Mary Banks: “Write Your Own Story”
Written by Ally Jokl
Mary Banks, writer and entrepreneur, was an avid childhood reader. Mary remembers, “We had moved one time and the moving men had broken our only TV. So, of course, I’m bored. I read all the books that I could read in my own house.” Her father took her to the local library and explained that she could check out any book. She smiles, “The whole idea of reading books for free was such a novel concept to me.” The shelves were stocked with her favorite series and authors--R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps and Beverly Cleary’s collection of novels.
Reading led to writing and to a lifelong interest in storytelling. Mary wanted to be an author. She discovered Black women writers like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison in middle school and high school and drew inspiration from them. She attended Johns Hopkins graduating with a BA in Writing Seminars, then earned an MFA in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts from the University of Baltimore.
She gravitated towards Black writers throughout college. She questioned the literary canon, “I feel like it’s a problem that if you want to read Black literature, it falls into its own category. Why can’t a book by a Black person, why can’t that be considered a classic? Why does this have to fall under Black literature?” Of course, she recognized there are authors like James Baldwin and the Black women she read in high school, but they are the exception.
Her master’s thesis project was to write a book. Mary self-published the resulting collection of short stories, Street Magic: Stories and Tales in 2011. “I like fiction,” Mary reveals, “I think I might do non-fiction one day, but I can see why people are intimidated to write anything autobiographical because it’s a level of vulnerability. But one day I might write a memoir about my life. In the meantime, it’s fiction.”
Mary’s stories draw from life. She interned at the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper, the longest-running African American family-owned newspaper in the States. She recalls the historical news clippings and learning about segregation. She says “Being a Black woman in America, I find that’s what I like to write about. A lot of my subject matter, particularly the protagonist tends to be a Black woman. I like to write from the perspective of a Black woman as far as the character goes.” Black Baltimore and America are at the heart of Street Magic: Stories and Tales. Several stories are set during the period of American racial segregation.
Mary established La Muse Press in 2011, but she did not prioritize the business until 2018. Last year, she began to provide book editing services and to offer her experience as a writing coach. La Muse Press helps authors self-publish their books. Mary explains, “A lot of times aspiring authors just tend to think about writing their book, and that’s all they’re focused on. But it’s actually a whole process. My idea is to inform people of all the other aspects of self-publishing, outside of just writing your book…I see myself more as a teacher, a consultant, maybe even a coach. It’s to let people know the entire process so they aren’t caught off guard or not know anything about the process that they should know.”
“Publishing is not reflective of the diverse bodies, the diverse population that we have. I definitely feel it’s a barrier when it comes to writers of color. And that’s where independent publishing can come into play. You don’t have to wait around for a ‘yes’, you make your own ‘yes.’”
La Muse Press exemplifies her literary interest. Mary loves helping women of color tell their stories. Commercial publishers erect barriers that new authors must overcome. Mary says, “Publishing is not reflective of the diverse bodies, the diverse population that we have. I definitely feel it’s a barrier when it comes to writers of color. And that’s where independent publishing can come into play. You don’t have to wait around for a ‘yes’, you make your own ‘yes.’”
Vanessa Womack is Mary’s cousin and a recent memorable client. Vanessa writes a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) children series and published the first entry, “Emerald Jones: The Fashion Designer Diva” this year. The series tackles the lack of representation in STEM by exposing children of color to the subjects. Mary supported Vanessa through the writing and publishing process, “I do the editing, but I also try to inform people about other parts of the process.” Many writers know they need editors and beta-readers, but Mary reminds them to get an ISBN and have a barcode on the book.
Mary returned to school and in 2019 got her master’s degree in publishing from The George Washington University. She needed further support to develop La Muse Press. She discovered Empowered Women International (EWI) through the BEACON newsletter which shares resources for women entrepreneurs. She read about the Entrepreneur Training for Success (ETS) course in EWI’s newsletter.
ETS was an opportunity to learn and sharpen her business skills. She enrolled in the Spring 2020 cohort. Financial knowledge was Mary’s biggest takeaway. She learned to track her expenses and to factor her time into service pricing. Another aspect of the program she highlights is learning the personal pitch, “Now, when people ask what [I] do, I can say that I assist aspiring authors who are afraid to self-publish their books.”
ETS provided business accountability. Mary wrote a business plan and reflected on her entrepreneurial goals. ETS paired students to be accountability partners. Talking with her partner each week helped Mary realize her ideas. She says, “I’ve liked the accountability. I think it’s because I’m a bit of a perfectionist and wanting to be perfect was stopping me from implementing.” Her accountability partner, ETS trainer, and other students provided the feedback and support she needed.
Mary released her first e-course “Publish It!: The 7-Day Blueprint for Self-Publishing Your Amazing Book” in 2020. “Publish It!” reaches a wider audience to eliminate the confusion around self-publishing. She recently also introduced a new 1:1 service called “Book Clarity & Confidence Launcher” to assist aspiring authors with creating a book outline and writing schedule to complete their manuscript. Mary also plans to release a monthly paid e-newsletter called "Unleashing Your Inner Author," to motivate and inspire individuals to write their books. She plans to continue creating more e-courses in the future. Her dream for La Muse Press is to have a team of editors and graphic designers to help publish books.
“Believe in yourself. Have a dream. But with anything, having a dream is not good enough. It’s good, having a dream will give you the grit to continue, but you also need to have action. Just having your dream alone is not going to make it become reality. You have to be willing to put in the work”
Mary’s advice for women considering entrepreneurship? “Believe in yourself. Have a dream. But with anything, having a dream is not good enough. It’s good, having a dream will give you the grit to continue, but you also need to have action. Just having your dream alone is not going to make it become reality. You have to be willing to put in the work” And if someone is considering writing a book? “Go ahead and write it. Someone can benefit from your story. Step out on faith and write your book.”