Want a Career in the Arts? Build a Community (Guest Column)

Joe Talbot Jimmie Fails Last Black Man in San Francisco
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Last November, 400,000 writers from around the world agreed to spend a month with their friends writing novels. They met in libraries and cafés, cheered on by 1,000 volunteers. One writer, a 20-year-old college student, recently signed a two-book publishing deal. Previous novelists have had their books turned into Hollywood movies. And it wasn’t just adults communing; one in four writers was 18 or younger.

Creativity has long been a path to personal expression. But in today’s culture it is also an avenue for self-empowerment. “To be human is to be creative,” says Grant Faulkner, the executive director of National Novel Writing Month. “Everyone has a story to tell.”

In Hollywood, too, creative communities are as vibrant as they’ve ever been. The 2019 Sundance Film Festival received more than 14,200 submissions, one of its best years ever. Visionaries like Shonda Rhimes and Tyler Perry have built artistic havens of like-minded peers. And there are any number of books out now that extol the virtue of creative connection, including “Face to Face,” written by the Oscar-winning producer Brian Grazer.

It’s no surprise that creative communities are thriving given the fractured state of political and social discourse. “We are more interconnected and more disconnected than we’ve ever been,” says Michelle Satter, founding director of the Sundance Institute’s Feature Film Program. “But storytellers can imagine the future they want to live in.”

I know this firsthand. A few years ago, I started a salon with friends. A longtime writer, I wanted to test the boundaries of my comfort zone. I took photographs and tap-danced (badly). My friends painted and volunteered. Our lives shifted as we mastered new skills and bolstered our creative confidence.

I was inspired to create an arts and ideas gathering called The Box Sessions, which will be held near Santa Cruz, Calif., from Feb. 28 to March 1. Filmmakers and acclaimed artists — even a magician — will share their wisdom on creativity and community. As important, guests can flex their creative muscle in workshops that explore music, storytelling and fear.

Why fear? Jon M. Chu, the director of “Crazy Rich Asians” and the upcoming “In the Heights,” says he went through a “cultural identity crisis” before making the former film. Born in Silicon Valley, he tiptoed around his Chinese roots. He worried his parents, who owned a restaurant, would be offended.

Then, Chu says, “I found a community on YouTube that didn’t have those fears. They were very confident. I wished I’d had that confidence.” In making the movie, he faced his insecurities. “It was a life-changing thing to go there,” he says.

Communities reflect the values of the people who create them. At this month’s IFP Gotham Awards, Vera Farmiga gave a speech about working with the filmmaker Ava DuVernay. The actor said of the cast and crew: “It’s the only time, in my 25-year career, my workplace looked like the real world.”

Jimmie Fails and Joe Talbot are childhood friends who made this summer’s “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.” Fails says they hung out as teens in the city’s Precita Park, a two-acre patch of grass in a working-class neighborhood not far from the 101 freeway. Over time, they watched San Francisco morph into an almost dystopian enclave of wealth and inequality. “We didn’t see that story being told,” he says. “So we thought we’d tell it ourselves. It’s refreshing to see something get made that’s so personal. There is room for other stories.”

His is a familiar lament in Hollywood, where women and people of color are still underrepresented and superhero movies reign at the box office. Martin Scorsese earned the scorn of some peers last month when he compared Marvel Universe movies to “theme parks” and admonished fans for being tethered to their computer screens. (Never mind that “The Irishman,” his latest movie, was financed by Netflix.)

But changes are afoot. Last month, Sundance officially launched Sundance Collab, a global digital platform for storytellers who want to learn to write and direct, get feedback and connect with others. Some videos and webinars are free, with study groups and live events available with a paid membership. Already 20,000 people have signed up.

“You don’t have to consider yourself a screenwriter or an artist to participate,” Satter says.

In that way, it sounds a lot like National Novel Writing Month. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. As Faulkner liked to say, “People are empowered when they believe in themselves.”

Laura M. Holson is an award-winning feature and news writer at The New York Times and the founder of The Box Sessions.