These letters reveal [Flannery O’Connor] to have been anything but reclusive by inclination: to have been, on the contrary, notably gregarious. She enjoyed company and sought it, sending warm invitations to her old and new friends to come to Andalusia. Once her inviolable three-hour morning stint of writing was done, she looked for, and throve on, companionship. When people couldn’t come, she wrote to them, and looked forward to hearing from them in return.
Sally Fitzgerald, “Introduction,” The Habit of Being
Last night I got a rare taste of literary community in the flesh. I went to a reading given by my friend Rhonda Douglas, whose debut story collection Welcome to the Circus has just come out (here’s a review from Kerry Clare at Pickle Me This). Rhonda and I used to belong to a writing critique group in Ottawa, and we don’t see each other too often now, although we are Facebook friends. I was feeling a little giddy to be out at a social event on a weeknight.
The bookstore owner was there, selling books and pouring glasses of white wine. Appreciative readers were there, filling the chairs. Other writers were there to give readings. Amber Dawn read three pieces inspired by queer women poets. Sigal Samuels came on after an intro so full of accomplishments that I had that brief twinge of “What have I been doing with my life?” Leah Horlick read a poem that took her two years to get right and thanked the person who helped her work on it. Rhonda’s teacher and mentor Zsuzsi Gartner was there. Two ASL interpreters were there to sign for Deaf fans in the audience.
What a warm, colourful, noisy night of community ~ a visible manifestation of the often-invisible ties that hold us together, over distance, over time, over life changes.
Recently I asked writers and artists whom I’ve coached over the last five years to answer some questions about their creative support systems. Which people and groups are keeping them going? What do they get from these friendships and connections?
Here’s what I heard.
Who’s in your community?
As writers and artists, you cultivate a number of different types of relationships to sustain your creative lives. You lean on:
- Family and friends who are not writers and artists themselves
- Peers who are working in your discipline or in a related one
- Collaborators with whom you create things together
- Co-workers who gather to work on projects independently but side-by-side
- Teachers and mentors who give you lessons in skill and craft
- Editors and critique partners who provide feedback to improve specific pieces
- Therapists and coaches who help you operate at your best
- Agents, publishers, and other professionals who get your work into the world
As a writer or artist, what do you get from your creative community?
Emotional support. Someone listens to what you’re going through and helps you process it and decide how to handle the situation. This support is especially potent when it comes from another creative who understands you and doesn’t downplay what’s happened or give weird advice.
Inspiration and motivation. Someone tells you they admire and appreciate you and your work. You get encouragement to create more and do better. Again, this is particularly powerful when it comes from someone whose taste you respect, who knows what they’re talking about.
Feedback. Someone gives you a thoughtful and useful response to your work and suggestions for how to make it better.
Accountability. Someone cares that you get things done, and you get them done because you don’t want to let them down.
Objectivity. Someone can step outside of what you’re going through and see it from a different angle.
Collaboration. Someone gets into the trenches with you and works alongside so that together you make what you couldn’t have made on your own.
Belonging. Someone reminds you that you are not alone, that you are a member of the creative tribe, and that you and your work matter.
What are the drawbacks and problems with creative communities?
Distraction. You spend too much time socializing, interacting, and helping others and not enough time creating your own work.
Envy. You get blocked when others are experiencing progress and success and you aren’t.
Drama. Relationships can lead to conflict, which leads to tension around whether to continue or break it off.
Guilt. You worry that you’re not doing enough to support others, that you’re taking more than you give.
Loss. A friendship or partnership works for a while and then one of you moves, gets busy, or replaces you with another.
How important is creative connection? It’s one of the four pillars of an art-committed life that I help my clients develop (the other three are intention, structure, and mood). It can be a powerful factor in getting your creative work done.
And you’d be surprised how many people have limited or no creative support in place for themselves. They’re trying to go it alone, and that’s bound to be harder that doing it with company.
I’ve got an exercise for you.
- Make a list of all the people, groups, and programs that support you.
- Put them into the categories I listed above.
- See where you are well outfitted with community and where you are lacking.
- Consider whether you need less, more, or different community.
- Ask yourself what desires you have for creative community.
- Consider what might be holding you back from finding that community.
Feel free to share your results in the comments ~ I’d love to hear.
I’ll close with the words of one of my survey respondents:
What I would really like is some way to feel connected to other working artists. Not people struggling to commit to their creativity or people focused on building businesses. Just ordinary working artists. As an artist, I’m kind of lonely. Maybe that’s why I keep saying yes to groups and causes ~ because I want more connection. But what it seems to bring instead is work. I don’t need more work. I have work. Work that is very important to me and that I have fought hard to win back. But I need someone to talk with about it.
Photo Credit: Parker Knight