As one half of Big Vision Empty Wallet and Big Vision Creative, Alex Cirillo has worked on numerous projects in film and TV. Along the way, she’s gained a ton of useful knowledge that’s sure to be of interest to the budding, stuck or striving creative.
In this latest episode of Coffee with Creatives, I sat down with Alex and discussed:
Getting a head start in film by studying it in high school, and how the early support of a teacher helped Alex realize she might be on the right path
Building a network by working different gigs and internships
The importance of relationships to growth and success
The benefits of being a small team, and reasons for intentionally staying that way
Finding a way to make things work
Approaching film and TV as a media for both social change and vagina jokes
The most common mistake filmmakers make in pitching their projects
Stick around to the end to hear Alex’s one piece of advice for how to leap forward in your project or career. It’s simple, actionable and effective. Enjoy.
You can find Alex on Twitter, and learn more about Big Vision here.
As reminders, you can also subscribe to Coffee with Creativeson iTunes and/or support the podcast on Patreon.
It and so many similarly strong words, especially in American popular culture today, are wildly overused, and too often leveraged outside the narrow subjectivity with which (in my opinion) they could otherwise more appropriately be applied. I’d call all this an epic bummer, but in honesty it’s an easy thing to shrug off.
Still, I bring up the point to help introduce my recommendation of musician Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking…because rarely have I felt so compelled to “drop the e-word”, with confidence, outside the realm of eating, drinking, sleeping, and luvvvvv-making.
Obviously, not everyone is going to agree with my choice. But, speaking primarily to the aforementioned audience(s) of art-makers and art-lovers, here are my personal reasons for advocating for the book — and Palmer herself, since she’s an interesting personality on her own and identifies first and foremost as a singer (I have been also listening been listening to her music for weeks, which I similarly recommend).
The Art of Askingprovides an unparalleled level of context for the contemporary relationship between art and people (or art and life)
Early in the text, Palmer remarks upon how what we’re witnessing right now, in terms of the relationship between art and artist (especially in tech-equipped indie circles) is in actuality a return to The Way it Used to Be. Artists create, put their work (and themselves) out there, and the audience returns the favor by giving some part of their own selves (be it in the form of money, time, etc.), simply and directly — if and as there’s an authentic connection made in the process.
That’s how it used to go early on, and for a long time, in human history. Various forms of progress and change shifted that relationship, such that several intermediary systems rose to prominence, which weren’t (and aren’t) necessarily bad but, nonetheless, today, can cause complications, introduce impurities, and/or create distance in the otherwise mostly direct artist-audience relationship. Today, now that individuals on the whole are much more broadly and immediately connected than ever before, and now that new (relatively) cheap funding, distribution, and communications systems exist than ever before, it’s not only once again possible for the artist and the audience to remain in a more direct, on-going relationship — it’s also easier to cultivate and keep up that relationship than ever before.
That doesn’t mean that, on the part of both artist and audience, that we aren’t still (on the negative side) facing challenges posed by the still-dominant machinations and gate-keeping fears of the aforementioned intermediaries, or (on the positive side), that there aren’t mutual advantages to those sort of relationships (and plenty of good people working, in various capacities, for intermediaries) — it just means that everyone today can perhaps be kept more honest and more focused on what’s important.
I’m paraphrasing Palmer there, possibly with a little bit of my own beliefs and observations sprinkled in, but the important point is to recognize and accept that, with the right attitude and a lot of work and patience, things can be better — for independent artists and their audiences in particular.
Within this context, Palmer embodies (literally) and carefully guards Authenticity and Trust as the most crucial elements of the artist-audience relationship
The Art of Asking is mostly written in the style of a memoir. Longer-tenured admirers of Palmer than me probably already know that she doesn’t shy away from getting (literally) naked in front of her fans (given certain conditions that she takes careful pains to point out in the book, while also providing context for such decisions). Such occasions don’t always go well, her courage in this aspect does not come without its share of suffering, and in the text she frequently (and with typical transparency) gives voice to the doubts such “bad” stories spark in her mind.
Still, Palmer does a much better job than I ever could ultimately deconstructing not only why such “setbacks” (I’ll let the book itself substantiate my repeated use of scare quotes) are necessary (and illuminating). She provides much evidence for — and a lot of useful commentary on — the observable truth that, after opportunity, the next thing we all need for this sort of arrangement to work, in the best possible way, is an unyielding commitment to trust not only in the work but each other.
Palmer never claims that things will always go perfectly, even in filling in useful back-story to her successes. But she does do an excellent job consistently reporting on the dialogues she has had both with herself and trusted friends in sourcing out the right thing to do, as often as possible, as she stumbled through especially her early career on the way to a better and more comprehensive understanding and respect for how this all ideally might work on a regular basis. The stories she tells in relaying this process are not only intellectually accessible, but emotionally so as well — which sets Palmer apart especially in today’s unfortunately less-emotionally forthcoming social landscape.
Palmer’s narrative provides an accessible road-map for success
Riding off that last point, it can be tempting in this environment (I’ve been tempted myself) to take an honest goal like that of Palmer’s book (which to me seemed to be: “teach and attest to the benefits of trust, kindness, and vulnerability”) and warp it into something more broad and self-serving.
Especially in what sometimes seems to be rounding out into The Age of Tech, advice of the “road-map” sort, nudged towards gathering greater numbers (versus forming real connections), seems to proliferate further every day.
That’s not to say that all the lists and guides out there aren’t without value, or that they’re all guilty of crossing some arbitrary Authenticity Line, or should be faulted for failing to see that most of what provides value to people begins by engaging with them on an honest, emotional level. It just means that, for instance, when Palmer maps out her path as herself, in context, while constantly guarding and respecting The Point — it becomes that much easier for a similarly minded, or near-similarly minded (I’ll probably never get physically naked for you) individual or small group to internalize her journey and absorb her lessons in a much more useful way.
This road-map is revealed to be (and simultaneously evidenced by) the aforementioned Authenticity and Trust
Obviously, I admire Palmer’s approach with the book, and her execution, as much as the content. I bring the sort of cyclical nature of her testimony up as a separate point because of how accurately it mirrors how important both authenticity and trust are to the artistic lifestyle (or to living a fulfilled life in general).
It took me so long to build up the courage to begin sharing more and more of my actual self in my work. As documented here, it’s also been frequently terrifying, sharing more and more of that work, more widely.
I’m eternally grateful for my audience. I hope you know that. I hope you also know how essential you have been (continue to be) to my work and my own growth. We’re in this together. I’ll keep trying to keep it honest.
For anyone still struggling to build up the courage to start down a similar path, or who could use a boost (I needed one) — read The Art of Asking.
Palmer makes it clear that indie success takes not only talent but (a fuck-ton of) hard work
While this definitely isn’t a criticism, Palmer often speeds quickly through commentary about how much work things took, at many different stages in her career. She seems to take it as a given — which really isn’t a bad thing, for the most part, especially since she clearly also “plays hard”.
Most of the useful stuff delivered by the book in this regard arrives while Palmer is monologuing or dialoguing with friends, not in a direct way but more often reflectively, in the wake, for instance, of first sharing an anecdote centered around a particular challenge, or a normally-occurring instance of doubt.
Again, possibly, this is because she’s just that used to the amount of work it takes to succeed in the way she has. Reflection may also be a healthier approach than the more typical American, “process and power-driven” work approach (I can tell you from experience that adopting this approach as an underfunded indie will burn you out). Her attitude appears gentler, more patient, and more directly caring or forgiving of how hard it can be than someone like me, who might allow lingering faulty programming to relay a similar lesson via more a blunt admonition like “you better be ready to work”.
That caution is in fact true, but because Palmer is so forthcoming and thorough in her testimony, she doesn’t have to address the reader so directly in these terms. As I said, she does detail her struggles, and it does become very clear how hard she works — in the book this all just happens in the process of her telling her story.
Especially to today’s entitlement-prone younger generations, her approach provides not only a valuable lesson but a valuable method of delivering that lesson.
The book does not shy away from pain, even in mostly relaying stories of wonder
I hinted at this above, but it’s worth mentioning more specifically.
One of my favorite recurring patterns in the book is Palmer’s willingness to share the bad with the good. She utilizes the space provided by her narrative, in addition to whatever she did in the moment (usually talking to a friend), to find a way to come to terms with why pain is part of the artistic process, just as it is part of the process of living.
Again speaking personally, I’d add that this is a hard lesson to learn, and one that arguably never stops asserting itself. Still, I have found in recent years that doing exactly what Palmer does — talking and sharing and avoiding isolation or self-pity as often as possible — works wonders.
I believe it’s particularly important that we exhibit patience throughout each instance/cycle of this process as well.
The pain of others screams at us, every day, from the headlines, in real life, and even on our social media feeds. As artists (and as people), it can be hard to remember that our job isn’t only to absorb and soothe such pain. Neither does it help anyone to focus solely on ourselves, in this respect.
The healing comes from the sharing, and the connection.
The central narrative isn’t just the titular subject, or Palmer herself, but the vulnerability and love that must be shown in order for art, and art-relationships, to work in today’s socioeconomic environment
Long-time readers of this site are probably used to me harping on the following point — but I’m going to keep repeating it for as long as I feel it still needs to be made.
More than any other crisis we’re facing, here and now in America, the gap or decline in empathy — between any of a number of (sometimes arbitrarily) defined groups, and within and across the individuals that make up those groups — seems to me to be hurting us the most.
Empathy is the basis from which all progress begins. Even when it seems incomplete, even when finding it seems to take forever, any progress on this front, at any level — is good for everyone.
No matter what sort of progress or social change an artist or an individual is compelled to chase, empathy will always be the most powerful vehicle we can “employ”. It is that authenticity, that trust, that connection — all wrapped up into one mysterious-but-essential universal concept.
I use the scare quotes around the word ’employ’ there, because (especially now that I’ve absorbed Palmer’s book), I believe it’s more helpful to think of ourselves as vessels, in this respect, than as an agent.
Conclusion: How The Art of Asking has Affected Me
I’ve written quite a bit, so I’ll wrap up, but in support of that last point I wanted to end with some personal testimony on how The Art of Asking has affected me on a personal level.
First, as I mentioned, it has strengthened and renewed my gratitude towards anyone who has supported one or more of my projects, who has ever visited this site, who has even taken a moment to click through to anything I’ve done and given it a quick glance. As I have said before, I simply would not be here, making art and chugging forward, without all of you.
I also emerged from my read of Palmer’s book with a greater sense of clarity, in regards not only to the worthiness of the path I am on, but also the necessity to continue to be transparent and supportive of the artistic and personal communities to which I belong.
And, finally, I have been acting with more kindness, just in general, as I have gone about my day-to-day life.
I don’t feel more kind, as a result of reading The Art of Asking. I’ve always been a fairly kind person. But reading the book — particularly at this stage in my life, wherein I’ve been putting so much effort into both “cleaning house” and being me — has helped me slow down and act upon feelings of compassion, much more often than I have otherwise done in recent years, without hesitation or judgement.
There have been plenty of available reasons, for me, in the past, to remain guarded, to follow the lead of any of a number of fears, and/or to keep barreling forward in pursuit of The Mission.
It can become especially easy (sometimes, unfortunately, even necessary) to do this while living and working in New York City. There’s just too much going on, everywhere, constantly, to remain vulnerable for too long of a stretch, or in certain environments wherein to do so at all would be potentially too damaging to the self. There are times when you simply need to establish and respecting healthy boundaries to protect your health and general happiness.
But, still, lately, I’ve been realizing (and, to be truthful, finally listening to the pleas of others in this regard) that it’s time to slow down again. The Mission isn’t a career level, or an accomplishment, or even the realization of a specific project. It’s not even the work itself, or the drive to keep doing it and sharing the result.
The Mission is serving others. It’s chasing that empathy, by showing — and showing faith in — the kindnesses we mostly all feel, but might for so many, often understandable reasons, hesitate to show.
So, I’ve been doing what I can. I’m trying to support other artists, more often. I’m trying to keep up on taking care of myself, more consistently, so that it’s easier to approach others without agenda. I’m making eye contact with strangers and asking how they are, and I think they can tell that I actually care about their response.
Mostly, I’m doing little things that take a minimal amount of effort even if they cost me a bit more in terms of vulnerability and trust. I’m realizing, as Palmer’s book and life story definitely sets out to prove, that The Art of Asking is just as much about giving — and meaning it, and being unafraid to keep on meaning it — than anything else.
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This January, for essentially the first time, I made a New Year’s Resolution. Two, actually. I decided to set two goals for myself, both of which were born out of my primary obsessions for most of the second half of 2013.
I want to finish at least shooting a feature film before the year is done, and I want to maintain at least a semblance of a balanced, healthy lifestyle while I do it.
Anyone who makes art — or who does any sort of project work in particular — could and would probably tell you that these are ambitious goals. Independent filmmaking in particular, with our lower budgets and our seemingly always empty pockets, puts a great deal of pressure on the human mind, body and spirit. It does this all the time, but the toll is especially great in the months leading up to production. Production itself is often a matter of pushing limits in ways that are perhaps sometimes celebrated, and which we can of course be proud of in retrospect, but which simply are not healthy in either the long or short term. And then there’s the post-production period, which often leaves us facing long recoveries. Physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually — even the addict’s rush that comes with having created, it doesn’t last. The truth is that making art depletes us.
Much of this is unavoidable, especially in the earlier years of a career, as we’re learning the ropes the hard way, as we invariably have to do. But, speaking as someone who has pushed myself too far in the past, I have to honestly say that I have come to the conclusion that, without balance, even art that has been hard-earned — it invariably suffers as we suffer by it, if and when we aren’t careful with ourselves. Limits can be pushed, but they also have to be respected.
For Example: One of The Times I Kinda Lost It
I arguably risked my life one day, for one of my films. Matters of budget and inexperience had led me to a place wherein I had to get my sound mix from New York to my editing bay (basically, a laptop set up in my old childhood bedroom in Rhode Island) — after 12 hours of work with our re-recording mixer. The film was set to premiere in a few days and wasn’t finished. I ended up making the drive alone, after having been awake for almost 24 hours. Towards the end, despite a surplus of caffeine, I couldn’t keep myself awake. It was three or four in the morning when I called my parent’s house (where I was living while making the film) because my fast-asleep fiancee wasn’t answering her cell. My brother picked up. I told him I needed someone to talk me through the last 45 minutes or so of the drive. It was that close. I had caught myself falling asleep at the wheel a few times.
Should I have pulled over to sleep? Possibly. There were a lot of things I should have done. Either way, when my phone battery died after about twenty minutes or so of conversation with my brother, I got desperate. I started talking to myself — loudly. I blasted the radio and opened all the windows and sang loudly. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know any of the words to the songs that play on the radio at three in the morning. When I couldn’t sing any more I came up with a sort of mad mantra, and repeated it and repeated it and repeated it. I rolled down all the windows in the car to let the cold November air inside. In short, I lost it. I went a little crazy. It’s perhaps a little funny now, but at the time it scared me — even if I didn’t admit it scared me.
How To Avoid This?
You can see why I’m eager to not repeat the same mistakes I’ve made in the past, when it comes to navigating the difficulties of making good stuff on the cheap.
As has been pretty well-documented here, I’ve come a long way as an artist and as a person since those days. I’m not even sure I would get to that bad of a place again even without my goal of balance. But I’ve come to treasure what I’ve built for myself these past few years. I still struggle with the repercussions of continuing to fight the good fight, and I still have to wrestle incrementally with my demons. I just lost a small battle to fear and doubt last night. Today, I’m all right, even though I know it will happen again. The key is to take things in stride and to avoid an avalanche.
I can’t afford to fall to madness, at any point, as I get closer to initiating my plans for making my new film (which you’ll hear about soon enough). The endeavor as a whole is going to be hard, and at times it’s going to be a legitimate struggle. I know that. But it’s also something I have to do. I have to make this film. I can’t let this need destroy me.
So, what can be done? What can I do — what can we do — to protect ourselves and our projects from the sometimes debilitating effects of long-term creative pursuits? Similarly, what can be done to protect our long-term creative pursuits from their own debilitating effects on our lives?
I think the answer is no different on the project level than it is on the macro level, as we strive continuously to live another day as artists in the real world.
Here’s what I came up with. Most of this is borrowed.
Since the beginning of January, I have asked myself the following five questions at least once each day. Lately I’ve been trying to do this two or three times.
Am I taking care of myself? It took my years to realize that I’m not good at self care. It took time and some outside help and it’s still sometimes a struggle. While everyone is different, I do believe that Americans on average — we don’t take great care of ourselves. Additionally, artists tend to be born out of complicated circumstances — not always, but much of the time. It’s important to my well-being and to my productivity to take care of myself, and to remind myself of the importance of self-care, everyday. How do I do it? Through reflection, meditation, and action. By action, I mean I try to do nice things for myself, no matter how small. Most of the time, this means taking a break or a walk or stopping everything to drink a cup of tea (it works). On a larger level, it means eating healthy on most days and getting enough sleep on most days. Sleep. Is. Huge.
Am I avoiding the important? This is adapted from Tim Ferriss, who recommends in The Four Hour Work Week that we ask ourselves a variation of this question a few times per day (“Am I inventing things to do to avoid the important?”). I have long had my phone set to ask me Tim’s version of the question in the morning, the afternoon, and early in the night. It helps me keep myself focused. A lot of times, I ignore the reminder, because I know I’m on track. Sometimes, I growl at my phone, because I am not on track. Usually, this means I am afraid of something. However understandable the fear may be, it’s almost always in the way of “the important”. That won’t do. Also, an additional note: while this may not align perfectly with the spirit of what Ferriss advocates, sometimes, for me, “the important” is not a project. Sometimes, it’s self-care, or my relationships, or –more on this below — enjoying life.
Have I taken a step towards my goal of making my film? I don’t care how big a step. Every day, I make sure to do one thing to move my current project forward. Sometimes, it’s just sending an email. Sometimes, it’s research. It doesn’t matter. Any tiny thing I do on any one day brings me one step closer to the larger realization of my ultimate goal. This can be easy to forget, when fear creeps in and all we can think about is the overwhelming list of tasks that must be completed to make a film, that are standing in the way of it being finished. This point of view doesn’t work. Trust me, if you aren’t already nodding your head. It’s a trap set by self-sabotage. However a big task gets done, and by whoever — it’s always a matter of steps. We don’t magically float to the top of a tall flight of stairs by staring up at them worrying how we’re possibly going to walk all steps at once. We get there, in time, by putting one foot ahead of the other until it’s over.
Am I being open in my relationships with others? This is perhaps a question that’s aimed more specifically at where I am in my life right now, but I’m sharing it anyway in case a few people might benefit. Also, the question itself necessitates I mention it. Basically, I feel I’ve spent too much time holding back certain parts of myself (again, out of fear) as I’ve interacted with other people, throughout my life. Life goes more smoothly (and my work goes more smoothly) when I kick this propensity and endeavor to just be me. Focusing on openness, I have found, also helps hasten decision-making. I don’t labor over decisions or create as many scenarios in my head when I’m being open with myself and others. I’m able to more fully live in the moment. Daily meditation and informal studies of mindfulness and Buddhism have helped me immensely in this respect. Openness has numerous benefits. There’s room for tact, of course, because not everyone needs to know everything about everyone else, and we all need to protect ourselves sometimes — but I think we’ve suffered enough as people and as a society from the effects of leaving feelings unspoken. The repression isn’t healthy.
Am I taking time to enjoy life? Save the best for last, right? I unfortunately need to remind myself to stop and enjoy life. I tend to work too hard. I tend to brood, when I’m not working. There is not much room for naked enjoyment in either of these default states. Even work that makes me happy — it’s still work. So I have to ask myself this question, at least once per day. When the answer is “no”, I do what I can to correct the situation. Sometimes, again, this means a cup of tea, or maybe a soda or a snack. Many times, it means taking time to read some fiction, watch a movie, or listen to a podcast. Anything that isn’t work and gives me pleasure. That includes going out. I will force myself to go out when I don’t want to, because I know by now to mistrust the feelings and thoughts I get that tell me to do the opposite and stay home and work or brood. Balance has to include joy, for me.
So, there you have it.
Hopefully, some of the above has been helpful. I’d be interested to hear what others are doing to maintain some semblance of balance while working through large projects (I include life in this category). Hit me up in the comments if you have anything to add, or any further questions about how I came up with this list in particular.
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Welcome to the Inaugural Guest Post on mdibiasio.com. I’ve got a busy couple of years coming up (mischief is in the making) but I want to keep up a dialogue in between potentially more sporadic posts from me — so you may see some more entries from guests as the year continues. I’m especially busy for the next month (planning of the making of the mischief), but will still chime in now and then and I’ll probably do what I’m doing now and introduce and comment briefly on guest material.
Now, some info on our guest writer, Liam Billingham.
Recent posts about navigating life as an artist and indie filmmaker have been popular here, so when I noticed the below-mentioned conversation on Facebook — and read and enjoyed and agreed with many of the points made — I reached out to Liam to share his findings and his thoughts.
I first met Liam during a Seed&Spark Twitter chat, which, incidentally, you should check out if you’re a filmmaker and if this sort of material is of particular interest to you. Seed&Spark has been bringing great energy to the discussion and growth of a rising movement towards empowered, sustainable and self-directed indie filmmaking, offering support that ranges from crowd-building to funding to distribution, and their momentum and influence seems to really be growing. I’ve enjoyed becoming a part of their #FilmCurious community (the hashtag used during chats). Anyway, Liam is an indie writer/director living in Brooklyn, who recently finished a short film and is developing his first feature. Since I’m in the same position, more or less, we realized we had a lot in common and have become friends.
All of the below came out of an informal poll Liam took on Facebook, asking for some added insight from other seasoned artists in regards to providing advice to college seniors in the arts who will be graduating this year. I agree with all of what came up in the conversation, and believe many of the observations and advice shared by Liam’s friends can be of value to emerging and established artists as well as those who are nominally in more of a beginner’s position.
I’ll leave it to Liam to contextualize his specific findings. The reasons why I asked him if he wouldn’t mind sharing them, for the benefit of all, should become readily apparent as he works through each.
In spots, I’ve made some personal notes, which appear in italics and are tagged in the front with my name. All remaining text is from Liam unless otherwise indicated by him.
Just before Christmas, my former undergraduate theatre professor at the University of New Hampshire asked me to Skype in to a class of graduating seniors and talk about my experience as an artist since graduating. Specifically, the topic was ‘What Next?,’ and dealt with looking at the journeys alumni took that led to where they are right now.
The morning of the talk, I decided it was best to poll a group of friends and fellow artists who had been making art since we graduated. I didn’t want to restrict the poll to UNH alumni. I wanted to cast as wide a net as possible. I didn’t want to just ask theatre people only, either, since I don’t really work much in theatre anymore. For these reasons, I turned to all my Facebook friends in asking for advice for seniors.
The post got a lot of traction, and we got about 40 comments, most of which were incredibly useful. Reviewing what was sent in, a few key ideas popped up that I thought I’d share:
The More You Know…
From Stage Manager Natalie Lynch: “Do as much as you can and learn as many skills as you can. The more you know the more areas you can work. And you never know what may be asked of you…”
From UNH Student Engagement and Young Alumni Programs Director Megan Hales: “…ask as many questions and talk to as many people as possible. Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know and the only way to make progress is by talking to people!”
The More People You Meet…
When I was at UNH, I had an intellectually challenging professor named David Kaye, who turned me on to Anne Bogart and the SITI Company. I read Anne’s book and applied to train with them. At their month-long training program in Saratoga, I met Jean Ann Douglass, whom, years later, introduced me to Nicholas Nelson and Jared Mezzocchi. Nick has been a constant collaborator, and Jared introduced me to Ben Jaeger-Thomas, who has been a client and collaborator for the past few years. Both Jean Ann and Ben comment below on how to make it as an artist. They’re lifers, fully committed to making art a part of their lives.
The more people you meet, the more you learn, the more experiences you have, the more these wonderful people will feed you. (MICHAEL: And you, them. In my experience, after I have summoned up the courage to “butt in” on someone, particularly online (though I do it in person as well) and open up to how I’m feeling about whatever they said or did (in a positive and/or constructive way) and then offered help — down the line, they’ve offered to help me too. A simple and obvious lesson but one that can be easy to forget). You’ll also meet assholes. You need to meet those people too, so you know you don’t want to be around them. (MICHAEL: This is a very good point. There are unfortunately a lot of negative people, in every industry. Negative artists can be particularly damaging to your progress and momentum. I should know. I used to struggle against one who used to live in my head, and still does — behind a series of locked doors).
From actor Jesse Presler: “…foster artistic relationships outside of your comfort zone. It can be an artistic hindrance to only spend time with people who speak the same artistic language in which one is indoctrinated. It can be a hindrance to personal growth to only spend time with and hide among one’s recently-graduated friends. College comrades are very important, of course, but part of being an artist is growth — growth which is and should be uncomfortable, painful at times even.”
So, find your people.
Carve Out A Life Course
From Seven Stages Shakespeare Company Artistic Director Dan Beaulieu: “Go out and see as much as possible. Now that classes are over, take 15 hours a week and carve out your own “life course”. Shows, concerts, movies, art exhibits, artisan craft fairs, anything creative. And read! And read. And read.” (MICHAEL: This is fantastic advice, that I whole-heartedly agree with. To me, it speaks to the importance of immersion. Personally, I long struggled with a tendency to explain away reasons why I don’t have the time (or, worse, don’t need to take the time) to do my due diligence as an artist and do as Dan says and “go out and see” stuff. A few additional added points: 1) Don’t wait for perfect circumstances when choosing what to do or not do, just be open and experiment and allow yourself to be led from there; 2) Be wary of the line between immersion and avoidance; 3) Apart from reading, mix in a healthy dose of private creative consumption. There’s even a difference between seeing a movie or a play with friends, and experiencing it privately and then talking — and doing the same thing but having another hour or more to process before the conversation.)
From Artist/Fractured Atlas Insurance genius Jean Ann Douglass : “Also, don’t kid yourself that you’ll be able to make rent off your art. There are lots of ways to make money, and they all have trade-offs. Irregular paychecks may be more stressful than the confines of working 9 to 5. Or vice versa.”
And, again from Jean Ann: “Don’t burn yourself out before you’re 30 years old. Taking care of yourself as a whole person is the most important thing you can do.”
From Voice over Artist/Actor Ben Jaeger-Thomas: “Really think about what it is realistically that you want to do in the arts. Being famous isn’t specific enough. Are you going to be okay
being on tour six months out of the year, every year, to piece together a living? You aren’t 20 forever.” (MICHAEL: Another good point. I’ve been trying hard lately to not only focus more on “the work,” but on how my work fits into reality. Accepting reality and adapting to it can be so much better for us as artists than we may think when we are following fear-laden trains of thought that tell us conditions need to be perfect).
From artist/musician/graphic designer/filmmaker Ken Nash: “If it doesn’t scare the hell out of you, it’s probably not worth doing. Set a goal each year to do one thing you’re completely terrified about doing.” (MICHAEL: He’s right. I would add that, invariably, what scares us the most can often produce our best work, if not directly — in some way or form at least).
Don’t be a dick
From filmmaker Chris Ungco: “People will respond better to good ideas from people who seem like good people. You get more, and you live better by not being a dick. Good luck.” (MICHAEL: This can be a hard piece of advice to adhere to, as time goes on and the (understandable) propensity for bitterness grows. Adhere to it anyway. Toxic people invariably release their poison to disastrous effect, even if they succeed in a short term way. Further, while we of course always want every single project to be the best it can be, acting monstrously towards collaborators (or worse, to or in front of potential audience members) endangers or destroys future prospects. Finally, in my opinion, no piece of art is worth the cost of dehumanization — in terms of what damage you could do to yourself or others. “Don’t be a dick” could also be translated to “be human”.)
So what did we learn?
Being an artist takes time, and it shouldn’t ruin your life. Have a life.
Constantly go out and meet new people, learn new things, and find a new niche.
Treat people right. Seriously, don’t be a dick.
I think the most important lesson is to really evaluate where you are right now. If it isn’t where you want to be, don’t beat yourself up. Make changes, slowly but surely. Once you’ve started making those changes, you’re doing it right. Being an artist isn’t a race. It’s a long, slow walk forward.
Liam Bilingham is a filmmaker and media educator in Brooklyn, NY. He’s currently developing his first feature film and working on several short-term projects. He’s just starting up his own blog, ‘Somewhat Suspect’, on his website, liambillingham.com.
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