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Personal Growth

How Your Friends Affect Your Creative Work

J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and why we all need a creative support group.

For the modern creative, it has never been easier to show your work to audiences around the world. Connective technology has made it possible to collaborate on and display your projects across time zones and borders. But all of this connectivity comes at a cost: anonymity. 

The downside of the ease of display is that it can feel like you are always on display, especially for freelancers and entrepreneurs, where every new contact could be a potential client or at least a referral. If we’re always on display, then we’re always open to, and receiving, criticism. Because of this dynamic, it’s difficult to tell when a work is “in progress” and when it’s finished. Rarely is work “published” — it simply evolves online over time. 

Amidst the flywheel of being always “on” and thus always a target for criticism, it can be really tempting to shut down and shut up entirely. But withdrawing from displaying your work isn’t what the world needs. We need your contribution, but you might need a little support. You might need a “Creatives Anonymous” of sorts.

While we may or may not require a twelve-step program, almost any creative can benefit from a support group. We need to interact with and draw support with others working in our field. We need a place where we can show our work in progress, but in a way where it’s generally accepted that whatever we show isn’t a finished product and our worth to clients shouldn’t be measured by it.

Likewise, whatever criticism takes place during our CA meetings is meant to strengthen the work and its creator. The most important element of these meetings would be the anonymity.  Not anonymity for the individual, but for the works being shared with the group – being shared in a smaller circler with the knowledge that it won’t be shared with the outside world…not yet, anyway. Instead of building a platform and showing something off to the whole world at the click of a mouse, many of us need to rebuild a safe place where we can display our work to a small group of trusted colleagues, get feedback, and refine…or abandon as needed.

Criticism should strengthen the work and its creator.

This isn’t a new concept; it’s been around for decades, if not centuries. Consider the famous (or infamous) writing group the “Inklings.” This was a group of British writers that included J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and many other prominent authors and poets of the time. Despite the formality of their name, their meetings were incredibly informal. Sometimes they met in Lewis’ rooms at Oxford University and just discussed the current influences they were absorbing. Other times they met at a local pub called The Eagle and The Child (or as the group called it, the “bird and baby”) and share the latest drafts of novels or poems.

The purpose wasn’t to proudly show off finished works, almost everything read was a work in progress. In fact, legend has it that C.S. Lewis actually had to argue with Tolkien that the manuscript he’d been reading at meetings, working title The Lord of the Rings, was in fact strong enough for publication. But the primary purpose of the meeting was to just connect with similar souls and draw strength from each other.

While we can broadcast our work to the entire world, perhaps we all need to first carve out a space in our life to broadcast on a much smaller scale to a trusted group of folks we respect. We’ll need their criticism first and we’ll need their support long afterward.

How about you?

Do you have your own version of the “Inklings”?

More Posts by David Burkus

Comments (14)
  • Joe Nicklo

    Seems to me that most “creatives” — rather designers/artists (that should never be used as a noun…) are too concerned with getting their egos stroked by praise on Dribbble than getting actual critiques.

    It’s good to see Behance push the critiques via the Work In Progress section. It’s just too bad that the actual completed projects comments section is a place for a bunch of three word comments of praise (ex: “I love it”).

  • Erik Rodne

    There’s a ‘Design Debate over Coffee’ group with healthy discussion on all things design I quite enjoy. Actual critiques with constructive feedback though … definitely something I would love to see more of in our community.

    I perceive a fear from other designers, in that sharing their work opens up the flood gates of criticism. While thick skin can be a great asset as a designer, the thickening process is not so much roses and candy canes. And because the truth sometimes hurts, we must exercise a position of care and improvement, so that our ‘truth’ is meant to empower a colleague and advance both their craft and person—not tear down or ego-stroke—genuinely offer advice and support.

    Lovely article, thank you for sharing, let’s all get on with the creative caring :^)

  • Eleanor Gannon

    One of my most creatively successful periods was receiving weekly feedback on my work whilst completing my MA. Every week I showed my supervisor what I’d been up to and the end of every meeting I’d come out feeling lost. I was pushed to create much more interesting/creative work then I could have could have made without the feedback, questioning and “have you thought about this?” I was presented with at every meeting. It was a cycle of creation, critique and reflection that ultimately resulted in creating more dynamic work. As long as the criticism comes from a positive supportive place, I believe it can make you stronger as a creative if you’re willing to hear it.

  • Shålaco

    I think most of the focus of schooling is building up the validation cycle. Which gives you new skills while allowing you to build out your creative process and internalize some bits.

    I’m currently revamping my portfolio and just realized, my professional portfolio has never gone through a formal or informal critique. Its art school 101, yet so many probably overlook this essential part of the process after they graduate. So, just today I invited another photographer to exchange critiques of each-others work to help us strengthen our vision and final output.

  • Ramon Vullings

    We have organised our own ‘inkling’ format for 8 years now. One umbrella, where we help & challenge each other on content & business, it’s called: 21 Lobsterstreet

  • John Grendon Enderby

    I find I do most of this kind of networking on Twitter. It’s really useful that there are so many resources out there, and people who are able to share their knowledge freely. You do still get the odd person who isn’t so generous, but the rest make up for it.

  • Aaron Walker

    I have been a member of the Eagles group in Nashville Tn for over a decade where 11 men meet weekly. Now also I’m a member of 48 Days Mastermind and The Torch. Mastermind groups are invaluable to me.

  • Norman Ridenour

    I find criticism hard to find. Everyone seems to want to gush positive platitudes. If I hear awesome one more time I will barf. I know that I am caught between making what has some chance of selling and making really good work which will only sit in the storage. To keep the studio open I have to do the first choice. The work is good but I need some real feedback.

  • Peg

    In my art class ( new discovery for me, only a year in), the teacher instructed us that a critique is saying what an more advanced artist “sees” in such a way,that it guides the less experienced artist to see it as well. The newer person can learn to see the truth in it.

  • jaochim

    I don’t have my own version of Inklings but I would love one. Where can I find one?

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