In Which Creative South 2016 Happened, and Now My Life is Different in a Good Way

First, you need to know I’m a reluctant writer.

I have serious commitment issues when it comes to writing about myself, at least in more than 140 characters or a paragraph at a time. I’ve tried blogging and journaling over the years, and each time, the fact that I’m staring at my own soul, and trying to sketch it as though I have something to offer — whether for my graceless self or the faceless web — has daunted me into retreat and reclusion for as long as I can recall.

I do come out of my cloister every few months or years, when I feel like there’s too much ricocheting through my go-kart arena of a noggin, and I feel there may be value in sharing why, and I have to put it down in some words. This is one of those times.

A New Thing is happening, though. A Thing that’s starting to make me consider retiring the hermit lifestyle and get words back out into the world on the regular. A Thing that’s infusing my writing with a new sense of purpose, married to an inescapable undercurrent of fresh, rekindled passion. And this New Thing started at Creative South.

Let’s rewind. Creative South is an annual conference for (you guessed it) creatives.

Designers, illustrators, artists, craftsmen of various trades, and those who moonlight as such, or aspire to such monikers. Workshops are held, speakers speak, and it all revolves around creativity, design, and the like. This was its fourth year. It happened over four too-short days at the outset of April 2016.

The vibes were clear from the get-go. And by get-go I mean the social media marketing. From the juicy script lettering to the ubiquitous Georgia peach, the look of everything was tight and professional and polished like you’d expect for a creative conference, but also joyous and amiable and inviting, like you’d expect for a party invitation. Or a summer camp, an analogy which has also been noted by other attendees (looking at you, Jenny!). 

I’d been lucky to find a group of Internet Pals (we’ll call them The Level Up Society) comprised of insanely talented guys, among whom were several attendees of previous Creative Souths. The hype was real and more than hype. Stories flew around our digital clubhouse of lives changed and friends becoming family and necks hugged (???). The lineup of CS speakers included: some heavy hitters of the Design World; some previously-unheard-ofs with shiny, intriguing curricula vitae; and one of our own, the one-man Collective of Perspective Mr. Scotty Russell. There was a party on a bridge with free everything and some high-energy artistic throwdowns and the opportunity to experience three nights in an EconoLodge! 

Okay, that last bit was not an official selling point. Register early for CS’17, guys.

Add to this list the notion of meeting my Society bros, plus the souls behind some famous avatars, and you may begin to understand how I made the leap from semi-skeptic to full-on believer in about a week.

Before I knew it was crashing at my friend Jeffy’s the night before we both flew down for the conference, being lulled to sleep by a bundle of hushed nerves and a gentle tide of “what the heck am I in for?”-type questions.

In order to truly explain the value of Creative South, I need to talk about what happened after. This is the part where I have to get vulnerable.

It starts with confessing that I cried on the plane home. 

Pity me not, reader! It was not a sad cry. Not an I-miss-my-new-friends-so-bad-there’s-a-hole-in-my-heart kind of cry. We have the internet to help with that.

No. It was a happy cry. The type of cry you get into after a really nice speech at a wedding or something. Except instead of a speech it’s 15ish presentations and ten times as many conversations, and instead of a wedding it’s a jam-packed weekend spent with about 800 people in Georgia. 

The type of cry that happens when your heart gets battered by some sudden, tangible realization that kind of rocks your world and shakes your core.

That realization was two words: 

I belong.

Maybe it was three words. I really belong.

I sat there in my seat and just went with the tears for a bit, since, I mean, have you cried recently? It’s kind of refreshing. Especially on a plane. But I digress.

The moment and the message were all the more profoundly moving for the simplicity, and for the growing awareness of an absence filled. I belonged. It was enough.

I need to interject that my immediate family is amazing and loving. They’re the headquarters I know I will always have for rest and rejuvenation. Yet, as I spend more and more time in the world on my own, as we each must, I’ve often struggled with the notion that I’m an outsider, a side character in my own story, a wanderer without purpose or calling. 

My life is not unusual in its longing for a place to call home and a group to call family; I believe that’s part of being human. And as a Christian, I know I’m rooted in the ultimate family through Jesus Christ.

But I’ve been the guy who too easily forgets his place in that family and in the care of his friends. The guy who drifts between social circles because he’s too afraid to put down roots and get transparent, for the fear of discovering he’s not wanted. I’ve been the guy thinking he needed to shove creative passions in a closet too small for them, with a door that won’t shut, thinking he needed to define himself with something more "practical" and never as resonant. 

It took Creative South, this four-day ocean of talent and ideas, to knock me off my feet with the truth of who I am and need to be. Four days of interacting with people just like me and simultaneously so, so amazingly different.

Whether established design heroes or those just pondering the notion of creative pursuit, literally everyone I met was marked by the same shared vulnerability, the same hopeful pursuit of connection, the same love for bettering the world through creative endeavor, and the same striving for excellence that can so often isolate us. The nerves and worries unique to the artistically-inclined turned into the glue of a hundred honest, humble conversations.  

Each speaker, too, brought such incredible transparency and love for their craft, such a desire to share their lives and the things they'd learned, that you never felt like you were being talked at but absolutely talked with. They hammered home the ideas that you need to know your worth, your strengths, your passions, and your people. 

The structure of the conference, as a whole, revolved around these threads, infusing our days with excitement and inspiration, but never at the expense of raw connection and a mindset of eager mutual striving. 

Sitting on the plane, processing this incredible experience, I realized two concurrent, seemingly paradoxical truths.

  1. This is a belonging I have always had. I am not alone as a seeker of community, or as a designer or lover of making things. I have always been among a people I have not always seen, both in creative design and otherwise. And:
  2. This is a belonging I have never had. These are people who, true to the tagline, went from digital friends to feeling like family. These are the UK and Pennsylvania and California and Iowa and Maryland and Georgia and Tennessee (and a whole lot of other places. You know who you are). These are realized connections, faces and names, car rides and drink tabs and promises for future meetings. These are my struggles, reflected back in the outstretched arms of the triumphant and the shoulders of the commiserating. These are my people.

Pretty powerful truths. Powerful enough to make some of us cry on airplanes.

This belonging — this is the Thing, the inspiration for my getting back on the writing train. Because at the end of the day, knowing who we are changes what we do.

We’re the ones who do not hold back our light.

We letter and draw and paint and animate it. We vector and sticker and make buttons with it. We screenprint it on tri-blend tees. We scribble it in furious improvisation on massive canvases under a ticking clock. We let the light spill in vibrant streams over workshop desks, from opera house stages, through the sharing of our fears and the dispelling of each others’.

So I'll keep creating, and I'll keep writing, because I can, because it’s for us, you and me.

It's for you, because I might be able to ignite something with my words and pass on this torch of hope and value and passion.

It's for me, because I am never less afraid than when I actually pick up and use these creative urges. Because I know who I am and who I’m with. Because I know that I have something to offer in the days up ahead. And I’m ready to battle the doubt with new determination.

For anyone who reads this, whether or not you find your belonging in this particular artistic realm — please find your Creative South.

I can’t promise there’s an exact one out there, but I sure do hope so. Because there is nothing like tapping into such a reserve of love and experience and mutual support, from people who get you and will fight for you and beside you. They’re out there. It is absolutely worth your time and your energy and your resources to find them. 

And to my fellow makers, those for whom that pesky term “creative” somehow jives: my advice should be obvious by now. Please know you already have a family at Creative South. But don't stop there. Go to local workshops and meet ups. Form roving bands of design nerds who gather in virtual cafes and real rooftop bars. Find them. Find us.

Thanks, Creative South, and all the beautiful, wonderful people who were there and/or made this all happen, who would take up another post to list by name and reason. I owe you all buckets. (826 buckets, actually.)

And here’s to all of us absolutely radiating in the weeks to come.


POSTSCRIPT. If you wanna taste of the cool stuff that happened that I didn't get into a ton of detail about, check out some of these rad recaps:

Dan Leedesign4 Comments