September 22, 2019

How to Draw Yourself Out of a Creative Funk

How to Draw Yourself Out of a Creative Funk


Have you ever made a paper doll out of your college self? Or a microaggressions-themed bingo board? What about charting the dos and don’ts of being Egyptian, Filipino and American?

In her graphic memoir, “I Was Their American Dream,” Malaka Gharib introduces readers to her identity as a first-generation, Filipino-Egyptian-American woman. The story begins with her parents, who immigrated to the United States from Egypt and the Philippines, and continues with her childhood in California and adult years on the East Coast. Gharib, 33, uses her writing and illustrations to show the internal conflicts she has grappled with over the years, from navigating mostly white spaces, to struggling with her Catholic-Muslim practices, to recognizing the guilt that comes with leaving her family.

Along the lines of graphic memoirs such as Mira Jacob’s “Good Talk” and GB Tran’s “Vietnamerica,” “I Was Their American Dream,” which came out in the spring, explores how individuality and cultural identity can sometimes be at odds, while other times they fuel inspiration.

“The Filipino and the Egyptian in me is the land in which I see the entire world,” Gharib said in an interview. “It’s baked into my wiring of being. It’s this sense of familial connection that I otherwise would not have had I not grown up the way that I did.”

Throughout the book, Gharib, an editor and digital strategist at NPR in Washington, gives readers glimpses into her do-it-yourself sensibility. In a chapter about a childhood beach vacation in Egypt, she pauses for a tutorial on how to build “evil” sand traps (“1. Dig a hole large enough for a foot”). Later, chronicling her alienated teenage years, she gives instructions on how to make a mini-zine, illustrated with excerpts from her childhood journal. She talked to me about her process and, with some visual assistance from her Instagram account, provided tips that can help you break out of a creative rut.

Gharib often forces herself to make a zine in five minutes, and she used that same approach when creating chapters for her book. “The challenge and the beauty of the [comics and zines] format is practicing extreme restraint,” she said. “I had to condense down what I was trying to say in a set of words and meaningful images.”

You can practice extreme restraint by giving yourself a deadline in the form of a time limit or a word count. If you’re overwhelmed at the prospect of writing a novel or shooting a film, try starting with a tiny project to get the creative juices flowing.

You’re busy. We get it. But you can use small pockets of time to create. Gharib, for example, molded omelets and other foods out of leftover clay during work meetings. “If I don’t have any art materials and I get bored, I try to interact with whatever I have on me in the space I am in,” she said. “Sometimes I pick flowers and leave them places, or tear tiny bits of receipts or trash in my purse and write tiny messages on them and leave them around the city for people to find.”

If your problem is a lack of ideas, look at the people and objects around you. Try drawing or writing about them and don’t worry about whether this is what you envision as your big creative project. “I am fascinated by the cultural norms of a place and the little things that make that place unique. So I draw to remember,” Gharib said. “Sitting there with my sketchbook, I like the challenge of trying to suss out the most interesting details within my line of sight. Reality can be so much more magical and surreal than fiction, if you take the time to really look.”

Gharib sketched this image of her father drinking Nescafe in Egypt, something she remembered from when she was 12. Think back on your life, looking for specific moments that you can flesh out with details and your own perspective. Think about what someone else might see — and what you’d want them to see — when they look at what you create. “One of the reasons why I did the interactive stuff [was] to find a way for people to interact with me, play with me, and be in my shoes and feel what it’s like,” Gharib said. “I want you to guess which things my parents didn’t allow. That was as much of a guessing game for me as it will be for you.”

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