PARAGRAPH, MEET THE BEAUTIFUL COMMUNITY OF WRITERS IN NEW YORK – AN INTERVIEW WITH JOY PARISI, FOUNDER OF THE SPACE BY PAULINE ROUSSEL
What brought you into coworking?
In 2005, I was finishing graduate school, studying for my MFA in creative writing. Before I went for my masters, I hardly ever met other writers. The literary community in New York City felt inaccessible. In graduate school, that world opened up and I found myself with surrounded by an amazing community of writers. I felt like part of something. I didn’t want to lose that once graduate school was over. Coworking was relatively unknown then. I’d heard about the Brooklyn Writers space that had just opened in Brooklyn and thought this was a great idea.
I loved that a writers’ space very practically gave writers a quiet, peaceful place to work, which is hard to find in a busy city but essential for the occupation.
It also provided a community and took away the feeling of isolation that writing can often bring. Once graduate school was over, I hatched a plan to open a space in Manhattan, and a few months later, Paragraph opened on 14th Street.
Your community is targeted primarily for writers, so how did you design a space that suits their need?
I wanted to create a space that made writers feel comfortable, as if they were at home. One that provided quiet, private workspaces so writers could feel that they had a small space of their own to work. My wish for the space was to have a common area where writers could take a break and socialize. I knew that distractions were a big problem for many writers who worked in cafes or at home. I wanted the space to cut out those distractions, be a place where writers could relax and focus.
FROM UNDERSTANDING THEIR NEEDS TO TRANSFORMING THE SPACE
To meet those needs, I divided the space into two separate rooms. The writing room would be kept quiet, and would have partitioned desks with blocked sight lines. It’s important to be able to tuck in and feel a bit hidden away while working. The partitioned desks also allowed me to maximize the number of desks, which is important in Manhattan with the very high cost of rent. I also wanted the writing space to have a couch and comfortable chairs, and lots and lots of books and periodicals.
The other room would be a communal kitchen and cafe where writers could talk, eat and take breaks together. I used a group of small tables so that writers could eat on their own if they liked, and one bigger round table where people could sit communally.
And then I looked at a lot of spaces to find the right one. I wanted a space that had unique, beautiful elements, and would not feel too cookie-cutter and corporate. It took a very long time to find the right space in the right location, and when I was about to give up, the space on 14th Street came along. The space was a full floor, had high ceilings, exposed brick, old tin, skylights, and a fireplace. I found it cozy and homey and perfect.
How does collaboration and the sharing of knowledge happen at Paragraph?
It happens in many ways. First, it happens organically. Because everyone at the space is a writer, everyone is struggling in similar ways. It makes it easy to strike up a conversation or tap into one that is going on in the kitchen area. You’ll often hear conversations about the writing process, finding agents, pitching stories, and writers sharing their experience, commiserating or helping one another.
We host one or two roundtables each month at the space where editors and agents come in to discuss about their work and the industry, share their knowledge and answer questions. We’re beginning evening and weekend writing workshops at the space this month with very talented instructors in a variety of different topics.
We host happy hours and readings every few months, plus two annual parties. This year, we’d like to have more interactive events, such as Pitch Wars, where writers compete Shark-Tank-style to win a free month at the space. Or Rewrite the Greats, where everyone takes the first page of a classic work of literature and rewrites it while drinking on a backyard patio in Brooklyn.
Right now we’re planning Literary Game Night. We find interactive events more fun and collaborative than a reading, so that’s the direction we’re moving towards.
Why the name Paragraph?
I wish I had a good story! Because every other name I could come up with was a plain description of what it was, along the lines of “The Writers Space” or “A Quiet Place”. I wanted something more unique, but also a name that had to do with writing. I don’t remember how I stumbled on Paragraph, but I liked that it was one word, that it encompassed all types of writing, and had a nice ring. Also, I liked that the word has a coinciding editing symbol, the pilcrow.
What has coworking taught you?
So much! The importance of community and culture. That inspiration comes from perspiration. I’m continually impressed by the dedication and determination of so many writers I’ve had the privilege to meet over the years, and the books and articles and all the printed words that have come out of the space over the last 13 years. That there’s always more to learn.
I learned how to clear a roof drain in a heavy rainstorm, how to get a printer back on the network, and how to fix many things that break in a space.
I’ve learned more than I ever wanted to about New York City real estate. I could go on and on!
You’ve been around the New York coworking scene for a while now, how do you see it changing? Do you think the big players are a risk for your space and community?
Good question. When I began, coworking hardly existed, and was not a recognized word. People thought, why would anyone not work from home if they could? And now, it feels like coworking is taking over the world. A few years back, WeWork bought the Lord & Taylor building, a historic, landmark building in NYC!
I can’t say Paragraph has changed much over time, and that has been intentional. Essentially, our mission is the same as it was when we opened. I want Paragraph to be a quiet, comfortable space to write, and a supportive community of like-minded writers.
FROM WORKSPACE FOR WRITERS TO COWORKING SPACE FOR WRITERS
When coworking was unknown, I didn’t refer to Paragraph as a coworking space. It would have raised more questions than it answered. “What’s coworking?” people would have asked. Instead, I said Paragraph was a “workspace for writers.” Then years passed, and coworking became very well known, and I was grateful for the shorthand of being able to say, “we’re a coworking space for writers,” and people would instantly understand.
AND FROM COWORKING SPACE FOR WRITERS TO WORKSPACE FOR WRITERS.
But now, with so many big, more corporate players in the field the landscape has so greatly changed. I feel myself veering away from calling Paragraph a coworking space, and again using the term “workspace for writers.”
Because I feel we are culturally different, perhaps more grassroots than the big coworking players in NYC. (WeWork or The Wing or the many, many other coworking spaces that have popped up over the last ten years.)
Our writing culture is our distinguishing factor, the thing that makes us different, and I hope more desirable.
The big players are not necessarily our direct competitors, but they do put us at risk. We can never compete with their funding and spending power. I like to think our kind of culture cannot be funded into existence, and that the heart of the space is our community and culture.
But who knows what the future holds?
All I can do is hope that small cultural coworking institutions like ours will continue to find a way to survive, and thrive for years to come. Fingers crossed!
CO-FOUNDER & CEO OF COWORKIES. WRITING ABOUT OUR TRAVELS IN 350+ COWORKING SPACES AROUND THE GLOBE FROM NEW YORK TO TOKYO. FORMERLY GENERAL MANAGER AT THE RAINMAKING LOFT BERLIN, A COWORKING SPACE DEDICATED TO STARTUPS, AMBASSADOR OF FRENCH TECH BERLIN.