Posts Tagged ‘discipline’

Mental Trickery I Use On Myself to Do Long, Annoying Things like Running 10Ks and Writing Novels


I am not a natural runner. You know those people who are like “I run a 4-minute mile!” and “I run marathons in my sleep!” and “I run 60 miles a week!” I am so not those people. And yet I run. Even though I hate it while I do it — my head full of pissed-off thoughts like Fuck man, why do I do this to myself? — the Zenlike bliss and calm I feel afterwards is often worth it. I do the minimum possible to get that bit of Zen, but I eventually get it.

Most people hate it, but I often run on a treadmill because I like the different metrics on the screens: my mile-per-hour speed, distance, average speed, elapsed time, all those things. Most people at my gym cover the screen with towels and just run, but I could never do that, because I use them as a kind of mental game to get through any run. If I thought of runs like “I need to get to six miles,” then I would never do them because it sounds so horrible and daunting to my essentially lazy self. So instead, I have to break it down into mental micro-increments, and the resulting metal chatter sounds like a crazy person. But it works for me!

I always start off with telling myself, “I’m going to run for just ten minutes. Come on, Kat, anyone can trot along for ten minutes, right?” Anyone can do something for ten minutes. And then I go, and the first ten minutes always just sucks because my body is like, “Noooooooo, stay stagnant! Stagnant is good!” and my mind is like, “Kat, why don’t you just skip all this nonsense and go to the hot tub like you really want? And then eat a candy bar? Yeah, a candy bar! Candy bars are good! ” But then I think, Oh come on, just ten minutes and you can be done with it.

But then I get to close to ten minutes, and then I think to myself, Oh, Kat, you’re just shy of a mile, why don’t you just hit that? Then I get to the mile, and see I’m just over ten minutes, and then I think, Why not go to 15 minutes? Why the hell not? That way you can round off to a nice quarter-hour and then be done. And once that five minutes is up, I look at the all the metrics on the screen and think, Oh wow, you’re almost to two miles…why don’t you just go to that?

And so it goes! I keep thinking stuff, “Oh, look, you’ve burned 200 calories, just run to 250 calories” or “You’re getting close to 3 miles, just go a little further to get to the 5K mark” or, my standard favorite, “Why don’t you just go five more minutes and you can quit and go to the hot tub!” And by the time you’re done with the 5K or the 10K, you’ve exceeded your original goal of “just ten minutes,” and that’s always a good feeling, no?

Everything is just a micro-decision to the next micro-destination along a more major journey. If I think about how far away the end-point of the major journey is, I get daunted and overwhelmed. But breaking everything down and setting up little micro-goals is really what gets me through, along with the permission to stop if I want.

The funny thing is, now I use the idea of micro-decisions and micro-goals to get through anything that’s long and protracted and kind of boring and really not something you can just power through — you know, like writing novels! Just get to the next plot point, the end of the chapter, the end of the sentence, the final detail of the image, the end of the dialogue…and slowly, at some point, a book or story starts building up, and acquires a momentum of its own.

That’s what you live for as a writer, when the words and story and characters possess you…but until you get to that point, one little tiny decision at a time. They add up nicely.


In other news: I’m trying to make the best of winter and the polar vortex, but I have to admit, the long coldness — since November! — is really wearing everyone down. I went from music embracing winteriness (Agnes Obel, whose Aventine is really so beautiful; Bjork) to music that reminds me of sunniness and warmth. I had a few Haim songs downloaded but never really got why everyone loved them so much — they were cute but not amazing to me — but now I like playing them. I think visiting L.A. last month helped me understand Haim in a weird way. It’s sort of nice to play in the background while I’m straightening up or making tea or whatever.

I saw Her recently, which I loved on many levels. I’ll likely end up writing on it for my day gig, but in terms of my personal reactions, I just immediately appreciated how achingly tender and sincere it was overall; Joaquin Phoenix was so subtle and good and beautifully sensitive, and it was so amazing for him to stand in as Everyman when he’s so known for being dark and tortured in his roles. I loved how it looked — both hazy-nostalgic yet futuristic in a very warm, clean way. And I loved how, in some way, it was this kind of letter by Spike Jonze to his ex-wife Sofia Coppola. (I mean, Rooney Mara in her last scene was dressed and style so nouveau-Sofia, you know?) Her made me so glad that movies exist, and it echoed so many questions I think we all have about how to love someone and share our lives together. It gave no answers, but it seemed to offer some faith and comfort in waiting in the limbo for them.

We also finally watched Inside Llewyn Davis, which I liked in a very different way. It’s not an accessible or even likable film, but I found it fascinating, a kind of character portrait of a man who essentially can’t change and learn from life around him. For someone who got drilled into film school that every protagonist has to be “dynamic” and have an “arc,” I found it interesting, though I suspect that’s why people won’t enjoy it — because the character doesn’t really learn anything. It had a kind of mordant, dry humor to it, which I enjoyed. (I felt like I was the only person laughing in the theater, which made me feel like an asshole, but whatever!) And of course, the music was beautiful and great, and it was fun to see Justin Timberlake play a naive goofball in a sweater and Adam from Girls in such an unabashedly silly part. Adam Driver is pretty much the only real reason I watch Girls, outside of the sharp writing and Jessa’s clothes, so it was a real job to see him yelp it up in a super-silly song. (Go to the 2:13-ish mark in the clip to see my favorite bit by him!)

Still finishing Elizabeth and Her German Garden, but my sweetheart got me the Neil Young and Keith Richards autobiographies for Christmas, so those are next on my list! And then I found out Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove just came out on paperback, so I want to re-read those freaking gorgeous, amazing stories again.

Nick Cave on Writing + Routines

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Inspiration is a word used by people who aren’t really doing anything. I go into my office every day that I’m in Brighton and work. Whether I feel like it or not is irrelevant.

– Nick Cave

I’ve always been fascinated by songwriters and how they work. Of all the writing crafts, making songs seems most like bottling lightning, requiring all kinds of courting of the muses. But it’s intriguing to know when musicians treat it like a trade or a daily routine, like some normal thing like brushing teeth or working out. I’m especially intrigued by rock stars as sort of everyday journeyman types, because the whole rock ‘n roll archetype is so Dionysian, so soaked in alcohol, sex and late nights. It’s antithetical to the everyday “get it done” stoicism of the working person, right?

And yet here is Nick Cave going to the office everyday to work like a regular 9-to-5 bloke! There’s something really humble and endearing about it, but beyond the up-ending of the whole rock-star inspiration model, it’s good to know that his longevity and growth as an artist have come with a very deliberate ethos of hard work and discipline. Which of course sounds so Puritan, and yet if it pays off, then how can you argue?

Of course, there’s something about his work that reflects a very deliberate, crafted quality, right down to his literary lyrics. His music hasn’t had that “Wow, we came up with this craaaaazzzzzy shit while banging around in a rehearsal room” quality since perhaps the Birthday Party or early Bad Seeds — or, okay, the Grinderman stuff, but I wasn’t super-fond of that so I kind of blocked it from my mind. You can argue whether or not his music’s the better or worse for it, but I love that he keeps going, making weird shit and being as dark and perverse as ever. I’ve sort of more and more interested now in how artists, and particularly musicians, retain their sense of artistry long after the energy of youth wears off, and so it’s weird and lovely to know that Nick treats it like a trade or craft that he kind of just does, like it’s no big deal, no black magic…just hard work and getting it done.

And I love the Cave approach because it’s a great lesson to learn as a productive artist: you can’t just sit around and wait for the muse to hit you with a shot of inspiration. You have to just sit down and do it, and even if nothing comes, maybe something will the next day, or the day after. I’m not really someone who is all “I MUST WRITE EVERYDAY” but I do try to do something to keep the wheels greased, whether it’s making notes, stabbing an attempt at a paragraph or outlining. I don’t have an office, but I do write something everyday, even if it’s not the things I feel I should be writing.

It’s a lot more humbling in a way to work this way, because I don’t just write when I feel all genius and inspired — I learn that I write shit and shit is a normal part of the process, and i don’t feel “blocked” when it happens. Shit happens to all writers. But you just go on and do something, and do something, and do something again…and then you pass through the shit phase into something that helps you remember why you love to write or create in the first place. At least, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. And sticking to it. And sticking to it.

On applying to a MFA film program, and if you should

It must be that time of the year when people are pulling together their school applications, because in the past few weeks I’ve gotten a few emails on whether or not an MFA program is worth applying to, whether my particular program was worth applying to, and if it’s worth getting a MFA to begin with. All fine, normal questions, which I’ll try to answer with a degree of straightforwardness here.

Most people emailing want to know about my experience getting a MFA and with film school in general. I’ll tell you the story of how I made the decision to go — some of you may recognize your own experience in my story, or it may help spur some productive strands of thought and reflection about your own.

I actually had a good deal of filmmaking experience before I went to get my MFA in it. I studied film as an undergrad, I worked in the industry in various production positions after graduation, I made a few shorts, and I wrote tons and tons and tons of screenplays. Even when I moved to San Francisco, I still worked with documentarians and got more into experimental film. Film was a big part of my life, and would likely have remained a passion even if I didn’t go. In fact, in every interview I had with schools I applied to, someone always asked, “Just why are you applying, anyway?” Not that I was so awesome, but it would’ve been easy for me to forgo school, move back to New York, and re-immerse myself back into film on a bigger scale without having to pay tons of tuition.

The answer lay in that small pile of screenplays I was beginning to accumulate. I wrote mad, mad, mad amounts and took a few random classes here and there. I read every book on screenwriting and dramatic storytelling I could get my hands on. But at some point, I felt as if I were working in a vacuum — I’d send out screenplays out for feedback, but it never felt quite enough. Sure, it’s nice to hear that characters felt real, or if something felt slow, or if something wasn’t working. But getting super-specific, hardcore feedback, feedback based in a serious grounding of how drama works and how narrative is structured — super-trad-writerly stuff, I guess — I was just dying for that.

I thought back to the poetry and creative writing seminars I took as an undergrad, and the workshop experiences there — I knew I needed something that rigorous, led by experienced writers, ideally surrounded by a community of colleagues with the same level of commitment and engagement. I knew I needed those to “get to the next level,” as they say in so many walks of life. I could write and write and write on my own, and with grit and determination I’d improve and get better, but I wanted to make bigger leaps. I needed teachers I trusted, and I needed fellow students working on the same page, immersed in similar waters of ideas, experiments, and concepts.

The great thing was, I got it when I entered my MFA program: all those workshops, all that feedback, all that relentless practice and experimenting. It goes back to the “M” in MFA — if you want to master your fine art, the right MFA program is a good place to do it. Not the only place, of course, but a good place. If you have the soul of an artist, there is likely a deep part of you that just wants to get better, for the pleasure of craft and the sheer joy of writing, filming, painting — whatever it is that your artist heart does. You don’t need to do this within formal study, but if you work hard and are in the right place for you (I can’t emphasize that enough), you will get better, and often you will get better fast. You’ll find community. You’ll get all the feedback you would ever want, and more. You may even get some “connections” (though I find school was more valuable for meeting colleagues and peers, more than typical “connections”). You’ll carve out a time in your life to focus on your craft and art. In short, you will embark on the process of mastery in a very serious, purposeful way.

Not saying it was all woo-hoo “look, I’m an artist!” all the time. (You have to be prepared, future MFAer, for everyone who isn’t an artist to think you just run around with a camera singing “la di da” as you shoot stuff, or flit around the library with your head in the clouds, dreaming up stories. This will sometimes irritate you, especially as you become increasingly malnourished and sleep-deprived.) You may have had a few writing classes, or art classes, and may be already familiar with the workshop or conservatory experience. Honestly, I thought film school would be like my undergrad writing seminars or filmmaking classes, but times six and without those pesky undergrad requirements getting in the way. I have to laugh at myself now, because going to film school was like the hardest work I ever did in my life.

The ironic thing was that I was warned, of course. People tell you that you will work hard in a MFA program; you may even think to yourself, “Man, I work hard already, this will be a piece of cake.” But it’s not. For the first two years of full-time classwork, I easily spent 60-80 hours a week in class, in screening, in lecture, shooting on set — and that is not counting the time it took to edit, shoot outside class or write. I had no real relationship, I ate nothing but vending machine food for weeks at a time, I had the worst insomnia ever, I didn’t exercise, I didn’t even see friends for the first two years of school, and that was NORMAL.

More pertinently, I underestimated the toll it takes to produce creative work relentlessly and essentially in public for two straight years. It is one thing to write papers for school, but when you are expected to produce creative work that reveals the depths of your soul whether you are “inspired” or not, and to do it week after week in front of people you barely know at first — that is hard and grueling in both the sheer effort you put in as well as the emotional and spiritual vulnerability you give out. The thing is, many programs are structured to make you find your limits, both personal and creative, and many programs are structured to make you “fail,” because failure is an important part of the learning process and also helps you realize what it is you truly want to say or do. And of course, you need to be prepared for competition — even in a collegial, friendly program like the one I went to, there is always going to be competition, and it’s up to you to use it to spur yourself to greater heights. There’s no room for easily hurt egos, and I highly recommend a strong sense of self-esteem, humility and appetite for risk if you’re going to go through the experience.

Of course it was glorious, and I wouldn’t trade that time in my life for anything else. (I’m actually getting a bit nostalgic for late night editing lab sessions, strangely enough.) Not only because it was mad fun and because I loved the people I was surrounded by — but because I was getting better as a director and a writer, and as a storyteller in general. I still struggle, not only with stories but with doubt and fear and insecurity, but after my program my skin has toughened and it’s much easier to soldier on, armed with a strong toolbox, as well as a much sharper sense of how to look at, evaluate and then approach my own work again and again. Not only did I learn dramatic storytelling, but I developed process, fortitude and tenacity, which is almost as valuable as the nuts and bolts and ideas.

But again, it’s bloody brutal work — any MFA program is. There’s no room for wishy-washiness, and any program worth going to will take care only to admit those who have a true passion and drive and ferocity to do what they want to go to school for. So be very, very clear on your commitment to your craft, your discipline, your heart’s and life’s passion for it above nearly everything else, and your seriousness of purpose of when it comes to creative growth. Because if you aren’t, you will likely open that loan payment statement every month really, really regretting your decision to get your masters. I open my statement and still feel grateful to have had the experience I did. If you feel like you won’t, you may not want to pursue that path.

Likewise, other reasons NOT to get your MFA:

+ MONEY. If you at all want your education to “pay itself back” in some way, you don’t want to get your MFA. Unlike law degrees or whatever, there’s absolutely no guarantee that you will get a job from this. If debt is abhorrent to you, don’t do it.

+ CONNECTIONS. Don’t get me wrong, you will make some, and they can be valuable. But as I stated earlier, I found school more valuable for the group of peers you will meet (and likely work with for years to come.) If you are going to school mostly for connections, you are better off interning, although God help your soul if you go that route.

+ OTHER INDUSTRY STUFF. This is particularly for film school people, but here is a red light: the industry is kind of shitting bricks now about making money and what the future is going to be. The old model is changing, or rather, it’s just not working anymore. No one knows which end is the ass, so to speak. (Gosh, film stuff just makes me so vulgar!) If you’re going in expecting to land a three-picture deal out of film school like in the halcyon days of indie filmmaking in the U.S. — those days are over, really.

Anyway, I intended this to be a lot shorter, but I hope this answers a few people’s questions about MFAs, film school and other related matters. Whatever you do, good luck with your work and your journey, and I hope your stories find a home in the world, no matter what you do.

xo k.

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, 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.]