A year ago, I started an online creative community.
It was just luck that I took the dive and committed to convening an ongoing online support system (for serious creatives who’ve taken my flagship course, the Creative Focus Workshop) just in time to provide the kind of deep, flexible, empathetic comradeship we all need so much in this darkest of years.
I had been puzzling for years over how to design more robust continuous accountability and support for the people I work with, who represent a vast array of creative fields, but are united in seeking to build resilient, sustainable, productive creative careers and lives together.
But what I’ve realized over the past year is, what I initially conceived of as a “support system” is easily as valuable as the actual course is to my mission to empower creatives to take control of their life trajectories.
The thing is: This year may be especially difficult, but the fact is that creative people have long been trying to carve out a life for themselves, alone in the room…
Isolation was fairly standard, even in the Before Times.
It’s pretty much baked into the system.
We need to start radically re-imagining the way we approach our creative lives
When I first started teaching the Creative Focus Workshop five years ago, it was in reaction to a huge cry for help from my audience. I heard things like:
“I feel paralyzed by perfectionism.”
“I have bursts of creative energy, but I can’t sustain it.”
“I’m always trying to ‘steal’ back time from other things, and end up not sleeping!”
I recognized myself in these statements. I had to teach myself how to focus and finish…
…and it took me 15 painful years to get any good at it.
I’ve also taught in art schools for over 20 years now. I’ve gotten a front-row seat to how talented, committed, incredibly creative people are taught technical skills and (we hope) critical thinking skills.
But when it comes to life and career skills?
HOW to arrange their lives—from schedules to goal setting to finances?
It was like the universe was saying to anyone who wanted to make their own way, “Ok, fine, you don’t want to follow the well-worn path? Feel free to wander in the desert alone until you figure this thing out…or, you know, don’t. It’s on you.”
Which is utter bullshit.
And made me so so angry.
We weren’t meant to do this alone
Too many creative people feel like the cost—the cosmic highway toll—of their decision to pursue a nontraditional path means they have to go it alone. There’s this romantic ideal of the painter in the garret—of the cartoonist in the garage, or the blogger in the spare room, or the novelist in the cafe (you get the idea).
But that’s a pernicious, destructive lie.
First of all, what is this vision of solitary genius that we’ve inherited and who is it serving?
There’s a toxic myth that if you can’t do it alone, you shouldn’t be trying at all. If you can’t figure out how to both achieve lofty heights of sustained creative productivity AND make it all work financially, well, you just don’t have the genius gene, sorry.
It’s a controlling narrative that only pushes creatives deeper in the pit of despair.
Secondly, who are all these imaginary people who don’t have partners or children or bosses or friends? We all have complex lives, of which pursuing a creative goal is just one part.
Turns out, anger can be motivating
Those deep frustrations pushed me into creating something I never expected—a framework for creatives of all kinds to find the structure they need to thrive in their self-directed work without burning out.
That’s the Creative Focus Workshop, a coaching and course hybrid that mimics the energy that, in the Olden Days, you could only get in a face-to-face class.
I wanted to build something that wasn’t just some online course that sits languishing on your to-do list for months, driving you deeper into shame and doubt. (Sounds SUPER fun! Sign me up!)
I knew it needed to include both teaching and support mechanisms, something that a busy person could actually finish while getting feedback and reinforcement whenever they got stuck in the mud.
How about a living, breathing, creative community of people trying to figure this stuff out alongside us?
I knew from the beginning that community—that tired buzzword, talked about so often, but implemented so seldom—would be central to the success of the Creative Focus Workshop, because I knew how the success of a live, in-person class depended on the cohesion and energy of the students.
But how do you evoke that energy online?
I had tried a Facebook group. I used Slack for a while. Both had features that appealed to me, but nothing had staying power.
We needed something that would be our own safe haven away from the constant chatter of social media. A place for a community committed to creative life (and with a shared language) to be honest and open with each other.
Also: We’re creatives, we’re in this for life. Building a sustainable creative practice isn’t something where you do it for five weeks and you’re like, Welp, nailed that.
That’s just not a thing. It’s about keeping the wheels turning, always.
I knew my people needed and deserved something much more robust in order to keep each other accountable for continuous improvement.
And having an ongoing community of people who are working at this with the seriousness that you are? It’s very hard to find.
I’m no guru. And I’m not just a teacher or host—I’m a member of the Autonomous Creative Collective
Initially, I was resistant to the idea of building a membership community. Would it gel? Would I end up feeling drained by needing to constantly show up to help people?
Students tend to come into any course thinking, I need the teacher. I need Jessica. She’s the one who knows everything. That can be a lot of responsibility, but what’s truly surprising?
Since I launched the Autonomous Creative Collective, my job has actually gotten easier. Not harder.
There is no way that I, on my own, could offer as much depth of experience as this group can put together. And there’s no way I saw all of these conversations coming.
I’ve learned as much from the students as they’ve learned from me.
Over the past year, we’ve cultivated a system of community-as-pedagogy. In the Autonomous Creative Collective, we’re honest about our mistakes, failures, successes, and small wins, and we share them with one another.
It’s not just a place for Creative Focus Workshop students to be able to ask me questions about one lesson or another. It’s really become a place where members cultivate an understanding of how to move forward together— knowing that we have each other’s backs.
What really blew me away was seeing how our creative community came together during this pandemic.
Once again, we had to reimagine our creative lives. Radically. We know that the systems and mythos surrounding artists fail us, but now, a lot of other structures were failing us as well—or at least failing us much more visibly.
The Autonomous Creative Collective had already become a place to figure out how to transform and reconfigure our business models, our schedules, how we integrate work and family life, and how we perceive productivity and our self worth.
We’d already been co-working together, and riffing off of each other for ideas.
We expected something of a drop-off in community engagement over the last six months, but were floored by how quickly people came together, ready to support one another and work things out. Ready to celebrate and grieve with one another, and strengthen our resilience.
And it really did make us stronger.
It has surprised me, but it shouldn’t have. The one thing I know better than anyone else in this creative community? I know how amazing the people are who show up in the Creative Focus Workshop. They are mind-blowingly cool people doing awesome stuff.
And we are so much more than the sum of our parts.
It was Tara McMullin who turned me on to Mighty Networks, the host we use for the Autonomous Creative Collective. I’ve been a member of her What Works community for years. Tara was able to talk me down about the whole host-burnout question and helped me imagine a truly sustainable life as a teacher as well as a creative.
Mighty Networks is a community-building platform where I can also host courses—which gives me a way to host conversations right alongside the course material. Alumni can continue to connect and work together, as well as supporting new students. They can dive back into the Creative Focus Workshop anytime they want (as long as they stay members).
That means members can integrate what they learn as the new obstacles and experiences that present themselves, and can lay the path for others to follow.
Mighty Networks has been an amazing platform in so many ways for the Autonomous Creative Collective. (In fact, I was featured in an article on Mighty Network’s blog about how I finally settled on it as the place for my creative community. And if you’re thinking about launching your own membership community, here’s my affiliate link to join!)
The main point is this: The curriculum is just one part of what’s valuable about the Creative Focus Workshop.
Nothing we do is prescriptive. The course teaches whole-life integration, a really big subject! We all need to dig in repeatedly and keep coming back to it. Having a community of people around you gives you the freedom to ask the questions that matter in your life, right now.
David’s story is so powerful because he was willing to ask for real, nitty-gritty help, and his people showed up with the honest truth of their lived experiences. It takes a lot to say to a (virtual) room-full of people from across disciplines, lifestyles, and countries, “I’m not sure what to do, Help!“
The power of a shared purpose
Our community is home to creatives of all stripes. We recently ran a survey of our group and (obviously) we’re surrounded by writers, illustrators, artists, and bloggers. But we also include academics, podcasters, photographers, fiber artists, coders, consultants, and game designers (just to name a few—we are involved in 35+ creative endeavors!).
We have members looking to make their passion into a career, others who aren’t, and some who are already full-time pros.
We have people who love social media, people who absolutely loathe it, and lots who are wondering how they’re supposed to fit sharing their work online into their lives, which seems like a full-time gig on its own.
We all bring something unique. That’s how we learn from each other, and how we can continue to improve our understanding and execution of the strategies necessary to make this often incredibly consuming lifestyle work better, and improve or forge new strategies along the way.
What brings us together is—as corny as it sounds—the deep desire, even the need, to design a new kind of life for ourselves.
To build a path where there is no path.
And that’s HARD.
That lone figure up there—just a half mile ahead, with a shovel in her hand and dust on her clothes? That’s who I need to talk to. That’s who knows the struggle.
Maria knows the struggle. And she wrote about it recently in the ACC in a post that truly struck a chord.
The key is showing up and being real, not perfection
One of the things people worry a lot about in the Autonomous Creative Collective is not helping enough, not engaging enough, not commenting enough. It’s like our brains are hard-wired to be givers, and we’re uncomfortable taking.
DO MORE DO MORE the voice says, and we just can’t shut it up.
We KNOW we can’t do it all, shouldn’t do it all, but we just can’t help it.
That’s why, very early on, we share with new members of our creative community the very alien idea that “taking” can be giving.
When you ask for help, when you allow yourself to be vulnerable, you open safe space for others to rush in and say, Oh my god, I feel that way too. I need help too. You’re doing fine. We can do this together and help support each other.
I know this from my own experience. It’s when I talk about my own failures and the things that I struggle with that people respond most and learn the most. If I put on a front of being bulletproof, people can’t connect. They don’t see the path to where they want to arrive.
But when I open up about my fears and weaknesses and failures, others can breathe a sigh of relief and say “You too?”
Building on the conversation
Being in constant communication with my members has helped me see the bigger picture of what people are struggling with. And one of those things is what to do after the work itself is done. After the book is written, the blog is started, the sewing project completed. Then what?
I saw these conversations about visibility and promotion all around me, and remembered how confusing and stressful it all was when I was starting that process myself.
Because self-promotion can feel so icky.
And this ultimately led to my new project, Authentic Visibility, an interactive course that walks participants through the process of identifying and cultivating an audience that will lead to an authentic marketing plan that works for your life.
And I can’t wait to have these conversations together, because they were born out of real-life conversations in the Autonomous Creative Collective—hard, vulnerable, honest conversations that require real work.
Taking the time for gratitude
Doing this hard work for a year requires a celebration. I’m over here hanging streamers, pouring the wine, and busting out the good dishes.
New members come in all the time and wonder, “Wow, where did these people come from? This is amazing.”
I feel immense gratitude for the people who’ve shown up, and that they continue to show up. I feel very lucky that I’ve been able to convene these people in this special place and give them access to each other.
We’ve built a creative community worth celebrating.
Happy First Birthday, Autonomous Creative Collective!