Brain Pickings

Self-Portrait as Your Traitor: A 21st-Century Illuminated Manuscript

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“One must have a reason for reflection — an eye to admire variations.”

“Still this childish fascination with my handwriting,” young Susan Sontag wrote in her diary in 1949. “To think that I always have this sensuous potentiality glowing within my fingers.” This is the sort of sensuous potentiality that comes aglow in Self-Portrait as Your Traitor (public library) — the magnificent new collection of hand-lettered poems and illustrated essays by friend-of-Brain-Pickings and frequent contributor Debbie Millman, who recently offered an exclusive glimpse of her creative process in making this extraordinary “21st-century illuminated manuscript,” as Paula Scher so aptly describes this singular visual form in the introduction.

Personal bias aside, these moving, lovingly crafted poems and essays — some handwritten, some drawn with colored pencils, some typeset in felt on felt — vibrate at that fertile intersection of the deeply personal and the universally profound.

In “Fail Safe,” her widely read essay-turned-commencement-address on creative courage and embracing the unknown from the 2009 anthology Look Both Ways, Millman wrote:

John Maeda once explained, “The computer will do anything within its abilities, but it will do nothing unless commanded to do so.” I think people are the same — we like to operate within our abilities. But whereas the computer has a fixed code, our abilities are limited only by our perceptions. Two decades since determining my code, and after 15 years of working in the world of branding, I am now in the process of rewriting the possibilities of what comes next. I don’t know exactly what I will become; it is not something I can describe scientifically or artistically. Perhaps it is a “code in progress.”

Self-Portrait as Your Traitor, a glorious large-format tome full of textured colors to which the screen does absolutely no justice, is the result of this progress — a brave and heartening embodiment of what it truly means, as Rilke put it, to live the questions; the stunning record of one woman’s personal and artistic code-rewriting, brimming with wisdom on life and art for all.

With the artist’s permission, here is one of the pieces from the book — a poem titled “Reflections on a Puddle,” a choice particularly fitting as Debbie originally wrote it in college, when she was certain she was going to be a poet; though life’s defaults took her elsewhere, the poem stayed with her and she revisited and illustrated it more than two decades later, after having courageously rewritten her own code of possibility and arrived at this artistic reawakening.

Self-Portrait as Your Traitor is exquisite in its entirety, featuring ten other pieces that dance vibrantly across the spectrum of the granular and the universal, the personal and the philosophical, the vulnerable and the bold.

Photographs by Thomas Brent Taylor

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