Alumni Stories: Creative Careers with a Geography Degree (An Alternative Careers Guide)

By Clodagh Chapman. BSc Bristol 2019.

When I was asked to write an alumni piece for Brycgstowe, I was very flattered and also very bemused. I think this is because I still find the idea of being an ‘alumnus’ a bit surreal – a slightly archaic formality, like graduation gowns or the massive Bristol University crest in the semi-circular seminar room in Wills Memorial. So this is going to be an article which is trying to do many things, and which is also self-admittedly a bit nostalgic, and which comes with a big disclaimer that I am an almost-24-year-old who (like most almost-24-year-olds) has no idea what she’s doing. In other words, take all of this with a massive pinch of salt.

Quick potted history of all the BRILLIANT stuff I’ve done. I graduated from Bristol with a Geography degree in 2019. Alongside my undergrad, I did a bunch of student drama and journalism; I also edited Brycgstowe magazine in my second year, reviving it after a thirty-year hiatus. I also did a lot of non-student theatre, facilitating workshops for young people and stage managing and writing. A stint at drama school (MA Advanced Theatre Practice at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama), a lovely Guardian review for a show I did (“a brilliant show full of heart”) and a lot of ‘cold emails’ later, I’m currently freelancing across the creative and cultural sectors as a writer/director/production person. I also just finished a talent development scheme between the BFI and Young Vic Theatre, off the back of which I’m developing my first short film.

Graduation Ceremony 2019 // Photo courtesy of Clogagh Chapman

So having now been out in the wild for a couple of years, here are some tips that I wish someone had told me earlier about being a freelance creative (that probably won’t make those top 10 lists, but that I think are important).

  1. Make your own stuff.

Back when I was a teenager, I emailed a relatively senior theatre professional on how to break into the industry. And they said:

“The answer to your question is both easy and hard. Easy to say, hard to do. The best way I know to start and maintain a career in theatre is to do it.”

This might seem really obvious and maybe a bit flippant – but I reckon it’s the single best bit of advice I’ve ever been given. Be proactive and make the thing you want to make.

“Be proactive and make the thing you want to make.”

While you’re there, set aside those macho-glam stories about white male film directors (and it is usually white male film directors) who fund their first film off of a credit card or a loan shark or an obscenely rich relative. When I say to make your own stuff, I mean make it for as close to £0.00 as possible. Think: smartphone camera, mate’s back garden, free WordPress site. Not only is this (let’s be real) probably your only option, but it’ll also keep the stakes low – and it means that when you do get your hands on a budget, you’ll use it on things that actually matter.

2. Have a bit of flexible work in your back pocket.

By this, I don’t mean the thing(s) you’re going to do on the side to sustain yourself as a creative: teaching, or production management, or copywriting, or anything else with a relatively regular paycheque. I mean having something flexible in your back pocket which you can rely on to give you a bit of work at short notice – maybe it’s picking up a shift at the bar you worked in once, or doing a bit of admin for that charity you used to volunteer for.

This is for two reasons. One – whilst not having any freelance work coming in might be a personal crisis and you might cry a bit, you’ll be able to make your rent. Two – if you’re on a contract and it’s horrible, you’re not being financially arm-twisted into staying. Basically, it gives you a bit of power, and means that the job hunt (which, as a freelancer, is constant) is a bit less soul-crushingly life-defining.

Butterfly // Photo courtesy of Harry Plowden

3. Document everything you do.

Hopefully, at some point in your career, someone is going to ask to see your work. This is good and exciting news. And if you reply with “… well it’s more of an intangible live thing, to be honest” or scramble for a web cache of that article you did five years ago, you’re going to feel like an absolute muppet.

If your work is remotely visual, take photos. Chances are you own a smartphone which can take decent pictures. If you don’t, you probably know someone who does. If your work is more wordy, keep your writing in a special folder on your laptop, or on a dedicated USB pen, or in a Google Drive folder. If you’re into moving image, make a free Vimeo account and store up all your stuff.  Just make sure you’ve got something documented somewhere. Promise it’ll be useful.

“If your work is remotely visual, take photos. If your work is more wordy, keep your writing in a special folder on your laptop. If you’re into moving image, make a free Vimeo account and store up all your stuff.”

4. Be a human about it.

There’s a lot of mysticism around what being creative means, not least the myth of the lone genius: that if you’re creative, you have to brood around with a Moleskine and write sonnets at 3am and generally be what sounds like a nightmare of a housemate. Run a mile from anyone who belittles your work as a passion or a calling. You’re not a starving artist: you’re a professional who might one day want a pension and has to do their groceries this week.

In other words, get used to separating out yourself as a person from yourself as an artist. Find a hobby you have zero intention of making a living from. Some of the most exciting creatives I know are the ones who refuse to check their emails past 5pm.

Butterfly // Photo courtesy of Harry Plowden

5. Follow what you like.

Lots of people try to impose onto me a narrative of ‘finally doing what you love’: the idea that I served out three years of a Geography degree, before moving into something totally different. But truth is I was making work alongside that Geography degree, and even within that Geography degree: between my second and third years, I did a research internship on LGBTQ+ storytelling, and my undergrad dissertation was a piece of creative writing about haunting and queerness. That dissertation actually won me the departmental Qualitative Human Geography Dissertation Prize, and I’ve been reliably informed it’s still being used as an example of first-class work. So my creative practice and my undergraduate degree were never at odds with one another – they informed one another, thanks to the hugely nurturing department at Bristol (and especially Robert Mayhew, my dissertation supervisor). Though I’m probably looking back on it with fuzzy-eyed nostalgia (which has started creeping up on me, and around things like dust that smells a bit like my final-year house), I genuinely think my Geography degree taught me as much about being a creative as my MA did.

Formal // Photo courtesy of French Clapper Boy

What I’m saying is that, in my experience, the most creatively nourishing thing you can do is to follow what you like – because what you like is what makes you a better and more interesting creative. I like continental philosophy and writing and storytelling and spectres and history and sometimes I also like a spreadsheet, and all of those things bleed into my creative practice, and make it more interesting, and make me a better writer/director. Maybe you’re a sound designer, and you also really like glaciers and multilevel modelling – great, maybe you’ll do a PhD in Climate Science and also change the world of creative technology. Maybe you’ll hit a point where you don’t like that creative thing anymore, and you’ll find something else you like instead, and that’s ok and good and healthy.  Find the things you like, and find the things that let you do the things you like; have hopes and dreams and aspirations, but be wary of reverse engineering a particular career path that you think you want.

“Maybe you’ll hit a point where you don’t like that creative thing anymore, and you’ll find something else you like instead, and that’s ok and good and healthy.”

Note that I’ve said ‘like’ and not ‘love’. ‘Love’ feels like a strange relation to have to the thing that pays my bills, and feels a bit too existential (and demands a bit too much soul-searching) for my liking. Really, I like to think it’s as simple as finding something you like – or rather, that’s what worked for me so far. Fingers crossed for the next 24 years.

It’s worth me adding that these are all tips I’m still grappling with, and this article serves to remind myself of them as much as it does to pass them on. If you fancy a virtual cuppa, drop me a line. I’m @CloChpmn on most socials, or ping over an email on clodagh.chapman[at]outlook.com. I’ve also got a website https://clodaghchapman.co.uk which you’re welcome to peruse at your leisure.

email: clodagh.chapman@outlook.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/CloChpmn

https://clodaghchapman.co.uk

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