Courtney M. McSwain, Writer

Why Creatives Need Community

SayGeese!_VinothChandar(Photo: Say Geese! by Vinoth Chandar (cc))

There’s a danger in having people constantly tell you that you’re brave—you can start to believe them.

When I left my 9-5 to work as a freelance writer, there were many people who told me I was brave. I heard it so much that I started to think, “You know what? I am brave. Certainly this is all going to work out!” I didn’t immediately recognize the error in thinking my one act of bravery—quitting my job—was enough to keep me going. To be successful, I was going to have to be brave every day.

Additionally, I made the mistake of thinking my solitary act of courage proved that I could work on my own all the time. I naively thought that, since I am a self-motivated introvert who doesn’t mind spending time alone, working in solitude would be easy. I was wrong…very, very wrong. While I can be studious on my own, even I have limitations. I can’t calm my own nerves when I’ve got fifty thoughts running through my head, and I can’t always be trusted to choose wisely between facing my fear and watching “Friends” re-runs. Not to mention how difficult it is to pull myself out of one of those self-loathing rabbit holes it can be so easy to fall into when no one is looking.

Working alone for the first year and a half of my freelance journey showed me that there are limits to solitude; where being alone falls short, a community can pick up the slack. Even for those, like me, who delight in being alone, community offers great benefits.

Community promotes focus.
In my dear reader letter last week, I shared how I recently visited Portland to attend a conference for independent entrepreneurs. One of the best things about the conference was its focus on businesses serving a community. While listening to this talk from Chris Brogan at the conference, I had my own epiphany about the community my business is meant to serve: Artists and changemakers. Identifying the community I’m working for has brought a much-needed focus to my overall vision and day-to-day activities.

Something similar happened to Melissa Jun Rowley when she was pitching a reality television show to Hollywood producers. As she writes in the Huffington Post, Rowley wanted to promote teen’s use of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) for humanitarian efforts, and she thought TV would be a great way to reach her audience. But, she couldn’t get anyone to buy the idea because it didn’t fit into the current model of scandal-driven reality television. Going through the experience, Rowley was reminded of the community she was really working for—youth excited about using STEAM for social change. After refocusing on her community, she came up with a new way of reaching her audience directly, without the approval of TV execs.

Community holds us accountable.
Seven months ago, alone in my apartment and dangerously close to falling down one of those self-loathing rabbit holes I made mention of, I decided my apartment was eating me and I had to get out. I searched for offices and found a branding agency subletting some of their space to freelancers and other creative entrepreneurs. Immediately after leasing my little cubicle, I started benefiting from the professional distance created by leaving my apartment every day. Home has become the place where I can ponder and worry and fret if I need to, because I have another place where work happens.

Even more than that, I’ve benefited from the subtle accountability created by working around others. The building has become a co-op of sorts, with freelancers, remote workers and small creative teams. Being around people getting things done makes me want to get things done too. I can’t be the only slacker in the joint.

Community helps us connect.
One of my favorite things in the whole world is conversation. Not small talk, mind you, but big talk. I love talking about big things with a few trusted friends—it’s my happy place. So, when I recently called on a group of people to form a creative working group, I was thrilled when they responded. My goal for creating the group was to establish a dedicated space where my friends and I could concentrate on our creative projects, help each other through roadblocks and feel supported. And as our community has taken shape, we’ve started to talk about the big things holding us back and why we would dare to create anything in the first place. Making big talk with other people helps.

Though I’m kind of an alone person, the bravest act I’ve committed lately is admitting that I need others around me. After all, there’s no rule that says suffering artists must suffer alone.

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