Meera Lee Patel is a self-taught artist whose illustrations are inspired by the magical mysteries of nature, the quiet stories that lace through everyday life, and the bold colors of her native India. Her first book, Start Where You Are, was published by Penguin-Random House in August 2015 and she is currently working on her second book, to be released in 2018.
Thank you Meera for sharing your compassionate and grounding insights and for reminding us that good things take time.
Tell me about your path to becoming a freelance illustrator and author.
My road to becoming a full-time illustrator and author was long and incremental. I worked for six years as an editor at a technical publishing company, the job I secured after graduating college. When I realized I’d never be happy (or excel) in my field, I turned to illustration as an outlet – a way for me to feel more like myself again. I quickly fell in love with illustration: using color and imagery to express my sentiments and emotions was a relief after working with words for so long. I made up my mind to become an illustrator with the goal of eventually quitting my job, and after 4 long years of working full-time at both jobs, I was finally able to quit this past February. The path was rocky, and I wouldn’t have been able to make it this far without stubborn determination, tunnel vision, and the support of my friends and family, who always (always!) encouraged me, even when I felt the discouragement deep in my bones. I’m completely self-taught, so a lot of times, the path was a series of trial and error. I felt lonely and isolated often, especially since I’m a bit introverted and found it difficult to immerse myself in a creative community. But I learned an incredible amount about myself, and if I had to do the last 6 years again? I would in a heartbeat.
In the beginning, how did you attract your first good clients?
I read a lot about self-promotion and how to push my work out into the world. I sent out promotional postcards to a list of 100 art directors I wanted to work with, and received 1 job for Organic Gardening Magazine, which was one of my first editorial gigs. I was contacted by Anthropologie for a wholesale order through my Etsy shop, which was an incredible opportunity – and that came to me through sheer luck. Years later, I still haven’t worked with most of the clients that I’d like to, and I’m planning on doing a lot more self-promotion once I wrap up the work for my next book (!)
Do you have any tips for being your most productive?
I have a schedule. I’m a pretty structured person and I need to be in a certain place (studio) at a certain time (early morning) to be productive. Right now, I’m traveling – I’ve been traveling for the past 6 months, ever since I quit my job, so my studio changes depending on where I am. Sometimes it’s an actual art studio, like in Nashville or Los Angeles, and sometimes it’s the kitchen in the Airbnb I’m renting, like in San Francisco or Miami. I get my best work done in the morning, so I try to do my creative work (painting or writing or conceptualizing art) then, and save the afternoons for more tedious things (e-mails, interviews, inventory, sketching).
What has been your greatest struggle as a freelancer so far?
Finding a creative community. I lived in NYC the entire time I was working full-time while also building my freelance career, and finding a creative community – in one of the most creative cities in the entire world – felt really impossible to me. Maybe it was the lack of time, maybe it was my shyness – I’m not really sure which. But ever since I started traveling, I’ve found little pockets of creative communities wherever I’ve gone. It’s been really encouraging, enlivening, and has made me the happiest I’ve ever been. Working alone in my apartment for 4 years—working 80 hours a week, alone—taught me that I’m far more social than my shyness sometimes allows me to be. I’m a curious person and I like learning from others. I like sharing and opening up to others, even though its hard sometimes. I’m so happy I decided to pack up and leave New York to see what the rest of the world had to offer me – and it’s been so much.
What is your favorite thing about freelance?
Making my own schedule and being able to travel as much as I want. I find it absolutely incredible that today, I was able to wake up and go to my favorite coffee shop in Nashville and answer this interview for you. After this, I’ll go to my studio and work on paintings for my upcoming book, My Friend Fear (Penguin-Random House, January 2018) and be around the creative community I’ve found and love here. Last week, I woke up in Vancouver and painted in coffee shops and parks and climbed mountains on a Tuesday. The freedom is incredible, and I feel so lucky to have it.
How did you make the leap from freelance illustration to becoming an author?
It’s ironic that I eventually made my way back to writing, and now I feel very strongly about making work that incorporates both imagery and writing together. I used to place restrictions on myself – am I writer or am I an illustrator? I thought I had to choose. But now I feel comfortable calling myself both, and making work as both. My career is admittedly turning more towards books and writing than freelance illustration work, and I feel good about that. My first book, Start Where You Are, came out with Penguin-Random House in 2015 – it’s a journal that encourages self-exploration. I created it because I felt that many of my peers felt lost and afraid of making change, and I wanted to make a tool that would help them cultivate incremental change. The book is not an answer or a quick-fix – it requires effort, discipline, and an open mind. My Friend Fear, which comes out this upcoming January, is a series of essays on fear that I wrote and illustrated. Both books (and much of my work in general) comes from a desire to connect with myself and others. When I create work that encourages or comforts others, it’s because I’m trying to encourage or comfort myself, too. Above all, I want to make work that helps others feel less alone.
Your work is incredibly mission driven, how do you balance the need for a paycheck with the drive to support and encourage self-exploration?
It’s hard, sometimes. My work is niche and does have a very definite angle, and it’s difficult to not feel pigeon-holed – many times, there are projects I want to make that I don’t feel will be well-received or taken seriously since they’re “off-brand”. I’m learning to become okay with that and create work that fulfills me, whether I’ll be paid for it or not. Recenty, me and Ankur Thakkar launched The Ex-Files, a series of weekly correspondence that explores love, and the aftermath of failed relationships. I also write and self-publish children’s books like Elephant and Moon, which are a bit more abstract and cerebral, but that really fill my heart with happiness. And of course, I’m able to experiment and have fun with my product line. Mostly, I try to make things regardless of whether they sell or not – which isn’t always smart, but always keeps me creatively satisfied.
Do you have any tips for dealing with the nitty-gritty business details?
I recently signed up with Quickbooks Online and am slowly teaching myself how to use it, with help from friends. It’s July and I’ve only finished my January books so I’m pretty much not on track at all…but I’m hopeful! I have an accountant (who is also one of my best friends!) and he helps me file my taxes every quarter. I use Stitchlabs to keep track of my inventory/product line, create orders, send invoices, and keep track of shipments. I have a Squarespace website that I was able to build myself. Eventually, I’d love to find and cultivate a relationship with a mentor who may be able to guide me and my career. Hopefully that will happen when the time is right.
Since you are your own boss, do you have any advice for maintaining a work-life balance?
This is something I am still figuring out and I’m admittedly not very good at it – I love working and being productive, and it’s hard for me to relax and not think about the various aspects of my business. I didn’t have a work-life balance at all when I was working full-time – between my job and my freelance career, all I did was work – and it was total misery. Now, I prioritize sleep, time with friends, time outdoors, and I try not to work on the weekends when I don’t have tight deadlines. It also helps to have a studio (when I can) that’s outside of the house so I can leave my work there at the end of the day. My advice: eat often, work out, make dates with friends, and be outside as much as possible. I love working hard, so much, and I love people who work hard. But you can’t work hard (or make good work) if you aren’t healthy, and I try to remind myself of that.
What do you do to stay creatively inspired?
I laugh a lot and have thoughtful conversations with as many people as I can. I love learning how other people think, and I love getting lost inside my own head. I read a lot of children’s books, which are the best books, and a lot of essays and long-form writing. Mostly political/women’s issues, which I care deeply about, and which come out in my work in various ways. I feel lucky to feel inspired by lots of tiny things (a smile, a story, a breeze) and so I don’t feel uninspired very often, if at all. Also: I take a lot of walks.
Can you tell us a little bit about Dear Somebody?
Dear Somebody is a letter from me to you. It bloomed out of a desire to start a newsletter (because I felt I had to for my career) but instead of a marketing ploy, it became something far more intimate. I write to my readers as if they are people I know and care about deeply—and I do, even if I haven’t ever met most of them. Some of the correspondence that opens up between us is the most precious and awe-inspiring I’ve ever had, and I’m grateful to have readers and followers that read what I write. I’m always learning that the more you give of yourself, the more people you’ll find who will give right back to you.
The 3 greatest attributes you need to be a freelance creative are:
Grit, discipline, and openness.