Issue 81: Sharpening your internal compass with Meera Lee Patel
15 min read

Issue 81: Sharpening your internal compass with Meera Lee Patel

The first book I read by Meera Lee Patel was My Friend Fear, a wonderful exploration of fear as a force for change, reflection, and healing. My sister and I spoke with her in 2018 for our podcast, Sweet and Sour, about her journey as a self-taught artist. All these years later, it’s been incredible to see her flourish as an author and illustrator. Her latest essay collection, How It Feels to Find Yourself, and journal, Go Your Own Way, were published this year and both help people examine their own identities and relationships. I was so excited to talk with Meera about her creative growth and education, writing and illustration process, and how to build quiet confidence in others and ourselves. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I’m pleased to announce a giveaway of two copies of Meera’s books for newsletter subscribers! Winners will be chosen by December 18.

Meera's book covers: "How It Feels to Find Yourself" has a colorful rainbow palette and "Go Your Own Way" has bright sunflowers.
How It Feels to Find Yourself and Go Your Own Way

Nicole Zhu: Could you introduce yourself and tell us about your latest book and journal?

Meera Lee Patel: I'm Meera Lee Patel. I am an author and an artist, and this year I was really honored to have two books come out: a book of essays called How It Feels to Find Yourself and a journal for building self-confidence called Go Your Own Way.

NZ: As a self-taught artist, can you talk about your path into publishing?

MLP: It's been long and winding. I have my undergraduate degrees in English and journalism. I've always been creative at heart and in practice. Being raised by immigrants, I have pragmatism pretty much hammered into me along with financial stability. When I graduated, I did a couple of odd jobs before getting a position as an editor at a technical publishing company. I basically edited papers written by engineers for almost eight years while starting my freelance career as a writer and an artist.

I was in the very end of my twenties when I finally decided to take the leap and work for myself and see if I had what it takes. Making that leap for me, at that point, was far less of a question about financial stability and way more about self-confidence and faith in myself. I say that because I think for a lot of children of immigrants, confidence is something that we're not taught how to build and how to locate it within ourselves. We’re taught to build such a safety net so that we can always take care of ourselves, but I'm not sure building an internal safety net is always stressed enough.

NZ: I saw that you just finished your MFA. After having taken this leap and created your own “internal safety net,” what made you want to apply to a formal program? What was that experience like? How did you find it helped your career grow?

MLP: If I'm being completely transparent, as a self-taught artist and writer, I have always felt like a bit of an impostor. I always felt that if I had had the guts to go to art school and to pursue what really was my passion, maybe I would be in a different place in my career. I think that's probably a thought that a lot of self-taught people have because we have had to cobble together a career largely by trial and error, maybe a lot of us without a creative community or with peers who are doing what we're doing.

A large part of me thought that [art school] would open the door into some secret world where there's this huge creative community. All of a sudden I’d have these mentors who are like, “Here are all the keys.” In my head, I've always been like, “Yeah, I want all the keys. Where are the keys?”

My husband and I were living on a farm in Nashville. We bought this farm on twenty acres, completely isolated, and we were really excited. Then Covid happened and I also found myself pregnant. It was really hard to have my first child born into Covid. It was really hard to be completely isolated.

Meanwhile my husband had started having dreams about St. Louis. He’s in real estate, and he became fascinated with the city and with the role it played in American industrialism at the turn of the century. I was like, “Great, this guy's gonna move me to St. Louis. What is there for me?”

I saw that Wash U had a new program that was specifically for people who write and draw. I think there’s something close to it, maybe at SVA and maybe one or two other schools. But largely, there's writing programs and there's illustration programs. There are not artist/author programs, and this was specifically for people who want to write and draw and combine those two languages for a living.

I thought, “This is serendipitous, but we can't afford grad school.” My husband said, “I just want you to apply.”

When my daughter, Nadi, was three months old, I applied and I also applied for a fellowship. I got a call a couple months later saying that I had been accepted into the program and I had been awarded the Olin Fellowship for Outstanding Women. It's for women who have contributed to the arts and to society with their work thus far. The fellowship is really just so generous—it's a full ride to school and it also includes a stipend to support you while attending. When I got that call, we knew this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. We're going to honor it. We're going to move.

Nadi was about eight months old when we finished renovating the farm and sold it. We moved to St. Louis and I started attending grad school. I was solidly insecure for the entire time I was in grad school. I'm in my mid-thirties. Everybody in my whole cohort was 22-23, fresh from undergrad. Our priorities were very different.

After having a baby, it became so obvious that my time did not belong to me anymore. If I was ever going to accomplish the things I wanted to accomplish in my life, in my career, I had to be very straight about what those goals were, who they were for, and what I was going to say no to in order to make time for them.

I have always wanted to pursue writing and drawing for children. I never had because I didn't have the confidence. I didn't think I had what it takes. Grad school for me, while it wasn't a million golden keys the way I always envisioned it to be, gave me the clarity and the time to really begin making a shift in my work, and most importantly, I think, a shift in my mind. I went from filling up all of my time with paid work—yes, for practical reasons, but also out of freelancer’s fear—into, “I'm taking a pay cut. I'm making a lot of unpaid work. I have to turn down paid work in order to have the time to make the unpaid work, because I'm trusting in 2, 3, 4, 5 years, I will have a portfolio that is worthy of a paid job.”

Grad school for me was about getting my head on straight.

My second year, while working on my thesis, I was pregnant with my second child, Frida, who's about six months now. I was also writing those two books that you have in front of you. I did one each year of grad school, so it's been a blur.

NZ: How would you describe your relationship between parenting and creativity? How do the two influence each other?

MLP: I read a lot about other creative parents, mostly other women. When I first became a parent, I felt that my creativity was taken from me. I think that's because my brain was completely shocked by the shift in priority, the shift in time, and the shift in values.

Over the last two years, as I've settled more into motherhood, my brain literally has rearranged and settled back down into whatever its new formation is. This brain has seen some things, and it is a different shape. Everything is new. I've had to learn who I am again.

Now, I think my relationship to creativity is quieter, and it’s kind of infiltrating how I live. Whereas before I felt that creativity was reserved for my work, now I am finding ways to be creative all throughout my day, all throughout my life. In a very specific work-oriented way, I no longer need the perfect conditions to be creative. I did before. I had a ritual. Some days, I'll be honest, it just doesn't come. I don't have the words, I can't do the drawing. But I am far more efficient, and I am more creative throughout my life than I used to be.

Two palettes from Meera's book: "What it's like to feel known" is maroon, red, and green and "The process" is a blend of hunter green, blue, and lilac.
Some of my favorite palettes from How It Feels to Find Yourself

NZ: I read How It Feels to Find Yourself and really loved the structure of it with the sections: Finding Myself, Finding Love, Finding Friendship, Finding Family, Finding Home, and Finding Purpose. I was curious how you came up with the structure of the book, as well as the format of the essays.

MLP: My intention was to write a book that would help people sharpen their internal compass. In order to do that, you really need to know what your personal values are, the ones that you want to govern you through all of life. That's how I came up with the sections. I wanted to pinpoint the major parts of a person's life where they feel they have the most confusion, the most obstacles, and the most monumental milestones. Those really have to do with connection—your connections to other people, your connection to yourself, and your connection to the earth and how you identify in your larger environment.

The palettes within those I had to really think about. It was fun because I had to look back on the defining moments throughout my life up until now. I had to really distill the milestones in my own life, and then think about which of them had universal appeal and that most people could relate to: the first time you fall in love, or when you think you found love. Also friendship. Every decade that you live, there is a birth and a death, and there are moments where you feel very lost in your friendships.

For a couple, I had to project a little bit into the future. There's a bunch of palettes about the relationship that a child has with their parent and how that changes. I think about my relationship with my own parents. I had to kind of take age away and just distill it down to common experiences like, we're all going to have to care for somebody that used to care for us at some point.

NZ: Were there any particular essays or sections that you found surprising or challenging to write?

MLP: I'll say the essays in the section that have to do with relating to the world, like “What is my purpose?” or “How can I do more?” When we see so much hurt and grief in the world, we want to help. Things like climate change. Overwhelming issues where sometimes you wake up and you're just like, “There is no way that anything I do matters.”

In that section, I found the format of the book to be particularly stifling. It was very, very hard to write these micro essays about issues that are so complex and so overwhelming. The trouble with the format of this book is that it can be really easy to write a bunch of essays that are just platitudes, that are just feel-good and have no real substance. It was very important to me that this book was not that.

I had to really think hard about word count. If I can only say one thing, what am I telling the reader? What can I offer them? Specifically, I'm thinking of the essay, “Should I be doing more?” My takeaway for the reader was, if you are paralyzed with overwhelm or anxiety or hopelessness, you are of no use to yourself or another person, or the world you live in.

The first step is to not let yourself be paralyzed by hopelessness. The second step is to decide which issues you can afford to care about right now where you are in your life. Which ones can you care about financially, but most importantly, what can you care about physically and emotionally? What do you have in you to give? The third is, what actionables can you take that are practical for you?

Those essays—the existential ones—are the ones that are very, very hard to talk about in general, but then to do it in a paragraph or two, that was tough.

NZ: I wanted to talk about your journal, Go Your Own Way, which focuses on building self-confidence, dissolving shame, and creating healthy boundaries. It was something I really needed to read. What you were saying earlier about being brought up with a very strong mindset of pragmatism, but not necessarily of self-confidence, really resonated with me.

What did you learn from writing this book? How has your idea of confidence changed over time, or changed through putting together this journal?

MLP: I hope this doesn't sound cliche, but I say it with the understanding that cliches kind of start somewhere with a little bit of truth. To be honest, I wrote Go Your Own Way my second year of grad school as the mom of a two-year old, pregnant, working on a thesis, feeling very, very insecure.

Motherhood in general has thrown me completely because, no matter how many amazing friends I have who are amazing mothers, no matter how amazing my own mother is, I could not help but feel, “How come nobody told me this?” all the time. When I think about it now, it's like, “Well, how could anybody tell you this?”

There’s no way to prepare for the grand shift that it was. For me, it was a lot of, “Dang, not only do I not know what I'm doing, but will I learn fast enough? Am I doing irreparable damage? I have two girls. How can I raise confident girls who love themselves if I can so readily admit that I'm not a confident person?”

Just knowing all of that and admitting it to myself obviously takes a lot of time and a lot of vulnerability. With all my journals, I write them for me. I give myself what I need, and that is the only way I know how to make something that could even have the possibility of helping somebody else. Because if I'm not actually doing this work, then I can't tell you that there's any chance it will help you at all.

What I learned is you have to actually feel love for yourself the way you feel it for somebody else. The self-confidence I'm after is a quiet self-assurance that is always there. It is foundational to my being. It does not go away when I make a mistake. It does not give way to shame when I make a mistake. It is not something that pushes me into arrogance or ego. It allows me to be strong and to stick to my values, and to be the person I want to be without feeling enticed to be someone else or do something that someone else is doing.

You’ve got to love yourself. I feel so silly saying that out loud, but knowing that and hearing it as a cliche all through your life, and then actually having to do the work to genuinely feel that way about yourself…it can be a tough road.

NZ: You've written and illustrated two books and four journals. I'm always curious about process. What’s your process of how a book vs. a journal comes together in terms of the art and the writing? Are there differences or similarities in your approach?

MLP: I will say that I have a writer brain. I generally always lead with the writing for both. With the color palettes, it was really interesting because they're breaking down how to approach or move through a transition. Those were also written first. I had to decide how many steps someone's going to move through either physically or emotionally. How am I going to show that with color or through the visual? So a lot of the palettes in the manuscript are, Figure out how to illustrate a rollercoaster feeling. I put it into words, and then I sort out the visuals later.

With the journals, I come up with all the quotes that pertain to the topic, so in Go Your Own Way—confidence. Then I do all the exercises. I pair the exercises with the quote. Sometimes, they have a couple [quotes] depending on the complexity, and then I organize the manuscript from easiest exercises to hardest. In doing so, I often have to rewrite the exercises and make them either a little more palatable or a little bit more complex. Then the visuals come last. For the journals especially, the visuals are machinery. I'm just kind of plowing through them.

NZ: Your books also focus a good amount on mental and emotional health, which I really appreciate. There's so much wonderful vulnerability, I think, in both of these books. What do you most want readers to take away from your work?

MLP: What a sweet question. I really would love it if a reader just got to know themselves a little bit better, because I do think that is foundational for the kind of person that ends up walking around in the world. If somebody reads my work and they are able to evaluate themselves and come up with their own personal philosophy for how they want to approach life, I do think that will trickle into everybody and everything they interact with. To play a very, very tiny part in that is, I think, a huge honor.

NZ: Tell me about your writing routine.

MLP: I don't have one. [laughs] Oh, here's something I can tell you. I just joined a friend's project where we write a poem to each other every day. When Frida goes to bed in the morning when she has her first nap, which, by the way, is the only one I can count on these days, I write a poem. So I do have a writing practice. I write a poem, and I also try really hard to write my newsletter every week, and I do see that as my writing practice as well. I think without that I would be completely lost. It forces me to write, not every day, but every week.

NZ: What are three things that are bringing you joy right now?

MLP: We're going to London this weekend. I'm super excited. I will say my little Frida, she's so sweet! She tries so hard to be happy, and she's just the best little munchkin. The last one is, I am putting a lot of effort into myself to be more of the person I want to be, and that's making me really happy to see myself doing that.

NZ: What are you reading right now that you can't stop thinking about?

MLP: I’m reading Matrescence by a writer named Lucy Jones. It's all about the unraveling and coming together of your brain and being when you become a mother. It’s the morphing of what happens to you when you go from being a non-mother to a mother physically, mentally, emotionally. The science behind it. It's really interesting. It's giving me a lot of clarity into the confusion and unsettling that I felt for a couple of years and it's extremely well written.

You can find Meera at her author website and on social media: Twitter and Instagram. Subscribe to Dear Somebody, Meera’s weekly newsletter on creative inspiration, process, and motherhood. Order Go Your Own Way and How It Feels to Find Yourself anywhere books are available, but please shop local when you can!

A tweet that says: "today I will be gentle with myself, unless of course I make even one mistake in which case I will be very hard on myself."
via @sadderlizards

Creative resources

Recent reads & other media

I read (and loved) Erasure by Percival Everett in preparation for its movie adaptation, American Fiction, which is coming out in mid-December. My friend recommended The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna, which was just the cozy fantasy romance I needed.

When E and I were visiting my parents for Thanksgiving, we watched some underrated movies: BlackBerry, A Most Violent Year, and Quiz Lady. I particularly liked Quiz Lady, a 90 minute comedy starring Sandra Oh and Awkwafina as sisters who enter a trivia game show to pay off their mom’s gambling debt. The Holdovers is a tender, sad holiday (boy) movie with some of the best dialogue of any movie this year.

Of course, I saw the Renaissance movie and cried a lot!!

Recently read short stories: “Leap Year” by Chloe Alberta, “The Specialist’s Hat” by Kelly Link

Note: Book links are connected to my Bookshop affiliate page. If you purchase a book from there, you'll be supporting my work and local independent bookstores!

~ meme myself and i ~

Get out of my ham! Walking between two conversations. I’m obsessed with this man who takes bites out of apples while juggling them. Every time I try to take a break. Trying to turn off the lights in a hotel room. Beyoncé asking us for opulence for the Renaissance premiere.

An illustration of a smiling gray striped cat wearing a red gingham scarf. The wind is blowing autumn leaves around it. The image is captioned "The BER months are coming: September, October, November, December."