Sarah Kempa on making artwork with a day job (during a pandemic)
The cartoonist and illustrator behind Aunt Sarah Draws shares her Covid routine.
Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Previously: advice on ambition, talent, and burnout.
Instagram tends to be anxiety-inducing, what with all the enviable-looking lifestyles flying by your bleary eyes day after day. But it can also be a good spot for processing—and laughing at—anxiety, at least if you follow the right accounts. One of my favorites of this genre is Aunt Sarah Draws, with its witty illustrated dispatches on the freelance life, coffee math, socializing during a pandemic, and expressions of worry by Zodiac sign, among other topics. So I was delighted recently to connect with Aunt Sarah herself, aka Sarah Kempa, a Brooklyn-based cartoonist and illustrator whose work has appeared in The New Yorker and McSweeney’s, and who also sells “goods for your weird yet charming friends” on Etsy. Over email, Kempa told me about her current routine and how she’s keeping up with her creative work in topsy-turvy times.
Where and with whom are you riding out the pandemic?
I am in Brooklyn with a few roommates, all perfect companions for conversation, watching television, 1000-piece puzzles, and getting feedback on my ideas. :)
What are you working on these days?
I try to keep my eggs in several baskets (if that metaphor works here?). As of late I’m spending a lot of time working to improve my single panel cartoons and strengthen my storytelling. Additionally, and more tangibly, I’m working on a book.
I’ve been hearing from so many writers and artists who are really struggling to create new work with everything going on right now. Can you relate, and have you figured out any strategies for keeping your work flowing during these bizarre and distressing times?
Of course; I most definitely relate. I found that when the pandemic started, I felt more creative than I had in some time. I was fortunate to be able to continue to work from home, and without my commute I initially was spending my time drawing during those extra morning hours. As the months went on, though, that drastically changed and I feel like each week continues to get more challenging to create new work. First and foremost, I try to be gracious with myself and recognize that this is and has been an incredibly stressful time. I will try to find and take classes and workshops from other creatives/writers/cartoonists, which I find can do extraordinary things for expanding my own creative practice, learning new methods, and connecting with others. And as of late, I’ve been trying to be more intentional with my mornings, waking up early and working through different creative exercises. The more I practice and go through the motions, the more creative I find myself.
What does your typical day look like right now? Is this a big departure from your pre-Covid routine?
I work full time as a UX designer, so it’s always been important for me to spend the first part of my morning drawing. My alarm goes off around 6:45am and I get up and make coffee. I generally will spend the next couple hours hydrating on water and coffee, while going through different creative exercises—maybe some drawing warmups, creating lists, sketching ideas, or writing. I’ll generally switch gears into my job around 9am, working until 5pm most weekdays. After work I will go for a run, cook dinner, and spend some time reflecting on the day. I don’t generally draw in the evenings, but oftentimes I will write if there’s something on my mind.
In many ways this is quite different from my pre-Covid routine, which now in retrospect seems like I was doing way too much. I used to wake up every morning at 6am and go for a run, I had a long commute so I would draw on my commute both ways, and then cook dinner and draw more in the evenings. I think in some ways it was easier to draw more then because the mode in which I was seeing people or commuting provided some energy. It’s definitely more challenging and exhausting to be tied to video calls every day.
Do you normally have any rituals or superstitions that you rely on for getting your work done?
Oh hm, I’m not that superstitious, not unless I’m watching sports. I do set a lot of mini-goals at the start of the year and throughout the year. Some I try to be specific achievements or things to work towards, like getting published in a magazine I have so much love for, and others are things that I can just do (like take a number of classes, or write once a week, or email someone whose work I admire). I find then that in some ways it helps push me forward and grow, and that I start to hit the other specific, achievement-type goals.
What have you been doing to relax and recharge?
I’ve been cooking a lot and watching a lot of TV. When the quarantine started, I had been good about getting outside for walks, but eventually found that I stopped enjoying the walks. I try to not force myself to do things that are no longer enjoyable.
Finally, have you read, watched, or listened to anything amazing lately that you can recommend?
I just finished reading Sarah Smarsh’s new book She Come By It Natural about Dolly Parton and couldn’t put it down. I also finished listening to Samantha Irby’s newest book of essays as well, Wow, No Thank You, and it was spectacular. I keep a lot of illustrated books also by my side that I will continue to revisit especially when feeling down; some of my favorites are Lisa Hanawalt’s My Dirty Dumb Eyes and Hot Dog Taste Test and Lynda Berry’s Making Comics.
For more of Kempa’s work, follow her on Instagram and/or Twitter, check out her Etsy shop, and consider registering for her free class on drawing your anxieties hosted by Creatively on December 16.
Paul Mpagi Sepuya on resisting “forced productivity” during the pandemic
Austin Kleon on being creative when your kids are home allll day
AMBITION, TALENT, AND BURNOUT
Last week, I gave advice to a writer who asked: What if your ambition outstrips your talent? In my answer, I diagnosed a case of creative burnout, and suggested a way forward—but I also invited readers to leave their own ideas and advice on a discussion thread, and I’ve been truly impressed by all the wise and practical suggestions that have been flowing in. It’s not too late to weigh in; leave a comment and I’ll continue reading and replying this week.
Thanks for reading! This newsletter is free, but if you’re feeling generous—or looking for holiday gift ideas for any writers and artists in your life!—you can support my work by ordering my Daily Rituals books from Bookshop or (if you must) Amazon. 🤓🙏