I met Laura Cathcart Robbins in 2019 through a mutual friend. Her essay “I Was The Only Black Person At Elizabeth Gilbert And Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Brave Magic’ Retreat” had recently gone viral. The outpouring of responses from readers led her to create a podcast she was calling The Only One in the Room. The first episodes were being recorded and she was curious to see what might happen with her new venture.
Two and a half years later, Laura is a regular contributor to HuffPo where she writes about addiction, recovery, and her experience as a black woman living in America. She’s an accomplished speaker whose essays have been published in The Temper, It’s Over Easy, and Tempest Sobriety, among others.
And that podcast she started? Bustle has twice named The Only One in the Room as a top podcast alongside This American Life. Guests have included actors, activists, and authors including Dani Shapiro, Reema Zaman, Kiese Laymon, Amy Bond, and Athena Dixon. You should definitely check out her recent episode with Allison Hong Merrill, whose award-winning memoir, Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops, comes out next week.
I’m deeply grateful Laura took the time away from her busy schedule to speak with me.
Laura, your platform exploded after writing your “Brave Magic” essay. It’s been such a joy to watch it grow. What role have bylines played in your author’s platform?
I wanted (very badly) to see my byline in The Sun or McSweeney’s, but no matter what I submitted, I still received rejection notifications. I worried that as someone who never graduated from high school and never went to college, (and obviously) never got an MFA, that my style might not be sophisticated enough for all those lovely literary publications I was stalking. But after submitting one article to Emily McCombs at Huffpo, she told me that she liked my voice and my style and asked me for more.
Just before publishing my first article she said, “Make sure you’re ready, because this is a huge platform with millions of readers. Once this goes live your life is going to change.”
In 2020, my Huffpo article on “Zoom bombings” caught the attention of a PBS producer in Portugal, which resulted in a lovely ten-minute piece on my sobriety during the pandemic. And in February of this year, another article I wrote for Huffpo caught the attention of a Channel 5 news producer, which resulted in a live interview with me on the subject of interracial relationships. Some folks at UBS Wealth Management happened to catch that Channel 5 interview and then offered me a contract to speak at their 12,000-person women’s summit this past May. Last week I was interviewed on The Dr. Phil Show after they read my Huffpo article on Critical Race Theory.
Can I just stop say, “You are on fire, my friend! I love seeing how your bright you’re shining right now.”
You now have a very successful podcast. How do your podcast and bylines inform your writing?
One hundred percent, the platform feeds my writing and vice versa. My partner, Scott Slaughter, and I try to be very intentional about choosing writing topics and podcast guests who are on-brand for me. People find the podcast through my published pieces and then submit their stories to me. Many of our guests have opened journalistic doors for me and provided me with writing opportunities.
At a recent writing conference, I spoke with several writers who are interested in starting a podcast. Do you have advice for them?
Yes, I think writers have a huge advantage in podcasting because we’re storytellers. When I’m trying to come up with a story idea for an article or essay, I look for that spark, that magical, inspirational thing that I can build an entire story around. It’s the same when I’m selecting guests for The Only One in The Room. In the pre-interview, I listen to my guests talk and talk until I hear that one thing, and that’s when I start taking notes. That’s the good stuff. That’s my episode.
If you’re looking for more specific advice, my friend and fellow writer/author/podcaster Stefanie Wilder Taylor and I are teaching a virtual podcasting class on Saturday, September 18.
(Readers, if you’re interested in this class, send an email to StefanieWilderTaylor@gmail.com to get all the details.)
Last year you signed with Rebecca Gradinger at Fletcher and Co. What parts of your platform helped with that process?
Interestingly enough, Anjali Singh at Ayesha Pande Literature rejected my book proposal in 2016. But instead of a form letter, she wrote few a paragraphs that changed everything for me. “You’re a beautiful writer,” she said.
“But memoir is the hardest thing to sell, and I can’t sell you because no one knows who you are. Start a blog, perhaps try some storytelling, start a podcast. Get yourself an elegant, easy-to-navigate website, and make sure everything you do is on there. Put yourself out there on social media, book speaking gigs, interviews too, if possible. And most importantly, publish as MANY articles as you can.”
After Rebecca read my query and the thirty pages I submitted to her in November 2020, she was impressed with my platform. “Keep all this up,” she said. “The podcast, the articles, the interviews. This is all very good.”
Very good indeed!
Writers are always looking for ways to build their platforms both on and offline. In 2018, you won the L.A. Moth Story Slam. Do you have any advice for writers who’d like to participate in a Moth event?
Yes, practice. For weeks before each Moth event, I practiced the entire story five to six times per day. I practiced in the mirror. I practiced by myself on Zoom. I practiced in front of my boyfriend and my kids. I recorded my practice sessions on my phone audio recorder and then played those recordings while I was driving. Also, I chose a story I knew extremely well. That way, if my brain stalled in the middle of my story, I could just pick up and hope no one would be the wiser.
That sounds like the right amount of practice. And I love the Zoom suggestion! It’s a great way to see how you’re presenting your story visually through facial expressions and body language.
You have Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts. I love seeing how you’re push-ups are progressing on Insta. Which platform do you feel most comfortable with? Are there any social media platforms you’ll never join?
Ayeee. I’m not comfortable with any social media platforms and if I didn’t HAVE TO scroll or post my platform, I don’t think I would. But of them all, I am most comfortable with Instagram. For the podcast, we have someone who handles TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter for us (thank god).
What one thing would you like writers to know about author platforms?
I’m still hustling to build my platform, to add published articles, to secure impressive podcast guests. I know that not every author needs a platform to get published, but I also know that having one helps a lot.
I would say you’re doing a lot more than hustling. You’re modeling how to successfully grow a platform.
What are you currently reading?
Volunteer Slavery by Jill Nelson – it’s incredible.
What’s next for you?
Hopefully a contract with a publisher and then a book to promote!
I can’t wait to hear that your book has been sold.
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And while you’re at it, check out my upcoming class Mastering the Scene: From the Basics to the Advanced Scene-Writing Tricks that Captivate Readers and Agents