On creative journeys
And erasing the line between writing and art.
“Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.”
— Mary Oliver
Last week — on the very day I shared Dandelion Seeds with the world for the first time — Elena and I went to one of our favorite cafes in Montevideo.
Its walls are lined with vintage art and music posters, and its narrow back patio is filled with banana trees; their bright green leaves always make me feel like I’m somewhere lush and tropical.
I’d brought a few picture books with me to read with Elena, but as it often happens, she was far more interested in simply observing what was going on around us (Elena is an avid people watcher — much like her mother, I must confess…).
In particular, she was quite taken with the guy sitting at the table next to us. He was wearing a pair of big black headphones and had a small, portable sound mixer connected to his MacBook.
After he and Elena had exchanged several smiles and waves, I couldn’t help asking if he was a DJ. Not quite, the guy said, whose name was Emilio — he told me he makes songs and then sells them to record labels.
“I have a studio in my house,” he said, “with all kinds of instruments around me, but if I stay there, it’s impossible to stop creating. So I make myself come to cafes to edit my music and just put things in order.”
His words immediately resonated with me.
I first had the idea to start this newsletter on New Year’s Day, and I spent all of January in my version of Emilio’s studio — at our dining room table, surrounded by my laptop and notebooks and paints.
There’s so much energy that comes with a new creative project, and I loved throwing myself into it. I loved coming up with essay ideas on morning walks with Elena, and painting during her naps and on the weekends. I could have kept going forever, I was having so much fun.
But just as Emilio said, I also knew that the time would eventually come when I’d need to stop and put things in order. Time to put my paintbrush down, and begin to share this newsletter with the world.
Because I’ve learned that no matter what we’re working on — be it a book or newsletter or new business venture — the act of sharing it with others then informs its creation. And that is an important feedback loop that I wanted to be part of bringing Dandelion Seeds to life.
When I finally hit “publish” and sent out my first post, one of the people I was most excited to share it with was my good friend Mike, who writes the always thought-provoking Substack,.
Mike and I first crossed paths more than a decade ago now, and there aren’t many people who know me or my work as well as he does. And the first thing he said after I shared Dandelion Seeds was:
“Make it weirder.”
“Make it what?” I asked. Surely I hadn’t heard him right.
Weirder, he repeated — just a little more different and out of the box.
He then reminded me of something I created six years ago: an illustrated literary essay for the storytelling site Longreads. It was called “Home is a Cup of Tea,” and it told the story of my search for home through the different teas I discovered while traveling.
Up until that point, the way I illustrated my essays and stories had been very straightforward — I would break up long chunks of text with full-sized sketches or illustrations. There was always a clear line between my writing and my art.
But as Mike pointed out, “Home is a Cup of Tea” was the first time I began erasing that line.
Under the direction of my editor at Longreads — the wonderful Cheri Lucas Rowlands — I made the illustrations smaller, more like vignettes than full scenes.
I then wove them together with the text more closely than I’d ever done before, as though the words and art were now two strands of the same braid.
And the biggest change of all was that every word of that nearly 3,000-word essay was hand-lettered — so that the writing itself almost became part of the artwork.
Not only is it the piece I’m still most proud of creating — last year, Longreads even selected it as one of their ten favorite original essays from the past 13 years — but it was also the most fun I’ve ever had as a storyteller.
Here’s a short excerpt celebrating India’s one and only masala chai:
And so it was that right after reminding me about “Home is a Cup of Tea,” my friend Mike ever-so-gently prodded me to begin creating illustrated essays again, right here on Dandelion Seeds.
To get my eraser back out and keep dissolving the line between writing and art.
And to consider that while Dandelion Seeds is technically a newsletter, maybe it doesn’t have to look like a traditional newsletter.
What if it was hand-lettered?
What if there was more white space?
What if it was just a little bit weirder?
What if — the two most powerful words we can ask on a creative journey, and thanks to Mike, I’m now asking them again.
Starting next week, Dandelion Seeds is going to look a little different, and I couldn’t think of a better place to experiment with storytelling than on Substack. I especially can’t wait to see how feedback from you keeps informing the stories I share.
And if you know someone who might enjoy coming along this creative journey, please feel free to share Dandelion Seeds with them as well.
See you next week!
Thank you for reading Dandelion Seeds! Sign up for free to receive a new illustrated essay every week.