On being a creative person about to graduate from college

I spent yesterday traveling to Richmond, Virginia, to photograph a class trip to hear a Wurlitzer organ and see a silent film in the historic Byrd Theatre, and then stayed to listen and also photograph a Sweet Briar woman whose new band had their first performance. Elizabeth Wise and the Shooflies is a bluesy, sultry, soulful group, and leading it is Liz, whose pluck and determination I want to have when I grow up. She is an “old soul,” something I told her soon after we met yesterday, and something a fellow musician also happened to say when I asked him about working with her.

Before the show, while we waited for lunch at The Naked Onion (yum — real food, from scratch), I spoke with a colleague about film and making films and art and how I’m tiptoeing into video.  I know how to make a beautiful still image, I’ve practiced and trained and learned and improved still photography. It’s like what Ira Glass said about storytelling and taste, and I feel impatient and frustrated when I have jumpy footage or crappy audio because I know what I want it to look like and I can’t do that yet.

The conversations yesterday about art and struggle reminded me of an email I sent, unsolicited, to a few seniors last year who were art majors or otherwise creative souls. It’s a little rambling (surprise, surprise!) but I’m going to post it here, because it still says what I want to say.


January 11, 2013:

You are a creative person who is about to be let loose from this place, and it feels horribly overwhelming and you maybe aren’t even sure whether you should pursue a “real” job, or graduate school, or build your creative portfolio and strike out as a freelancer, or…?

I imagine most of you don’t know where you’ll live or how you’ll pay for it. And I know those are all very overwhelming questions, especially when it feels like you have to know the answers by May 19 (oh, the morning after graduation…).

I don’t want to be another “older” person who gives you pat advice. But I do want you to know that, not too long ago, I was in your shoes. I ended up graduating without a real job, and I was broke, bouncing between relatives’ homes when I couldn’t afford an apartment, and stretching leftovers from a restaurant job when I finally had my own place. I worked at a coffeshop and as a dispatcher and full-time at Bed Bath & Beyond one point (I was grateful for the income but I don’t think I want to have to sign someone up for a wedding registry, my main job, ever again in my life).

My journey may not look like yours, or even be what you envision for yourself, so I don’t mean to say you should do what I did, and you will certainly find your own path.

But today, my friend Paul posted something to Facebook. You see, when I was about 24 and he was probably 21 or so, we were both working as baristas at our local coffeeshop. I had just graduated from our alma mater, and he was in the middle of transferring there while taking some time off. We both barely had enough money for gas most days. We listened to Coldplay and vented about relationships and kept dreaming. I bought my first digital camera in those days. I don’t remember if he had a video camera then; he was shaggy and in a band and he wanted to be a videographer but was just on the cusp of really pursuing it.

And then today, he posted this: http://vimeo.com/57182198. It’s his latest production reel. You’ve know my work here at the college, but if you haven’t  seen it, this is my own professional portfolio outside of SBC: www.mdkstudio.com.

You see, in the 6+ years since then, he’s been making his art, mostly still from West Michigan where we first met. And I’ve been making my art here in Virginia. Not all the time, for either of us. But as much as we could, as often as we could.

I’m sure he’ll tell you that he still doesn’t have it all figured out, and I certainly don’t (my latest dilemma is whether to enroll in a low-residency graduate school for creative writing, my actual degree). But regardless, our portfolios did not happen overnight at age 21. And I know this is true for a million other creatives, and that you already know this. But I’m sharing this because these are not folks in LA or New York, or someone who’s famous (yet). It’s my friend Paul and it’s me, and when we were in our early twenties, we were mopping floors in a coffeeshop and hoping we might make money doing what we love some day.

It won’t happen overnight for you, and I know that’s the hardest thing to hear from someone older right now. I know you want to do it all by May 19, to somehow leave this place and be established.

And you know what, I believe in you all SO much. You are incredibly talented people.

But if I can offer you anything, it’s this:

Keep doing what you love, a little bit each day or at least each week. Or even once a month. But do it. Even if your day job is slinging coffee or working at a desk for a company you don’t really like. I hope those days end soon, and that someday you support yourself doing something AMAZING. But remember that a portfolio is a body of work, and that work happens over time. So keep doing it. And you may find yourself looking back, in one year or six or twenty, and being really proud of a body of work that couldn’t possibly have happened overnight.

And I know that these are both commercial portfolios, and maybe you want to pursue fine art. But what I’m saying is probably true for Paige Critcher’s portfolio, or John Casteen’s poetry. And I hope in some way that helps you.

So, as you get ready to return for your spring semester of your senior year (!!!!!!!!!!!), I hope that my words are in some way helpful. You’re welcome to ask me (politely, I hope) to never offer you advice again; I’m a older sister so I’m kind of used to that. 🙂

I can’t wait to see what you do in this world!


And I need to take my own advice. I’m nearly a decade down the line from those coffeeshop days, but I need to remind myself that I’m not done yet. There’s still possibility, and there’s still adventure waiting. And there’s a whole lot of art to create.