"The Inklings" — Photo Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

How Your Friends Affect Your Creative Work

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”?

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David Burkus

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David Burkus is assistant professor of management at the College of Business at Oral Roberts University, where he teaches courses on creativity, entrepreneurship, and organizational behavior. He is the author of The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas.
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