During that season, my life was tinted with a grey sheen, as grief terrified and twisted me. Every beautiful thing I saw and heard and felt seemed to fall into the canyon of despair that was my mind—an unfamiliar companion to me that suddenly seemed dangerous, unwieldy. I got panic attacks for the first time, and jolted awake from a recurring electrical shock-like feeling in my brain. Many of my thoughts were foreign to me.
My days during those months looked normal: walk to the office, sit in cubicle, dress up for dinner, watch re-runs at home. But my inner experience was bleak, damp, empty: a dank basement with a leak in the wall. Normally very emotionally-expressive and easily-moved, I had trouble connecting with any kind of art and the only times I felt familiar pangs of heightened emotion were when I watched video footage of disasters. I lived in exile in my own body for many months.
Although I didn’t have the word for it yet, my intuition led me to the conclusion that the way through this excruciating numbness would be embodiment: the felt sense of being fully in my body while living, being, noticing. In other words, befriending my new self through physical experiences in the world. My mind felt like a stranger living in my head—I wanted to change that. I wanted to understand her, or at least be on speaking terms with her. My animal body craved the feeling of doing something physical—stretching, cooking, sitting in water, wiggling my fingers around.
I had remembered that it felt really good to move a paintbrush on a page. Physically, it felt so peaceful. I liked mixing paints and I liked filling colors in to line drawings. I enjoyed experimenting with handwriting and I appreciated the discipline of capturing something on page that I was looking at off the page. It seemed like painting could make me more attentive, and maybe bring me back to the joyful self I knew well.
But a problem was, I didn’t know how to do art. I’d never earnestly drawn anything, except illustrated notes for my mom and homemade cards, or doodles on the sides of meeting notes; I didn’t know what I was doing. I supposed I would have to practice.
Thus, my first Instagram post—my new secret project in the midst of depression—was a study of pencils. More specifically, a bouquet of sharpened pencils: a lovely image I remembered from You’ve Got Mail. By drawing, I would teach myself how to draw:
For a moment, the grey sheen lifted. My imagination begin to flicker again. I was the captain of my own mind for a few minutes as I created significance by capturing the mundane, in my own heretofore undiscovered style. For now, I had no motivation for creating except to feel the weight of a pen in my hand and control its glide across toothed watercolor paper. Bigger dreams would come later.
From that day forward, my art was focused on life.
I wanted to blow on the flame of imagination and let it grow wild, watch it burn away the grey sheen that stifled my senses. I wanted to be as human as I could be, alive as alive gets, having become so intimately acquainted with death as I pressed against the thin veil during months of grief.
What does being alive feel like for me? was my guiding question. What is my experience of being a human in this world? What am I seeing, feeling, being sad about, longing for, worried about?
My 'artist statement' was less of a statement and more a list of questions, to be answered in one Instagram post a day.
As my mind became a friend, and my body became a home, and I felt truly seen for the first time in my whole life as strangers (!) told me they liked what I was doing, I developed a new trust—in my art, in my audience, in my way of seeing—and I started getting bolder.
As a writer who had never amassed more than a couple comments on my blog, I was so gratified to get many comments on vignettes that I considered miniature essays: a collection of observations on a subject that caught my attention.
Now, it’s very easy to look back on this genre of observational illustration—a bit spiteful, a lot judgmental, certainly from an unhealed place—and cringe. I explored my own alive-ness by bringing my shadows to light, and I could tell it was a superpower of mine that I didn’t care if it made me look petty or desperate.
According to the follower growth and number of shares in the comments, jadedness did really well on social media. I loved creating these composites in group texts with friends: Okay guys, what kind of girl does an ex-boyfriend always end up dating?
Who's the type of girl we'll never be? I’d ask a couple confidantes, evolving my thesis of What does being alive feel like for me? to What does being alive feel like for us?
Documenting such topics as “ex-boyfriends always find a perfect girl who can somehow effortlessly wear uncomfortable shoes” gave me some control over the more painful parts of my life: jealousy, heartache, feeling unworthy. Why go to therapy when you can post an illustration and get instant solidarity for it? People love feeling vindicated for their own shadows; I was granting them validation and absolution, and they responded in kind.
The reason why I keep myself from cringing when I look back at my old style is that my younger self would be so hurt if she knew I was talking about her like that. Now I’m someone she would look up to; I never want to embarrass or shame her because I’m in such a different mental and creative place now. All I can say is that she deserves a lot of my compassion, and she also deserves my gratitude for engaging a wonderful audience--and eventually a book publisher.
I met with potential book publishers who described my illustration style as quirky and snarky, adjectives which didn’t fit at all with how I wanted my creative expression to appear in the world. They have me all wrong, I thought, which is a very upsetting conundrum for an Enneagram 4! If anything, I considered myself to be extremely earnest, and feeling pressure from publishers to stop reflecting and start complaining gave me a mini-crisis about my own work.
Throughout my twenties, I regularly wrote blog posts (for one or two readers) about my tender inner world, my interests in justice and theology, my quest to embrace every job and setback as fuel for my own personal mythology. Illustration was a quicker way to express myself than blogging, but I didn't like how the genre seemed to give people the wrong idea of who I was and what was important to me. I even sometimes felt like a sort of victim of other people's perceptions.
What does it feel like for me to be alive right now? I kept asking.
So, I began making work about my own work, exploring Why I do this in the first place: another attempt at controlling my own narrative. "You teach people how to see you," a friend reminded me, and I wanted people to see me as warmhearted as I actually am--definitely not snarky.
There was another unexpected challenge that inspired me to pivot from the “relatable quirky millennial girl” or whatever category I’d accidentally found myself in: I was accused of plagiarism.
A few times, actually, though one time was brutal. I wouldn't blame anyone for their assumption; one of my pieces looked like a carbon copy of someone else's. Of course, I hadn’t seen it before; it would have been so foolish to knowingly replicate an idea from an established illustrator. But people found more examples of my posts that appeared to take her ideas, and I couldn't believe that my innocent feel-better project was bringing me so much stress. It may sound silly to be so worked up over an Instagram misunderstanding, but Instagram was essentially my workplace--my creative home--and the public nature of it shook me.
The experience—a solid week of constant anxiety—inspired a major artistic pivot: Get so hyper-specific that there’s no way I could be accused of taking someone’s idea. I never wanted that to happen again. Write and draw about things that could only have happened to me:
What does it feel like for ME to be alive right now—no ‘us’ implied?
I also explored some heavier personal topics I hadn't touched on yet:
And then, I no longer needed to fear inadvertent theft. I went through an experience completely unique to me (well, me and one out of every 100,000 people a year): partial paralysis caused by Guillain-Barré Syndrome.
Just months prior, I’d quit my job, miraculously able to support myself for a while on my book deal and freelance illustration. Just as my ego was getting used to that, I lost the full use of my hands for weeks, and I returned to the exiled place I’d started in: I no longer trusted my body, and my mind was a stranger I had to befriend.
I felt stifled by a self-imposed expectation to maintain consistency on my page, but nothing about my life felt relatable or remotely compelling anymore: I couldn’t go out, wasn’t working, didn’t enjoy being with people, and I could no longer walk comfortably.
I forced a few cartoons from scattered memories of once being a person without significant nerve damage, but I couldn’t keep up the act. It was so out of integrity to prioritize consistency over honesty. Plus, I couldn't think of ideas.
What does it feel like for me to be alive right now?
Is ‘alive’ what you would call this?
I was depressed. I was angry. I was traumatized. I was numbed out with painkillers and with broken dreams. For someone whose style was sometimes called colorful, funny, and joyful, I felt like an off-brand version of myself when I tried to draw.
So, I had to get real with myself: I started this illustration project as a form of self-care, and that's how I'd continue. Tell the truth, I learned from a favorite writer Anne Lamott.
Knowing that it might cost me, I shared exactly where I was:
And the response was incredible. Instead of getting messages like “You make me feel less alone at my corporate job or in my dating life,” I got messages like, “You make me feel less alone in my PTSD or chronic pain.” The latter wasn't more meaningful than the former, but it was telling of the subject matter I could now speak to.
I got an email from my mentor: "Something different, something new has infiltrated your work." She meant that I was both growing and getting deeper, and I agreed, even though the journey to get there was a beast.
I started getting interviews with mental health organizations and shares from big accounts dedicated to managing anxiety and depression, again inadvertently finding myself in a category I didn’t set out to infiltrate. I had felt so alone in my struggles with mental health as I recovered from GBS; I was honored to openly share what I was going through if it would be of any service to others.
I went back to making art for the collective, creating a new mission statement: Creativity is an act of service.
What does it feel like for us to be alive right now? I asked as I’d scroll Instagram daily and try to see who was being missed.
This inspired a hastily-drawn Mother’s Day post, in which I thought about a few specific women in my life who might feel pain on this holiday when Instagram was full of loving odes to moms. I dedicated it to their particular experiences, which I categorized in generic terms.
Then: Oh, Bryce Dallas Howard shared it--she's a celebrity, right? Cool!
By the end of that day, the post got hundreds of thousands of likes and a whole lot of shares, accompanied by dozens of hate-emails in my inbox. I saw manipulated versions of the illustration with messages implying that none of these women deserved to be thought about on Mother’s Day.
I got comments from hundreds of other women saying that they didn't need my sympathy, that they were offended by my pity. I got a ton of demanding questions about why I would include women who have chosen not to be mothers. I saw many copycats and uncredited reposts, which didn't bother me as much as the feeling that it was just all so completely out of my control.
My follower count went up tens of thousands, but I was proactively concerned for these newbies: Did they know what they were getting into? This isn’t the type of art I usually make! I even felt like a bit of a imposter--I have a great relationship with my mom and I've never tried to have kids; there are people better emotionally-equipped to send this message!
I also received an influx of comments and messages from people who’d just found my account for the first time, critical and arguing amongst themselves in about illustrations I’d posted years ago. “They don’t even go here!” I’d joke to friends about the invasive nature of receiving so many new opinions at once.
What I created as an intimate little love letter for some friends and anyone else who might need it blew up as the proverbial face of my creative output. What goes viral and what doesn't go viral is unpredictable, even arbitrary. While I put love into that illustration, I put love into all of them. The way this one took off didn't feel commensurate with the amount of effort or thought that went into it.
Now, I delete Instagram for a couple days surrounding Mother’s Day. I don’t need to know that Kylie Jenner reposted the illustration from another account without credit (I don’t plan on DMing Kylie Jenner). I also struggle with the spike of judgments, insults, and projections. I have mixed feelings about my most popular post being something that doesn't exemplify my writing these days (it's not like Kylie Jenner is posting about my book of essays). So, I take a break from the app and all the complicated thoughts it activates.
With gratitude, I have let the illustration go as something that lives on the internet, in its own energy--now apart from me.
Through the popularity of 'Thinking of You' and some others I created as an exploration of empathy, I realized that softness seemed to resonate, and it’s where I was in life as I moved to New York and felt at home for the first time. My drawings were a far cry from ‘Anatomy of the New Girlfriend,’ as I had finished healing physically and I was now emotionally healing from wounds I’d been carrying around for far too long:
As I healed, grew, and became more myself, it became increasingly important for me to be seen as a writer. I already felt like I’d outgrew cartoons and I wanted to expand on some more complex observations that wouldn't fit in a simple drawing.
I began wondering if the answer was to quit my instagram account, and find some way to write long-form instead.
“Why don’t you just…write, on Instagram?” a friend suggested. Genius.
So I began writing. I ditched the cartoons and returned to watercolor splashes with longer sentiments:
I still ask, What does it feel like for me to be alive right now?
For the past couple years, it feels like: learning to be comfortable in uncertainty, mystery, unfolding—unfinished feelings. It feels like answering "I'm not sure" to questions about my relationship with social media and my body of work.
With the type of illustration I did for many years, there was an end goal. It wasn’t an exploration so much as a conclusion. Now, I don’t go into my writing knowing exactly what I want to say; I let it take me somewhere.
People used to often ask me if I could "write something about a friend breakup" or "do one about moving" or "say something about [insert current event here]." I interpret those requests as high praise: perhaps those folks see my art and writing as something that has been validating or illuminating for them, and want to also feel seen for what they're going through at the moment.
But if I approached my work that way (i.e. "today I'm going to write about what it's like to feel lonely in a city"), then it wouldn't be a journey of discovery for me. The idea would be following me, rather than the other way around.
Embracing unfinished feelings is creatively exciting for me, but it doesn’t “do well” on social media—if a metric of “doing well on social media” is getting likes and shares. The social media posts that perform well by that metric are very clear, affirming, and definitive. Fortunately, high stats are not my metric of doing well.
When I posted consistently in my old style, I used to see a predictable exponential growth of followers and engagement over time; now I lose many followers every time I post...anything. Of course, my ego isn’t thrilled about this!
BUT, my soul knows better: I will always celebrate people exercising their agency and free will to use social media however they want. If my page isn't doing it for them, there are thousands of other illustrators and writers out there--I sincerely bless them on their way to the 'unfollow' button!
It's such a privilege to have anyone interested in what I have to say at any time; I don't take that for granted for one moment. My soul's metric of success is: how much I continue to evolve, how curious I am about the subject matter I choose to explore, and how connected I feel to whomever takes interest in my thoughts.
These days, I am more protective of my muses than ever before; my relationship and my friendships especially are so sacred that I want to keep those precious treasures safe from the intense energy of social media (which itself has changed a lot since I started out). I always thought I'd probably keep writing explicitly about my personal life--eventually marriage and children, for example--and now I'm seriously questioning that presumption.
Lately, I am more interested in introspective journeys than trips abroad, and much more reflective about the spiritual than the physical. As my areas of interest change, so does my writing, and, I'd imagine, so do my readers. More than ever before, long-form writing feels like my creative home, and getting to publish this weekly newsletter has been a glorious opportunity to furnish that home.
There is no greater gift I've been given than the attention of people who don't know me, but read what I have to say anyway. I have trouble fully processing how outrageously lucky I am to have been able to share thoughts and ideas with people who have been enormously kind to me, and so supportive of the directions I've explored.
Nowadays, as we navigate collective loss and I reconcile that with personal rebirth, I'm thinking a lot about life. And I can't tell you how much I appreciate you being a witness to mine.
Thank you for reading Out of the Blue, a weekly reflection on something that's caught my attention, and an attempt to learn deep lessons from the shallow and light wisdom from the dark. If you haven't subscribed yet, sign up for free here!
Subscribe to get future updates and benefits from Out of the Blue
You inspire me so much. I love your weekly messages and I absolutely loved "My Inner Sky." Oh, and the "Thinking of You" post has touched me deeply every year since my mom died. So I'm really glad you put it out there, even at the risk of criticism. Th…
Oh Amber, thank you so much for this lovely message. I'm so grateful that post touched you (you're exactly the type of beautiful soul I made it for!) and I'm so grateful you read my book! Thank you so much for this; it means a lot to me
Mari - thank you, so much for this. What an encouragement and welcome of your/our art of writing. What a gift to give permission - to have compassion - on our younger selves. I love the thought of following an idea, and embracing that curiosity - and …
YOU ARE SPEAKING MY LANGUAGE!! I haven't seen that iteration of Little Women but the character of Jo March has inspired so many lines in various movie versions that I love so much, and now I'm adding this one! I so appreciate you sharing, and that resonates so deeply.
Mari, I can't tell you how much I appreciate this one. I'm also an Enneagram 4 writer who has had a bunch of viral posts, with all the good, bad, and bizarre responses that go along with them. I had a really bad trolling incident with my viral Thanksgi…
My soul sister! I had to darkly chuckle at 'I couldn't believe that the empirically nicest thing I'd ever done, the Thanksgiving dinner post, led to someone telling me I should die.' I felt the same when I found a Reddit thread devoted to hate-follower…
Mari, thank you for your candid reflections. You have been a huge inspiration in my personal introspective journeys, and one of the true reasons I've started to write and document my thoughts (i even recently moved to Brooklyn to challenge myself in fi…
thank you so much for sharing this! i've always admired your work and the earnestness, honesty, and sincerity that comes across with it. it's a breath of fresh air on instagram! also as an illustrator, i really appreciate your commitment to being true …
Thank you, Sonia! Yes yes, it is so tough to create art with the feeling that you're being watched--I completely get that and I'm sure MANY others do too! My soul has routinely asked me to take breaks from social media and perhaps create work that I wo…
I really started getting into your work when you posted the long-form writing on IG. And your latest, My Inner Sky, sits amongst of small pile of my writer favorites like Anne Lemott's Bird by Bird. Now we all get to receive the gift that is these long…
Sending sThank you for this offering, Mari. As an artistic, it was so healing to read about your evolution. The questions you pose here: what makes me feel alive? What am I curious about? And finally, how can my art serve? Resonates so deeply with my …
"My soul's metric of success is: how much I continue to evolve....." This was a beautiful read Mari. I really enjoyed your book (kindle) then bought a physical one for a friend. I love to write myself, and do short pieces on Instagram - but don't feel …