Chanel Miller on Slowing Down and Creating in Quarantine

We asked Chanel Miller how slowing down in quarantine has helped her create intuitively and stay closer to her inner child.

What book were you reading in March, when the world came screeching to a halt? 

In our corner of the world, the answer was Know My Name, Chanel Miller's powerful memoir, which also happened to be our book club pick that month. Now, nine months later — in a world that looks different in so many ways — it feels like our conversation with Chanel never really ended. From the playful-but-serious drawings she shares on Instagram to Childhood, the podcast she co-created during lockdown, Chanel's voice and creativity have helped us navigate a year of big feelings in small, snackable ways.

Chanel's magic is in the creative details — the dexterity with which she puts words to amorphous feelings, the sense of play she brings to tough topics, and her one-of-a-kind ability to draw a bird that gets you better than you get yourself. We caught up with Chanel to ask her about 2020, a year when slowing down and creating have become less an exercise in productivity and more a crucial step in processing.

What has slowing down looked like for you this year?

In March, as everything slowed and events were quickly canceled, I thought the work of being able to rest was done for me. I quickly realized that the work of protecting your mind, space, and time is something you actively have to do, though, whether you’re in your living room or on a plane. Even if I wasn't physically accessible, I still woke up every morning thinking about how behind I was and how many people I hadn’t responded to yet. I had a constant sense of guilt, even though I was home and in my own space. Even though the world appeared to be actively slowing down — and we were no longer rushing from point A to point B — mentally, I felt just as hurried.

I realized I was giving my mind up to whatever anybody else needed each day. Eventually, I had to wake up every morning and ask myself what I needed first. It sounds very simple, but it isn't.

When you’re in lockdown, you have to hold yourself accountable for taking care. You have to make sure you’re eating and going to sleep at a reasonable hour — it’s a lot to manage while also managing the needs of others. It’s something I learned I actively have to practice.

What does your relationship with productivity look like this year? What helps you push back on the pressure to be "on" all the time?

Before lockdown, I was putting out very polished pieces. I was in a mode of trying to prove myself and showing what I had to offer.

As soon as things started spiraling out of control, though, I went back to creating in order to survive and to process in real time.

My drawings became sketches. I used a $2 pen. I wasn’t as precious about the things I was making because I needed to pay more attention to what I was feeling. In one sense, it’s been very freeing that we’ve been in such a heightened state of emotion. Since my feelings are changing every day, I don't have time to make multiple drafts of my work. In many ways, the way I create has been freed now that I’m less worried about outcomes and everything feels much more urgent.

I’m grateful I’ve been able to create from that place again. Something I still struggle with is how reactionary everything feels. When I was anonymous, before the #MeToo Movement happened, there was an interesting dynamic: news was breaking every single day, and I was just in my room alone quietly observing it. It was a gift to be able to witness it and sit with it for a few months and figure out how I felt about it. Now, anytime something happens that’s related to assault, I’m called to respond when often I’m still in the feelings stage.

As a public creator, I still fight for the time to marinate and sit with something and figure out how I feel about something. When I make diary comics these days, though, it’s my way of processing on my own feelings first.

How do you use creativity and drawing as a mechanism for coping?

To me, creating is a conscious act of listening to myself.

In court, I learned the cost of not listening to myself and that cost is extremely high. I realized in the court world, there were other voices that were trying to shape my experiences; and that’s true of anyone else in the world. There will always be people trying to tell you what’s important and what’s not.

Only when I sit down to create do I listen and hear what’s important to me. Everything I make these days is an act of honoring myself and what I feel in ways that I didn’t before. I think I’m making up for that period of lost time where I listened to and respected others more than myself.

Now, I can feel myself aligning with everything I put into the world more and more. I also think working from this place helps resolve shame. During the trial, I didn’t share so many personal and intimate things with others for so long because I was worried about what those feelings meant, how they made me wrong, and what other people would think. In releasing all of them and sharing them [in my book], not a single person asked me, “Why did you feel that way?” I was never made to feel humiliated for something I revealed when I was finally open and honest.

I’ve struggled a lot this year. I’ve reverted to certain places or I’ve woken up every morning blaming myself for why I slept for so long or why my stomach was so squishy. I’ve learned the next step is to SAY IT and release that feeling.

I came from the court world where my opponents would make me feel like, ‘It’s just you’ or ‘You have it wrong.’ Now, each time I think something that feels wrong, I express it and say it’s NOT just me. Anything I say or think or feel, someone else has mirrored. I have never been turned away or sent back to the corner for feeling something.

The more I share, the more I see it in other people, and the stronger I become. It helps me realize every day that I’m not the only one going through these feelings.

It’s extra important right now to be vocally honest because we’re all trapped in our individual spaces. We need to be able to communicate how we’re feeling since we can’t sit with our friends, feel their energy, or gauge their expressions. When I’m struggling, I say that I’m struggling and when I need help I say that I need help.

There’s often a playfulness to your work — even in sadness or struggle. What role does playfulness hold in your creative process?

When I started writing the book, I was miserable. I told my therapist each week that I was way beneath the content. Every day and every hour, I was just trying to figure out how to articulate all that happened. She asked if I’d ever been to one of those warehouses that’s full of trampolines, and when I said no, she told me to go have fun.

She explained, “It’s still your life and you’re still allowed to do playful things that have nothing to do with your current project.” She challenged me to find activities I enjoyed and devote time and importance to those, too. That’s when I signed up for a narrative illustration course in the evenings at a continuing education center.

I would write for many hours and then in the evenings, I would drive to this little room by a harbor in San Francisco and make diary comics and learn about perspective and facial expressions. I would just draw with a group of people who had no idea who I was or what I was going through, and it didn’t matter. I so enjoyed drawing and learning variations of how to draw people.

That’s when I learned that playfulness and enjoyment is just as important as the heavy activist work. It’s all part of life, and life can never be all bad.

Even when I’m in my darkest places and it feels like a huge shadow is sitting on me, the shadow gets bored and decides to float away at some point. I used to think if I was doing serious work, I had to be serious all the time, when in fact the opposite is true. In order to do serious work, you have to make room for fun. At the end of the day, it’s your life and your life isn’t supposed to feel that heavy every single day.

How is your creative process different or the same for drawing versus writing?

I combine writing and drawing because I’ve been in states where I feel really paralyzed [in trying to write about something]. Things can feel murky and nameless, but if I can come up with a visual metaphor for a feeling or find a way to capture the essence of it, then other people can identify with it and it no longer feels like something that’s taking over everything inside of you. That’s what I seek to do in my drawing.

And then writing, for me, is about holding tightly to my opinion. Growing up, I never considered myself opinionated. I wasn’t ever reaching for a microphone.

Writing is giving myself the mic and valuing my thoughts every day.

As a writer, what role have books played for you during this time?

I’ve had trouble focusing on large chunks of text this year — which surprised me; but I didn’t count it as a deficit or something I was failing to do. I took that as a signal from my brain that I needed something else. So I went looking for something else and found poetry. At the beginning of lockdown, I read a lot of Mary Oliver. The news is just like… bird poop. You get absolutely barraged every day, and a lot of the news doesn’t care about the state it meets you in. Their responsibility is to dole out information and you have to go figure out how to process it on your own.

This year, we’ve had so much daily input [like that] with no additional means to process it. What’s wonderful about a book is that it is contained, and the voice that’s in it intends to spend time with you. As a writer, I thought about my reader and the conversation I was sitting down to have with them. It was a protected space. That’s what’s wonderful about books — you can trust writers to come with that intention, whereas with the news, so much of what we’re reading now is just swirling online. It feels like you just have to absorb everything until you’re so heavy that you can’t move.

I’m curious about your podcast, Childhood, which is co-hosted by your sister, Tiffany. Have you used it to stay connected during this odd time?

During lockdown, my sister and I would talk on the phone at least once a day. Honestly, sometimes we wouldn't even talk. We’d just have the phone on our desk while typing. Her presence was very comforting, even when we were on separate coasts.

We naturally always went back to talking about childhood. With a sibling, you have shared memories — there was this whole pool of memories that she could tap into that would reinvigorate my own memory.

Memory can be a refuge especially when things are chaotic and constantly changing. During times like these, I think we retreat to thinking about times when things were stable and colorful and you felt safe. I think that’s what we were doing when we started talking about childhood.

Then we wanted other people to be let into this experience.

It’s hard to allow yourself to fully play when everything feels so heavy and intense, but this didn’t feel like total escapism because we were retrieving our own lives and remembering our younger selves. I think one nice, comforting feeling is that you can always look back and laugh about what you used to be worried about, with the added perspective of which worries never materialized. We underestimate how much we’re able to change, grow, and survive. In a way, Childhood is a reflection on growth and in another, it’s about going back to a time when your world was much smaller and remembering what it was like to be in that space.

As kids, we’re all quite vulnerable — we haven’t developed a strong sense of agency. In this year, many of us are feeling a lot of that same vulnerability. It’s an inability to control our surroundings, just like when you were a kid. We wanted the podcast to feel intimate and comforting — and to remind people we can look back at worrisome times later with a different perspective.

Interested in exploring downtime and the ways we spend it even more? Subscribe to our weekly Friday newsletter for more tips and ideas for unwinding and taking care.

Photo credit: Mariah Tiffany.

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