The other night my 4 year old son asked me where my books are. I told him they are in my studio. He asked who was there right now, and I said no one, because I am home with him. He said, “When you go, is it you and one other person?” I clarified, “No, it is just me.” Then he replied:
“Then who will take care of you?”
This was a reflection of the life he leads, where he constantly has a parent or teacher who is present with him to ensure he is okay. But it had me considering something I think about a lot when it comes to how writers and creators find growth and success: that we tend to thrive when we collaborate with others, and failure is more likely when we try to go it alone. What this means is that having colleagues and mentors is something I encourage in terms of how you create and share your writing and art.
For writers, I have seen this apply to every kind of publishing path, from traditional, to self-publishing, to hybrid. When we collaborate, we are not only more effective in reaching our goals, but it also helps us manage the difficult parts of what it means to create and put ourselves out there: the sense of confusion and overwhelm that people often feel, the mental health struggles we each go through when considering if we are doing enough, or doing the right thing, or on the wrong path entirely.
Too often, people have a resistance to collaborating with others because they have this sentimental sense of “I’m making it on my own.” They believe that great art comes from one person struggling alone. That if you share the process with anyone, you are watering down the singular vision of the individual creator. I will say, there is no one right way to create and share. Find the way that works best for you.
But even though so much of creative work can happen in isolation, the fact is, we succeed together. I regularly think back to this 2013 video from author John Green where he talks about how his writing and publishing is a group effort, and how he wouldn’t have any books (let alone bestselling books) without a wide range of collaborators.
This very essay is a great example. I am sitting here alone in a room by myself, with the door closed and locked at 6:19am as I write this. I could easily trick myself into thinking, “Here I am, creating alone!”
But that isn’t the truth.
I can only be here because my amazing wife is home with our kids. She is an artist, and through our conversations each day, and through me observing her creative process, she endlessly inspires me.
I can only be here because my landlord has rented me this studio and allowed me access during the early morning hours that I like to work.
I am writing on a computer designed and built by someone else. Listening to music that inspires me (the track I’m listening to at this very moment is appropriately called “Partner” by singer Ada Lea. I can thank Spotify for making me aware of her.)
What I’m writing about today was inspired by both my son’s comments, and also by author and artist Nikki Grimes. More on her in a moment.
I am writing this to an audience, to a reader. You. My subscribers have stuck with me on my email list every week for 15 years. I’m aware that after I publish this, I will share it to thousands of newsletter subscribers, 10,000 Twitter subscribers, and to many others. They are a part of this as I write too.
I am thinking of the writers I speak to every day as I write this, because they help me understand the reality of the many different experiences of what it means to create and share.
I am staring at a wall across from me that is filled with photos of creators who inspire me. I spend all day looking at their faces and considering their journeys.
Behind me is a bookshelf of books on creativity and biographies of creators whose stories help me.
Because of my wonderful clients, I am in the trenches every day working with them and learning so much from that collaborative process. Their engagement and support is critical to all of this.
The conversations I have each week with my creative collaborators Jennie Nash and Lori Richmond are a part of this. Each week, we dig into deep questions about what it means to create and grow a business.
Sure, in one sense I’m here alone. But I’m not alone at all. My name will be the one on this essay, but so many other people are a part of it. These people, whether they know it or not, are taking care of me. Are inspiring me. Are giving me the fuel, the permission, the accountability, the sustainability to create and share.
This week I released the first interview of the new season of my Creative Shift podcast. It is an incredible honor to share with you my conversation with author and artist Nikki Grimes. You can watch our conversation here:
… or listen to it on my blog, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and elsewhere through this link.
She shared so much inspiring advice, and one thing that jumped out at me is how she talked about the value of having creative colleagues and mentors:
“[Writing] was my private thing. I didn’t even think about sharing it until the end of middle school, early high school. I started publishing in school, literary journals and that kind of thing. That was the point at which I started thinking in terms of writing as career. People just laughed when I told them what I wanted to do.”
“I decided I needed to surround myself with other young people who had dreams that they wanted to pursue. They became like my posse. I started seeking those kids out and they became the people I surrounded myself with. I am sure that made all the difference. Once I decided this is what I wanted to do, I just kind of shut everything else out.”
“I started thinking about building portfolios, looking for opportunities to write with community newspapers, literary journals, and building up from there. And again, keeping myself surrounded increasingly with other artists, visual artists, dancers, whatever.”
“I was doing poetry workshops and was in poetry workshops. I was in a poetry workshop with Quincy Troupe. I was in a writing workshop at Columbia, which is where I met [Nikki] Giovanni and a few other writers. I was like the kid in the group and I was hanging out with her and, Jayne Cortez and Sonia Sanchez, and Toni Cade Bambara, that whole group.”
“My first mentor was James Baldwin. And the one thing he taught me in talking to me about was the importance of not compromising on my gift. You want to compromise in any of the areas which you need to financially, I understand that, but don’t compromise in the area of your gift. You always want to be able to look in the mirror and be proud and happy with who you see… and that’s not going to happen if you compromise in the area of your giftedness. Just, don’t do that. And I, took that in.”
Nikki shared so much that is inspiring and instructive for writers and creators. She has published more than 80 books, and created so much else. You can listen to our interview here, or learn more about her on her website. (You can also find her on Twitter and Instagram!)
How can you develop a connection to other writers and creators? Some ideas:
- Use Amazon and Goodreads to research and identify 10 books published in the last three years that are comparable to yours. Books that would be on the shelf next to yours at a bookstore. Then, read those books. Email each author a thank you note, telling them what you liked most about their books. Make a small mention at the end that you write as well and how their book has helped you.
- Then get in the habit of emailing one person a week a similar letter. These could be comparable authors, but also anyone who supports the books you love. People who speak at events, who organize events, who run bookstores, who are sources for your work, who are readers of that work. There are more than 10 people who are working in your genre, topic or niche. Identify one of these people per week, then send them a thank you email.
- Flip how you use social media. Don’t worry about gaining followers or likes. Instead, focus your efforts on how you can make someone’s day. Focus on one person at a time. As you research and identify the other writers in your field, celebrate them publicly. Do a series of posts about their books. See what they share and amplify it. Literally give their books away.
- Find an excuse to collaborate. Why have I had a blog and newsletter for 15 years? Why do I do a weekly podcast? It’s all an excuse to meet the people I am most inspired by: writers and creators! Consider ways that you could collaborate with others. Could you do mini-interviews with these people on a blog or podcast? Or could you even do that on an Instagram feed? This is not about a content strategy, it’s about finding meaningful reasons to go deeper with these people. To have a conversation or interaction.
If you are wondering how others will care and support you, I would encourage you to consider that this begins with you caring and supporting others first. That isn’t a rule by any means, but I find it an encouraging way to consider actions I can take right now to develop a community around creativity.