Advice That I Wish Someone Gave Me After Getting My MFA

The end of 2010 marked approximately six months after I got my MFA from film school, so it was perfect time to take stock of the distance I had traveled, where I was going and all that good “big picture” stuff. Then, @spidvid over at Twitter asked for post-grad film school advice, and a few other friends of mine talked about our experiences after graduation and compared notes, which got me thinking. The logical conclusion to all this introspection? Blog post, naturally! I actually ended up doing a lot of these suggestions here, but not in a guided “here, Kat, do this and you won’t freak out so hard when you graduate” kind of way. More like a “WTF DO I NEED TO DO TO STOP FEELING THIS ANXIETY” walking-in-the-dark kind of way. In other words, trial and error. Avoid my abuse of all caps and keep these in mind when you’re rounding the final lap of an intense creative immersive experience and face the abyss of post-grad life. It doesn’t have to be such an abyss!

Write down a list of everything you learned in school right after you leave it.

No, I don’t mean some memoir explaining your creative evolution or anything fancy like that. This sounds way more daunting than it really is — it really is just a list! I also find that it’s really useful to do this with any concentrated experience, like a workshop, or a class, or even a particularly challenging work gig. You don’t have to go into mega-detail — it’s really just a quickly-jotted list of concepts, practices, tips, tricks, ideas, etc. that you absorbed during your experience. Just try to jot down everything, from the most basic “I’ll never forget that” info to more complicated, personal realizations. I still have mine in a PDF, and it’s got stuff on everything from technique to production to psychology that would make very little sense except to me and other film school people. Hilariously enough, it’s called “WHAT I LEARNED IN FILM SCHOOL.” Here were a few things on this list:

  • 180-line rule (a nerdy directing thing)
  • Wiping the shot at the beginning (another nerdy directing thing)
  • Always try to have actors enter/exit frame
  • Where does the camera have to be to have maximum dramatic impact
  • Generative images
  • “Begin late, leave early”
  • Using events to create sense of future in scripts
  • Visualize the day you want to have on set before you actually get there
  • Don’t put out chocolate in craft services till afternoon — too early makes people lose energy early in the day, but it’s a nice boost in the afternoon when energy lags (a producing thing, but kind of applicable to everyday life!)

You’d be surprised how much you’ll forget once you get caught up in the stream of life, so it’s great to have a record. You’ll read it even a few months out of school and get a big kick out of all that you learned. You’ll get an even better kick when you look it over and realize that you could even add to the list, which is a great sign that you’ve kept learning and growing, even well past graduation date.

Start working on your post-grad projects way before you graduate.

Even if it’s just to suss out ideas or find collaborators, it’s important to plant serious seeds to projects you want to work on when you leave school. You’ve just spent a concentrated, intensive period of time running at a creative high (or running on empty!) You want to keep creative momentum going. Give some thought as to where you’re at when you’re ending: are you poised to take advantage of momentum? Are you in need of recharging your batteries? Then design a project that fits. My advice would be to do something manageable, with a clear, discrete goal — there’s nothing better than being able to say you finished something just a few months after you graduated.

Start working in general before you graduate.

Yeah, you’re super busy and burnt out and stressed. That’s just part of being in film school, or perhaps grad school in general. But the stress that comes from engagement and doing is PEANUTS compared to the anxiety you’ll feel from the fear that you may be NOT DOING WHAT YOU LOVE. Especially in a creative field with no real employment structure or route to security, you need to start building contacts and experiences outside your school’s sphere before you leave it. Find some small way to engage in the larger field — if you’re going into production, start taking on PA jobs on larger sets. Start a film blog and start writing. Start assistant editing. It’s a lot to add on an already crowded plate, but there won’t be an empty abyss you’ll face the day after you get your diploma. Basically, if you’ve been in student mode, you have to start thinking of yourself as a professional before you actually “go professional.”

(Also, if you’re like nearly everyone I knew at film school and took out loans to go to school, you will especially want to do this, just for your own financial security/peace of mind’s sake.)

Take advantage of what you can before you leave school.

This means: using the school’s editing labs to put together your director’s reels; renting equipment you may not have access to anymore; using the fancy laser printers to print out beautiful copies of your beautifully edited scripts; get mentors and professors to critique your work or offer introductions to colleagues. There are all sorts of intangibles that a school environment has that you have every right to take advantage of — all that tuition you’ll be paying (or repaying, in the case of loans) should let you do this.

Accept doubt and define success.

Perhaps one of the hardest things for people to deal with after graduating is the sudden loss of structure, which school gives. Taking on projects and work for post-school is just part of a larger process. I’ve spent the last 6-7 months trying to create a structure in my life that supports both writing/filmmaking and making a living, and it’s only just started to come together. (Dear bad economy: thanks for making it so much easier. Ha!)

I realized most of all, in the months after school, that one of the things that school structures gives you in a perpetual sense of growth, of something to work for. You may be incredibly tired and stressed out, but above everything, you are growing as an artist and craftsperson. But when that sense of growth goes, things like doubt and anxiety begin to seep or rush in. The important psychological thing to do is to sustain that feeling of progress, of learning, of growing.

There’s two things to do, really. First, you have to realize that doubt is one of the biggest specters you’ll face once you leave the confines of school. It doesn’t matter if your student short got into Sundance or you landed an agent or manager or whatever…if there’s one thing I learned under the experienced filmmakers who taught me, it’s that you’ll always deal with the uncertainty of getting to do the thing you love for your living, even when you’re a “success.” So get that idea that you’ll never deal with doubt once you’ve “made it” out of your head. I don’t have any wise words on doubt, other than to remember what made you love making films (or writing stories or designing clothes or whatever) in the first place, and try to carve out some definition of success and achievement that isn’t defined by an external set of circumstances.

That leads to the second thing to do, which I got from Danielle LaPorte‘s brilliant Fire Starter Sessions: Ask yourself how you want to feel in your work? Most of us would say “happy” or “successful,” but it really pays to be specific about this: what does “happy” or “successful” mean to you? Challenged, peaceful, sexy, powerful, liberated, bold, innovative, loving, intellectually brave? Then, seek out and create experiences that make you feel that way. That’s what I try to remember. I’ll let you know how that goes 🙂

[Edit: if you’re looking for general perspectives on getting an MFA in film (or other fine arts discipline), here is the entry for you.]

4 thoughts on “Advice That I Wish Someone Gave Me After Getting My MFA

  1. Been reading your blog all day — got cold feet today about applying to an MFA program at the incongruous age of 23, and found that, in the midst of doubt, your words and assurances reached me in that place where I just “know.” Your Buddhist upbringing doesn’t NOT shine through. Thought I’d drop a line and say thanks 🙂

    1. You’re welcome, Dani. (Sorry to get to this so late…the notification got buried underneath a ton of comment spam :-(…) I hope whatever decision you made, it brings you closer to peace and fulfillment! xo

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *