarship opportunities available – to what she describes as “community writing days.”

“Those will be sort of like the university writing center, but down at Grand Center,” Wells says. “So if you’re working on a letter to your alderman and you want somebody to check it out for free, you can stop by and connect with us. We want to bring a lot of the resources that are available in higher ed to the broader community.

“Not everybody wants to earn an MFA, but they may want to write a poem. It’s mentoring and community building. Whether you want to write a memoir or a Post-It note, or if you want to hang out with writers and chill out in our space – yeah, come do it. All it takes is an invitation, and we’re providing that invitation.”

Wells notes that the startup is still in its early stages, but things are beginning to move more quickly, and she couldn’t be more excited. She’s also delighted to be connecting with the other winner of A&E’s competition, UMSL alumna Antionette Carroll, who was just named a TED2018 Fellow.

“As a mentor, she’s just been incredible,” Wells says. “She doesn’t have a lot of time, and yet whenever she has the time to give, she does. We didn’t cross paths at UMSL, but I’m so glad we have now, because she’s just a gem of a person.”

The two are working on a poetry-and-printmaking collaboration that should come to fruition later in the spring.

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