The Agony and the Ecstasy of Making it on Your Own

The first step out into the real world is a fight for your dreams.

In the past weeks, I’ve received emails and had subsequent conversations with some prospective SVA IxD students. What was it like? How has it impacted me? What am I doing now? It’s only been four months since I moved away from New York City (although it feels like a few years already) and there are things I did not have time to tell them because, oh I don’t know, we were busy discussing the classes and the teachers and the lovely donuts and the Prosecco and what was awesome and what was not.

Perhaps one of the most important questions they haven’t asked yet, or were afraid to, was one about fear. I don’t blame them. Shouldn’t an MFA make one feel invincible, as though getting through two years of grueling work and critique from the best in the industry gave you immunity for the toil and turbulence that comes next?

Eh, no. An MFA is but a tool, not an end. So here are some personal (i.e not one-size-fits-all) thoughts about what happens after you shake David Rhodes’ hand onstage at Radio City Music Hall:

The biggest fear after graduate school is that one will no longer be able to do what she loves. In the first few months after graduating from SVA, at least after the chaos of saying goodbye and moving camp (again) halfway around the world, I was filled with the choking feeling of dread. It was fun playing the nomad for a few years, but once again, one goal was fulfilled and I had to give myself another one. But which?

I was (and still am) terrified of losing momentum, that I’d be stuck doing a primarily administrative job for the thing I loved instead of doing the thing I actually loved. There is quite an ocean of a difference. I think in addition to what you want to do, it’s also important to determine how you will be doing it. It also matters for whom you will be doing it.

I am extremely grateful for unexpected kindness. I am writing this post from the wifi-equipped living room of a dear friend who has generously loaned his space to me (as well as many other artists and friends before me). It feels like a co-working studio, complete with two dogs. I just replied to an email from a curator of one of my favorite museums who has always listened to my ideas and made as much room for my work as she could since the day we met a few months ago. The other day, I said happy birthday to an editor who several weeks ago very kindly agreed to let me write for her section of the newspaper as long as she had space. Two mentors have taken time out of their extremely busy schedules and have been sending recommendation letters on my behalf to prospective opportunities. I am still producing new work and continuing old ones. I seek out potential collaborators every single day. For one who doesn’t have a full-time job yet, there is hope, you all.

I really pick who I work for. By now, I realize that when I don’t like the project (or the client), the work doesn’t end up to be something I’m proud of. While I still like doing commercial projects (you do get some cool ones!), I hope I won’t forget about asking people to draw what makes them happy, draw on clouds, smell memories, eat poems, and hug each other. And other projects that are currently in the works. Those are the ones that make me feel like the world was still magical.

There are times when I do see life as a taekwondo match. No, really. You bounce around, jump forwards and backwards, and throw a kick when you find an opening. You are not kicking every single second and getting exhausted for no good reason*. A creative life feels that way sometimes—each time I do a project, I use up energy that gets less easily replaced the older I get.  And so I try to reserve the best of my creative arsenal for work I really love. Creativity is boundless, but I am a finite being, and so with that comes a  heightened perception of time.

(*Although outside competing, it’s awesome to train just … because.)

Admittedly, my candor has been both an asset and liability each time I shamelessly cold email someone with a more formal and polite version of “Hello! May I please meet you?” I’m still invited to speak about and share my work. (Hurray!) Sometimes people don’t call me back, like, ever. (Oh, boo.) But for each interaction, I am extremely alert to subtext. Many times, when I directly ask people who have jobs with awesome-sounding titles, who have to spend most of their days in meetings and other things they might not necessarily love, I do get the sense that if life gave them another choice, they would take it.

I am still learning every day. The letters MFA are not an end to my education. Just this week, I’ve devoured books and online resources about marine conservation and aviation—topics we never discussed at SVA but are things I was curious about. By now, I suppose few things surprise me anymore. Ten years ago I thought I would end up with a PhD in cancer biology and have a stuffy career in academia parroting what textbooks had to say but instead things got happily crazy.

As I wrote before, I never went to grad school so I could get a “respectable 9-5 job” afterwards. I wanted to explore and to do things I never thought I would do, but I didn’t want that intellectual and creative freedom to end. Ever. Yes, while graduate school challenged me, it wasn’t any different than how I was already challenging myself before that. People have different feelings about school, especially about doing a thesis, but I’ll say it: I loved doing all my thesis projects and I would do a thesis every freaking year if I could.

And you know what? I will. And I am.

But I can’t for the life of me see what’s going to happen within the next year or so. Each tomorrow is cloaked in fog, and I can only see the next few steps, and afterwards, nothing.

And so for those who wanted to ask, but haven’t yet, let me correct my earlier statement:

Every step out into the real world is a fight for your dreams.

For SVA IxD’s Class of 2013, who are neck-deep in thesis (you can do it!), and for myself, when I feel like giving up. 

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3 comments
  1. Well said. There are so many emotions and uncertainties after grad school, especially within a creative industry. I got my MArch almost ten years ago and now I’m not using it at all. We never know where life is going to take us. Congrats to you and I wish you all the best in your many pursuits. Just keep on truckin’ lady! -Rene

    • Aww, thanks! The great thing about creative industries, though, at least for me, is that no knowledge is ever wasted. 🙂

      • True. I would not be the person I am today with having gone through the experiences of grad school. I learned a tremendous amount about myself and about the world around me and how I wanted to fit into it. So while I am not currently using my degree, I am using the knowledge, courage, and ambition that grad school gave me. – Rene

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