3 People Every Writer Needs in Their Creative Collective

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Todd Henry, who is the author Louder Than WordsThe Accidental Creative, and Die Empty. Find him at ToddHenry.com, or on Twitter @toddhenry.

When you imagine a person creating a work of art, what comes to mind?

Many of us think of a writer tucked away in the corner of a quiet room, a painter isolated in a smoldering attic loft, or a designer’s eyes fixed with precision on a laptop screen for hours on end, and we unwittingly internalize the myth that making art is a solo sport.

3 People Every Writer Needs in Their Creative Collective

Yes, you must often do the work alone, but an artist is never truly alone. The artist’s sense of self, vision, and craft are often forged in the fires of community. Many of the most resonant, and ultimately impactful creative voices are honed through their interactions with others they respect and trust.

As Virginia Woolf put it:

Masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice.

To make art means to make bold, unique decisions in the face of uncertainty. Without a strong community around you, it’s easy to lose sight of who you are and what you care about, and over time your body of work becomes compromised via a series of seemingly inconsequential decisions.

The courage to persist, and to ultimately build a body of work that reflects your unique passions and perspective, comes most readily from the people around you. Yes, you must be brave to do brilliant work, but you shouldn’t walk alone.

In Louder Than Words, I wrote about the importance of forming your “collective”, or a group of people who will help you stay inspired and hone your voice until it resonates deeply. There are a few kinds of people you should seek out as a part of your collective:

The Mirror

Who speaks unvarnished truth to you? You need someone in your life who will help you stay aligned and focused, who will help you invest your finite creative resources in places that will reap the best return. A mirror reflects back the truth to you.

Who tells you things you don’t like now so that you can achieve results that you love later? In isolation, you can start to want to be seen a certain way more than you want to actually be a certain way. This is a problem, because it means you are not operating from a place of authenticity, and your work will suffer.

The mirror calls you on your nonsense, and helps you stay true to your compass, even when you are less than certain about the right path. Do you have someone who tells you the truth? If not, find them, because your voice isn’t just what you say, it’s how you are heard by others.

The Muse

Who fills your well? You need others in your life to inspire you and charge your creative batteries. Who plays this role? (And, on the other side of the equation, who do you play this role for?)

Who introduces you to new ideas, shares inspiring resources with you, or pushes you to go into uncomfortable places with your art? You gain so much by seeing through the eyes of people you trust and respect.

A shallow response would be “I don’t need a muse. I have Facebook/Twitter/etc.!” Yes, these tools increase your awareness, but awareness is not the same as knowledge, and knowledge is not equivalent to wisdom.

Conversations with your community will help you turn your insights into impact by creating accountability for you to take action. It’s action that defines reality, not knowledge. Inspiration has a shelf-life unless you act upon it.

The Mentor

Who is lighting your path? Not all the way down, but just for the next few steps? When doing creative work, it’s not important that you see the finish line, only the horizon. A mentor can shine the light a little ahead of you and help you see what’s coming next.

Mentors don’t have to be a hundred steps down the path, only enough to give you perspective. There have been many mentors in my life who have identified obvious problems, put books into my hands at just the right time, or helped me navigate a tricky decision. There wasn’t a formal “mentorship” agreement, we were just in community together and leaning on one another.

What difficult problem are you facing right now that you need to seek help with? Don’t let today pass without taking action. Isolation due to pride or self-reliance can be the most damaging kind of all.

If you want to develop a resonant creative voice, you must lean into the power of community.

Don’t allow the myth of the “lone wolf” creative to cause you to struggle in isolation. Form your collective, draw upon the wisdom and insight mirrors, muses, and mentors, and you’ll soon find that you’re doing the best work of your life.

We are giving away five copies of Todd’s newest book, Louder Than Words: Harness The Power Of Your Authentic Voice. Just share this post and leave a comment to enter. This giveaway ends at Noon CT on Monday, September 7.

Who is in your creative collective? Do you have a mirror, muse, and mentor? Share in the comments.

Todd Henry is the author of the new book Louder Than Words: Harness The Power Of Your Authentic Voice, as well as The Accidental Creative and Die Empty. Find him at ToddHenry.com, or on Twitter.

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87 thoughts on “3 People Every Writer Needs in Their Creative Collective

  1. The old 3 M’s – Mirror, Muse, Mentor.

    After the Tribe Conference, I’m focused on being a part of this creative triad. In fact, one of my previous clients attended the conference because I introduced her to The Art of Work.

    My other dear friend Kate was able to join me at the conference. Since we all live in Knoxville, we’ve all agreed to meet at least once to see if we collectively digest all that we took away from the event. Beyond that I hope to keep us working together in a Facebook group I created for us.

    No doubt, we’ll all be a little bit of each to one another. I’m definitely the mirror – it gets me in trouble from time to time. Any suggestions on how to temper glass?

  2. Love this post, Todd (and Jeff), thank you. As someone who mentors aspiring authors, I’ve experienced the mutually rewarding process that provides both the mentor and mentee with new insights into writing craft and overcoming writing hurdles. As for the Woolf quote, she was of course part of the Bloomsbury group herself. Not only did they boost each other’s creativity but Woolf and her husband also published the works of important modernist writers in the process.

  3. Wonderful post. This necessity for growing within my writing, with the help and support of others, is something I often forget about. When I sit down with my journal and a pen, I’m not bouncing ideas off of the nearest person. However, it’s so crucial to get the feedback of others — oftentimes, I find that it helps me sharpen my own words and thoughts, and sheds harsh light upon how the ideas in my mind are perceived on paper. “A creative collective” — I love it.

    Jessica // http://www.jessicarmyers.com

  4. This is such a good post. As an extremely introverted introvert, community has been (and sometimes still is) one of my biggest struggles. I know how important it is, and I’ve even written about it on my own blog, but when it comes down to actually building out my network, it’s honestly tough. This post is a great reminder to get out and seek those people who can help fill, inspire, and encourage your creativity, as well as help direct it.

  5. For the moment I feel like I have one person that embodies all of three of these. I think I need to expand my community. I’m working on it though. Thanks for the great post.

  6. I’d never be where I am without my writing group.
    To solidify our journeys we did the 3Day Novel contest over labor day several years ago. It was a blast but only the beginning.
    Three years ago we started the Jot Writers Conference. It’s a free one-night writers conference that connects writers, editors, bloggers, agents, etc. Speakers donate the time to do it and love the indie movement its become here in Grand Rapids, MI.
    It’s a lot of work to put on a free conference for 70+ people but I’ve formed some great relationships and have new writing opportunities all because of collaboration.
    I am where I am because of my fellow writers, this is absolutely true.

  7. Thanks for this. It’s amazing what a community can do for you. Even if they don’t know they’re part of your community!

  8. Love this! Just in the last year or so I added a few mirror relationships. I think those are the hardest to develop because of the level of trust required. That being said, I think they can be one of the most rewarding of the relationships.

  9. I am so thankful for community – the few trusted mirrors who keep me humble and true to myself, the muses who help give me perspective and laugh, and the mentors who share both successes and failures to help me on my way.

  10. Great piece. I am sharing with my writer’s group. I am grateful for the community that inspires, encourages, and challenges. The laughter we share balances the isolation of writing.

  11. You made it so clear. Sometimes the online space makes it as those folks are superhuman. we all need support to reach ourfull potential. Great post!

  12. It is so easy to convince ourselves that social media fills the role of community but it is so easy to stray without these voices in our lives. Thank you for sharing!

  13. Todd’s question ” who fills your well?” Hit me in the deep cave of my writers heart. I try to be there for my creative friends and yet never asked for help or reached out when my well was empty and the drought was long. I look forward to reading his books.

  14. Very good post. I appreciate the succinct summary of who I need in my Court. Am pondering this now and thanking you.

  15. Great post! I’ve been working on these. It’s definitely a process, and I’m nowhere close to arriving yet–like Lana, am actively taking applications for all three. However, I have begun the process & as my creative network grows, so do the positive results! Thank you for the encouragement to keep pressing forward, and the words of wisdom regarding the qualities to look for as I do. This is very much appreciated!

  16. Joining writing groups and being able to bounce story ideas off of each other is a great boon. Also being aware of what is going on in the world, reading, tv, movies, music, and most importantly the connections between loved ones and friends are fuel that allows me to go into the writer’s cave bristling with ideas.

  17. This is an excellent piece detailing the types of community members we need. Food for thought. Thanks!

  18. This is an area that I need to grow. I don’t really have a group that I can talk writing with…at least IRL group. This definitely has me thinking….

  19. Wow! There are about 20 lines in this article that I want to share with my team. Incredible post that speaks to us not only in reference to our talents, but also just as individuals!

  20. I love this outline, and I while I have these people in my personal life, I don’t have any of them in my blogging life. To clarify, I have lots of blogging buddies writing on similar topics, just none that are interested in these kinds of deeper relationships. And the groups I’ve joined (in the search for a ‘tribe’) are just about blog post and social media sharing, with little to no interaction otherwise. I’ll keep searching though – I know how beneficial it is to have a creative collective.

  21. Very thought-provoking. I am inspired to sit and process WHO is in my community and what roles they play.

  22. I love this post. I am learning more and more about the importance of community. We are not designed to live in a vacuum. Many pieces of our art of life may be made alone but it can only be perfected and made complete through the fires of community. It is like an oven to bake and mold and refine and bring to life. We are interconnected in a grand mystery and it is beautiful.

  23. For me this is a matter of trust. I have a deep fear of sharing my ideas, only to have them stolen by others and used to their credit (kids used to do this to me in grade school). Reading this post, I began thinking of who I can partner with in relationships of mutual respect and trust.

  24. This weekends Tribewriters Conference was a great place for me to try to find some community. Reaching out to others and making connections was very helpful and I plan on using those connections to grow in my writing and to hopefully help them grow as well. Thank you for the thought provoking post.

  25. This post made me stop and think, “who is my community?” I need to work on that and not try to go it alone so much.

    1. My youngest son is my mirror. My daughter is my muse. It’s difficult for a mom to give her child the kind of brutal honesty you need sometimes, but if you have a highly creative mom that you work well with, a mentor role may work. The fact that you’re asking the question means that you know the answer.

  26. Thanks for this post. Loved the images of mirror, muse, and mentor. I’m working on building this type of community for myself as I’ve found much wisdom and inspiration in community. Thanks, Todd and Jeff!

  27. Love this – and so true in all aspects of my life not just my creative side. I do have different types of people in my life – I actually seek them out. Many times they come more naturally into my life.

  28. I agree we need to let others in. I have lived it. This is the story of my book, THE BEE IN THE BLACKBERRY BUSH.

    I have always loved making up stories.

    But something happened about 20 years ago. Some friends started making up stories for some RPGs we were playing. I share my ideas and they encourage me.

    Later I wrote some stories and read them to my oldest daughter. She loved them.

    Later my youngest daughter wanted me to share my stories (publish). She challenged me.

    A friend introduced me to the Dave Ramsey program which introduced me to Jon Acuff who said “90% and published is better than 100% and in my head.” He gave me permission to try.

    I talked with a friend who gave me a better the title and introduced me to his brother the illustrator. They gave me what I lacked.

    Don Lee agreed to illustrate the book in exchange for letting people know about his work.

    The Bee in the Blackberry Bush was born.

    An acquaintance called the newspaper and I got a full page layout. More encouragement.

    I gave a copy away and the person taught me about fonts and layouts. More information.

    First update to the book.

    A man I was going to school with liked the story and translated it into Lao.

    The Bi-lingual Bee was born (my pet name for the Lao/English version)

    A cousin introduced me to a English/Spanish teacher from Mexico.

    The Spanish Bee was born.

    Joined Jon Acuff’s “30 Days of Hustle” meet a host of people. One editor did a once over of the book and found some small previously missed issues. An graphic designer, who wanted to give back to the group, designed a new cover.

    The latest update was completed.

    So where is The Bee in the Blackberry Bush now.

    It is a self-published children’s book. It is in three languages. It is in Kindle form in English and Spanish. I have given away 1500 copies electronically. There are over 800 likes on my Facebook page for the book. Now, there are nearly 2000 copies of The Bee in the Blackberry Bush on six continents around the world (anyone going to the south pole?).

    This is my first book.

    How?

    (It certainly wasn’t money. I am a pastor and barely live paycheck to paycheck.)

    IT WAS COMMUNITY!

    You can go it alone, but you go further with help.

  29. Over the last couple years, I have really been learning how important relationships and community are and I am working on establishing and growing these relationships. I Love the “Mirror, Muse and Mentor” analogies you talk about. I will definitely use these as I look at my relationships and see who fits these roles in my life and how I can be them in others lives.

  30. This is a really inspiring blog piece and serves as a good template for creating compelling content.

  31. Applies well beyond “creatives.” Some of my favorite nuggets I’ll be taking to heart
    A trusted and honest mirror calls you on your nonsense, community creates accountability, and isolation due to pride or self-reliance can be the most damaging kind of all.

  32. I am new to this adventure and having a few of these people on my team would definitely be beneficial as well as motivating.

  33. I’m super anxious to read Todd’s new book, but my library doesn’t have it in yet. 🙁 This interview does give me a place to start though!

  34. Hi Todd,

    Great thoughts. This is my first introduction to your writing. What do I think of it? Well, let’s just say I won’t be disappointed if I win your book. 🙂

    One thing I find interesting about this creative-collective concept (oh, how I do love alliteration!) is the alternate spin you can put on it. Yes, we need to find our mirror, muse, and mentor. But we also should try to BE the mirror, muse, or mentor for others.

    One writer could fill the role of mirror, muse, and mentor to numerous other writers. When one asks for our opinion, we can can give it — truthfully. We can inspire others and fuel their creative engines. We can take under our wings the writers who are a few steps behind us on the ladder.

    Don’t just take truths, inspiration, and wisdom. Give them, too. Give them abundantly.

    Love your thoughts, Todd. I’ll be tweeting this shortly.

    -Kevin

    1. Great thoughts, Kevin! And I won’t stop at that.

      It’s always a temptation for rookie writers to steer clear of the heavyweights, because we think “they are high up there” and never want to be disturbed.

      Not quite true, as I have discovered in the cases of few professional writers/bloggers.

      While I duly resonate with your position to give these tips the alternate spin, I love the fact that this can go on to become a trend; professional writers muse and mentor rookie writers, and the latter go on to do the same.

      Great flow, indeed.

      Good spin, Kevin. And useful post, Todd.

  35. I desperately need a creative collective. I’ve had numerous coffee meetings trying to surround myself with the kind of people you’ve mentioned. I feel like the writer tucked away in the basement but I’m always searching for others.
    I have a team but only one of them identifies as a creative. Is that a prerequisite? I need Todd’s new book!

  36. Todd, this is top of the line! and Jeff, thank you for having Todd put a post here.!
    I am highlighting many sentences that hit me. And I’ll be checking for the book on Kindle.
    My best hours for reading are in the wee hours of the morning.
    Because I am no longer easily mobile (83 with cane and no car), I may have to build most of my community on the internet. and between Brazil and the USA.
    A challenge and a good one.
    Jeff has done a good job of teaching on this, so your words reverberate inside me.
    Thank You!

  37. This post resonated within me as I realized how the group of four women I meet with are a creative community. They edit my work and make me diligent to deal with difficult passages in my writing. Without this community, I would have quit my project long ago. I appreciate their intense critique that sometimes jars my sensibilities, but always makes me find a better way to express myself.

  38. This is great! A group of us creatives met for the first time today here in the Bay Area. Just getting together & collaborating a little helps spur creativity. I’d love to be more intentional w/ the various types of people to surround myself with though. Thanks.

  39. I’ve always been thankful for the friends who want to read my work before it’s ready, who care enough about me to say, “Wait, are you sure about that line, paragraph, title or poem?” One of them recently passed away leaving me in a strange and lonely world. Her editor’s heart stays with me though, and I will forge ahead!

  40. The best article I’ve read on this… I have those people in my life, and are those three types for so many aspects of my life but I had not really thought hard about how much they steer my creativity or inspire it! Now that I’m armed with this outlook, I need to show them my appreciation, pronto! 🙂

  41. As mentioned on my Facebook page, this has been one of the best guest posts I’ve read so far this year! This post not only helped me identify those in my life who are my mirrors, muses, and mentors, but also helped me see how their roles are being played out in my life and in my writing. It’s almost like “Star Wars” in which Luke Skywalker was trained by more than one “master”; there was Obi-Wan, then Yoda, and then ultimately his father–Anakin/Darth Vader.

    As I begin the process of growing my “community”, the feedback is helping me a little at a time. And I’m seeing there are lots of people to thank for their roles along the path!

    Thanks, Todd and Jeff!

  42. Love this post. umm… certainly don’t have a Mirror and definitely need one as I tend to go on the path of wanting to seen in a certain way because of fear of getting out of my comfort zone of being my authentic self. Having someone to highlight where I am off alignment of being my true authentic self would greatly help me. I will be searching for this person.

    I have a Muse who is also my accountability partner in my writing project. She inspires me as she is doing what I want to do and inspires me to do things that push me out of my comfort zone and then holds me accountable to them.

    I don’t have a mentor as such although I do have mentors in many entrepreneur groups I am part of. But to have one person as a mentor specifically to give me direction and help when I need it. I think paying for a mentor at the right time when you are ready for such a person would be ideal.

    For me a mentor further down my current path would be great to help me expand and grow.

    Thanks for this great post, it has got me thinking that I have been doing things alone and need others in my life to guide, help and mentor me to success.

  43. Thanks Todd, working in community is always inspiring. I just wondered how I might find a community when my way of thinking is quite off the grid? I have a church background, but my church friends find my insight unacceptable. I yearn for the fostering of ideas and the melding of ideology but without the need for defensive behaviour.
    I can find virtual Mentors and Muses, but I really would like to spend some real time with both.
    I think you book would really help me find what I am looking for.

  44. Really like this post. My Mirror is my significant other–he’ll tell me what’s wrong with my writing when no one else will. My Muse is basically everyone–I get inspiration from friends and strangers, books and TV. I don’t know if that could ever be limited to one person.

    The one thing I’m lacking is a mentor. I’m taking a writing class, and I love the teacher I have, but that’s coming to an end soon. Any established writers out there need a promising YA writer mentee?? 🙂

  45. Great post that I shared via FB with our entire Church Creative team. Thanks so much! I’ve found the best way to find a Mentor is to serve. I was able to build a book trailer for an author a while back and I also write and promote authors as much as possible. Since FB and Twitter make authors so available, it’s easier to build relationships/acquaintances with them. Serve, serve, serve (or sew, sew, sew the seed and you will reap harvest if you continue to plant, water and love on).

  46. I had a great mentor – an elderly man who wrote scripts for Radio, then TV and film. He was phenomenal at writing dialogue and creating new characters. Sadly he passed away this year. But we spent many happy hours to and froing discussing the ‘what ifs’. If you can find a mentor you’re blessed and do everything you can to keep them. Love the post, thank you. Using communities to guide you can be very rewarding.

  47. My best friend of 20 yrs is also a writer, so she can read something I’ve written and help me edit it so that it sounds more like I talk. It’s invaluable.

  48. I know this is geared towards writers but community is so important for ANY creative or growth endeavor, in your personal, spiritual and professional life. Great points! Thanks for the encouragement!

  49. I’ve been deeply engaged in Louder Than Words and this is a great expansion of some of the concepts there. I have virtual mentors and virtual muses, but nobody who fills those roles on a consistent basis for me, especially with respect to my writing, but even in other aspects of my career. This has been a challenge for me throughout my career. The only people who serve as “mirrors” for me on a consistent basis are the people who expect me to be a certain way (parents, managers, etc) — and it’s those expectations that I need to shed in order to embrace my authentic self. So, I’m pretty much in need of all 3. I tend to fill all 3 roles for a lot of people. Yikes. It’s not like I live in the middle of nowhere, either.

  50. I think Alison is right. We need these 3 people in our lives outside of writing as well. I know I need more feedback and others to bounce my ideas off of. I’m wondering if one person can possess all three qualities and they play the different roles as necessary.

  51. I do have a Mirror and a Muse, but I’m still searching for my Mentor. I suppose there are other bloggers and writers whom I look up to, but no one in my personal circle who can guide me individually. Well, the search begins now!

  52. “It’s action that defines reality, not knowledge.”

    That really struck a chord because without action, all of the inspiration and advice only gets you so far.

  53. I definitely have a Muse, but not the Mentor or Mirror. After reading this post, I find myself mulling over the friendships I have and wondering which of them could fill these places in my life. It also makes me realize, I have many relationships, but my own lack of vulnerability with them, is probably the real issue at hand. Thanks for this insightful post!

  54. “Tools increase your awareness, but awareness is not the same as knowledge, and knowledge is not equivalent to wisdom.”

  55. I think my mirror and my mentor are the same person. Several muses come to mind. I liked this perspective on “the collective.”

  56. I’ve always been a proponent of community so I’m pleased to hear you say that we need it, even in our writing. Although I have several people who fit the bill, there is one person in particular who is mirror, muse, and mentor for me. I’m lucky to be in his solar system.

  57. The Asaro tribe of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea has a beautiful saying: “Knowledge is only a rumor until it lives in the muscle.”

    The courage to make anything worthwhile a reality is ALWAYS done in community.

  58. in reading your article I was struck by the fact that I don’t really have a mirror but I do have a muse and a mentor. my mentor is my coach – an amazing coach and my muse, at the moment, is maria popova for her courage to create what she wants to exist in the world and the brilliant way she does it.

  59. Really interesting breakdown of community needs. I think for me the hardest part about choosing a community is not knowing people in my immediate circle that I am comfortable letting my guard down with when it comes to my creativity.

  60. This was a pretty affirming article in that I have these people in my life. However, it still shows how important community is no matter what you do. If you don’t have this, how do you grow, hold yourself accountable, learn and stay focused? Thanks for posting!

  61. I have all three of these but I don’t know if they realize what parts they are playing and how they impact my life and writing. Do you think I should tell them or make it official?

  62. Thanks for this article, Todd. Always such great advice on creativity, authenticity, and finding your voice. I was thinking about who plays these roles in my life. I think I badly need a real life mentor or two! I think that would take me to my next level.

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  63. Just re-read this article again. Interesting how this applies in each area of one’s life; However, most of the time we aren’t aware of it. I know I love the learning – and thankful to have the opportunity!

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  64. Thanks for this! I need to find these people in my life because I can’t think of anyone at the moment. Maybe one or two who play a role, but I think I need someone I can honestly call a mentor.

  65. I think it takes courage to go out and find people like this because you need to be humble in order to hear what they have to say. And I also think that this “position” in life is a position of a learner. I don’t find very many people who set themselves up as learners, and then want to walk together. I’m wondering how I can increase my odds of meeting up with other people like this. Maybe arrange a book discussion and see who shows up?

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