Building a creative career is like building a machine. There are a million moving parts, and the components you choose and the raw materials you put in will determine the machine’s output.
You’ve got to feed it, but you’ve also got to be on the outside, maintaining the machine. It needs oil, and sometimes there are parts that break, and you’ve got to swap them out. Maybe the old part is obsolete, and you’ve got the MacGyver up a new one.
It’s your machine. It’s on you to feed it and maintain it and control it. But you’re not alone: there are thousands, millions out there who have their own machines, large and small. So when you need help, you can find it. You might need to hire experts, or maybe just the advice of other creative-machine enthusiasts like yourself. You might need an assistant to schelp the oil.
But if this is what you want to be doing, you’ve got to keep the machine functioning, day and night, your whole life. Let it break down, and it’s way harder to get it started again. This is the central activity of your creative life.
Over the course of the years, I’ve encountered creative professionals who have put their lives together around their work in so many different ways. That’s one of the hardest things about making creative work your career: there is no one way to do it. And every year, some old ways die, and some new ways are born, The rules are constantly rewritten, and it happens so fast. It’s scary, even paralyzing.
Even when you know you can do the work, how can you fit that work into a real life? How can the work that feeds your soul also put literal food on the table? You’ve got to build your custom-designed creative machine.
This article is the first of a short series about the different kinds of creative machines we build, derived from Out on the Wire podcast episode 9: Make it Work.
Later, I’ll write about other creative mechanics: how Dave Kellett regularly invents new ways to (comfortably) support his cartooning work, and how Kelly Sue DeConnick runs a massive creative machine that sometimes makes her feel as if she’s about to lose control of it. Subscribe to make sure you get those posts.
Jakob Lewis is the creator and host of the show Neighbors, and the founder/founding member of the podcasting collective the Heard. Jakob contacted me soon after Out on the Wire came out about getting copies for his collective members. I was immediately intrigued by the idea of a collective, that there were six independent producers making their own individual shows, but that they pooled their resources. I’ve always been an independent producer…of comics…and the lack of any systematic way to get help has always been a major problem for me and others like me.
And it turns out, Jakob felt that isolation keenly. It’s a big part of his story. Here’s how he puts it:
“I was working a job in a custom cabinetry and furniture shop. It turned into a factory job where I was spraying lacquer eight hours a day, five days a week. And it was incredibly isolating and hot, with sawdust everywhere and lacquer fumes. I had on ear protection, a mask, eye protection, and I just felt like I was dying in this isolation bubble. So I started to listen to all these podcasts just to like, not die.”
“There was a This American Life episode [Long Shot], and the first little intro story was about Mine that Bird, the Kentucky Derby horse that went from the very end of the pack to win in an upset. When I heard that, I just felt so much emotion. I felt like an underdog. I felt like I had this potential that I was just squandering away, and I thought, you know what? I could come from behind and make it.”
And unlike every other person who probably had a driveway—I mean respirator—moment with this episode, Jakob actually understood it as a sign, and took action. He began building his personal creative machine by applying to the Transom Story Workshop, the famous crash-course in radio production and reporting that we discussed with lead instructor Rob Rosenthal in Out on the Wire episode 8. He got in. But that’s eight weeks. What happens then?
“After I left Transom, there was this huge void. It was two months of intense collaboration, community, inspiration, scrutiny…and then nothing. I’m back in Nashville. I have a little bit of gear, a lot of heart and no interaction.”
Sound familiar? I know it does to me. It’s like the summer-camp phenomenon when you become besties in a week with someone, then never speak again, and there’s this void in your heart.
“I just started getting more and more frustrated and felt isolated and alone and dark. And then when I went to the Third Coast Audio Festival, and I’m seeing all of these people again. I was meeting all of these people that were in the exact same boat as me, and I thought, man this person is really talented. This person is really creative, this person has great chops, and is alone and doesn’t have the resources that they need.
“It was just a radio mountaintop experience. That’s when I started to reach out.”
This is the key. What Jakob did about this problem he had is so simple: He reached out to five colleagues, and invited them to take part in a loosely-structured collective that they call the Heard (get it? Herd/heard?). In this group, they have access to five times the knowledge, five times the feedback, five times the ideas, five times the influence and reach, when they share each others’ work on social media or make important contacts. And there are no legal obligations; they just have a Skype meeting once a week, and when someone needs something, they reach out on a Slack group and ask.
So simple, yet how many actually take a step like this? And then formalize it to some degree so that it becomes a resource everyone in the group can truly rely on?
“I wanted to grow and be a successful entity. I felt like I had a better chance with others than I did on my own like just as a brand. And just having a group of artists that see radio like I see it, as art…There is just an energy that I was wanting to have again.”
“It’s such an amazing group of really talented people that I really trust. And that give honest feedback. And I’ve just learned so much. From the human stuff to the business stuff to the craft. It’s all there.”
It’s a scramble to figure out all the details of how to run your creative life, both on the creative and the business side.
The thing the Heard has done differently, that has amplified their reach and accelerated their growth both creatively and as business owners, is to reach out and ask for help, and to offer help in exchange. If they’ve got an idea, they have a group to run it by and test it out. If they need collaborators on a project, they’ve got that.
Jakob built his creative machine with the help and advice of all his classmates and teachers at the Transom workshop, and now with his Heard colleagues. If he has a breakdown or needs a part, he’s got a pit crew to get him rolling again, fast.
But that also means he’s been willing to open himself up to others in a way most of us never dare to. And he’s been lucky to find collaborators who are as generous and open as he is.
“The biggest kind of comfort to me is to know you’re not alone. This is not new territory for the human experience at all. A certain kind of creative type thinks that they’re the only person that’s gone through these crazy emotional ups and downs and through thinking that they’re so good at what they do and then in the next minute thinking they’re just worthless. Everything they make is worthless.”
“That’s not new. You are not special in that regard. That is common to the human experience. And once you avail yourself to others in a meaningful and vulnerable way, others that you trust, you will find strength and encouragement and community.”
Here’s a simple (but difficult) challenge for you:
Form a collective
Identify 4-6 colleagues, people you admire, in your field, invite them to create a community with you, and form a collective. You can make it simple, just a Slack group, or formalize weekly or monthly meetings, in person or (more likely) online (Skype, Hangouts, FaceTime). You can have a name and a website (like the Heard) or you can keep it off the grid.
In your invitation, outline what you think you need, and, more importantly, what you can offer.
Some things you might think about:
- Sharing each others’ projects and posts on social media
- Feedback on your work
- Collaborative partners for projects
- Advice and ideas for how to build your creative business
- Contacts in your professional area
What else can you do when form a collective? Put it in the comments.