Brain Pickings

The Making of a 21st-Century Illuminated Manuscript: Inside Debbie Millman’s Creative Process


How an illustrated poem comes to life.

“Start with a big, fat lump in your throat, start with a profound sense of wrong, a deep homesickness, or a crazy lovesickness, and run with it,” wrote friend-of-Brain Pickings Debbie Millman in her superb illustrated-essay-turned-commencement-address on courage and the creative life, based on her 2009 book Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design. That piece, in fact, went on to become one of the most-read, most-shared articles in the entire history of Brain Pickings, as well as the source of some of the most moving and personal reader letters I’ve ever received, and other excerpts from Look Both Ways emerge as the most-played Literary Jukebox pairings of all time. So it’s with enormous joy and excitement I share the news that the sequel to this gem, Self-Portrait as Your Traitor: Visual Essays by Debbie Millman — a spectacular collection of illustrated essays and poems on everything from love to (self-)forgiveness to the Super Bowl, blending the deeply personal mesmerism of a memoir with the profound, universal resonance of philosophy on our shared human triumphs and tribulations — is coming this fall and has just been released for pre-order.

Debbie’s enchanting hand-lettered type — sometimes tender, sometimes gritty, always breathtaking in its visceral candor — makes for a moving masterpiece of a singular art form that speaks to our deepest longings for beauty, honesty, and the ineffable magic of what it means to live.

In the introduction, legendary graphic designer Paula Scher captures the book’s singular spell:

Debbie Millman has demonstrated her ability to combine thoughts about design and everyday life with her own obsessive hand-drawn typography, creating a new form of visual poetry. She has invented a 21st century illuminated manuscript.

To celebrate the pre-release, here is an exclusive behind-the-scenes peek at Debbie’s creative process for “Pebbles,” the book’s final and most personal poem, which began as a submission to the New Yorker’s cartoon caption contest:

And here is a sneak peek at a portion of the contact sheet containing the remaining illustrated essays and poems from the book:

Start getting excited about Self-Portrait as Your Traitor, and revisit this taste of the magnificent Look Both Ways.

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