Building a Creative Community

It takes a village to write a novel.

This is an excerpt from Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo.

We writers tend to be solitary creatures. We sit in the penumbra of the light at our desks, anguishing over the inertia of a plot, crumbling up pieces of paper, biting our fingernails, and hoping that the next cup of coffee will deliver more inspiration than jitters.

Or that is how we often think of ourselves. And it’s true, a lot of actual writing tends to happen in solitude. But what often goes overlooked is that most writers’ work is actually spawned and supported by a creative community.

Take C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. When they first met, they were just two men with a “writing hobby,” as Lewis put it. They loved to talk about Nordic myths and epics, but they knew their colleagues in the Oxford English department wouldn’t give their fanciful tales any critical gravitas, so they met regularly at a pub to imbibe pints and stories.

As they shared their writing more and more, they met other writers who felt like outsiders as well, so they formed the Inklings, a group of writers who were searching with “vague or half-formed intimations and ideas,” as Tolkien wrote. The themes that would later appear in Lewis and Tolkien’s books first emerged during the Inklings’ weekly discussions. Tolkien said Lewis’s “sheer encouragement” was an “unpayable debt.” “He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my ‘stuff’ could be more than a private hobby.”

Our culture celebrates the notion of a solitary heroic ideal, rugged self-starters who meet challenges and overcome adversity, whether it’s the sports star who leads his or her team to victory or the scientist who cures a deadly disease. Solitude no doubt plays an important element in writing, but if you trace the history of literature, you realize how it takes a veritable village to write a book.

Hemingway fed off the creative energy of Paris in the 1920s, not to mention the writing advice of Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson. (And what would Gertrude Stein have been without Alice B. Toklas?) Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston defined their unique voices alongside each other as leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and the rest of the Beats tumbled, bounded, and danced through their words as if they were an improv group riffing through a scene — creating each other as they created themselves.

Frissons of creativity tend to happen with others.

Frissons of creativity tend to happen with others. Think about your own life. I bet there are dozens of people who have guided you along your path, whether it’s a teacher who praised a story or drawing, a family friend who opened your eyes to new books, or a babysitter who thrilled you with scary tales before bed.

Finding like-minded creative friends is important for those seminal imaginative sparks to catch fire. “None of us is as smart as all of us,” the saying goes. An initial idea grows through the interchange of ideas, with one idea sparking another idea — and then the light bulb of inspiration glows. Think of a jazz group, where individual musicians riff on a melodic theme. They don’t necessarily know where the song is going. The group has the ideas, not the individual musicians, but unexpected insights emerge, and a beautiful new song flows from the group. When you work with others, you’re naturally combining an assortment of different concepts, elaborating and modifying each others’ thoughts.

Meeting regularly to write with others or get feedback is important not just for your creativity, though; it also keeps you accountable. Think about it. Are you more likely to stop writing when your plot plays dead while alone at home or in a room full of other writers?

Every novel is defined by the community of writers it belongs to.

And, unless you come from a family of writers, it’s unlikely that your family will have any idea what you’re talking about when you mention that you fear your main character is a cliché or that you’re worried about the pace of your plot. They’ll mention things like going to business school, or helping with the evening dinner. Only your fellow writers can understand why you haven’t showered, or why you’re more concerned about a character lost in the space-time continuum than your own lack of sleep.

As Bill Patterson, a NaNoWriMo writer from New Jersey, likes to say, “Writing is a solitary activity best done in groups.” Completing such an arduous task is just plain easier with others rooting you on. Your writing community can be a goad, a check, a sounding board, and a source of inspiration, support, and even love. There’s a reason it’s difficult to beat the home team in sports: they have an extra teammate, the crowd.

Every novel is defined by the community of writers it belongs to. A novel isn’t written solely by its author; it’s also a work of the people surrounding and supporting the author. Think of all the people who support you creatively, and remember to celebrate the gift of their collaboration and seek them out in times of need.

Try This: Strengthen Your Writing Community
Engage in a writing group. Either join an online site like NaNoWriMo and enter the conversation with writers online, or invite your writing buddies to form a writing group that meets regularly in person.

Grant Faulkner is the author of Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo and the co-host of the podcast Write-minded. His essays on creative writing have appeared in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer.

For more, go to grantfaulkner.com, or follow him on Twitter at @grantfaulkner.