During a rough patch this year, I kept seeing a melodic name reposted on Instagram. I’m not much of a poetry reader, so when I see stanzas spaced out, I often keep scrolling. Then those stanzas came to encourage me, as one of my best friends began sending me Morgan Harper Nichols’ poems.
If you’ve ever read her letters, you know they’re like water in the desert. If you haven’t, it’s time for a sip. Writing personalized letters (for free!) for her readers, Morgan lets her audience in on the journal notes, mind map drawings and ProCreate tips that culminate in her signature illustrated poetry. So on the subject of social media as related to this month’s Yellow theme of Belong, she was definitely the one to interview.
Instagram holds a few different formulas for success, but what Morgan has is a craft. She is a friend to the creative process, and notes that while she just began more purposefully using mind maps as a writing tool this year, she enjoys that it can be its own art form, equal parts relaxing and productive.
When asked about social media’s capacity for genuine belonging, she likened it to finding “a café or a book store in a crowded city that makes us feel at home,” concluding, “I believe there’s a version of that that can happen on crowded social media platforms as well.”
Overall, this is the reigning theme of Morgan’s work: generosity as a daily exercise against fear. Once that barrier has been faced, belonging flows freely, just as in our conversation below:
Tell us a bit about how you got started as a poet and artist. When did you start posting your poems regularly on Instagram?
When I was a kid, I would spend hours filling composition books with short stories and poems, but for the most part, I never shared them with anyone. In high school, I found an online forum for young writers where I began to slowly share my writing online.
I began writing daily devotionals and sharing them on Instagram in 2014 on a separate account, but it wasn’t until early 2017 that I began to share my poetry under my name, Morgan Harper Nichols.
I always love to share that because I honestly haven’t been sharing consistently for very long even though I have been creating for years, and I truly believe that everyone has something inside of that’s been waiting to be cultivated and shared with the world…and it’s never too late to get started!
What do you think is the best way to continuously craft something that’s both true to yourself as an artist and earnestly giving to others?
Every day, I write words and I make art for people who send me their story, a name, or a request for someone in their life. I do this because practicing generosity on a daily basis not only shows me how to connect with people on a heart-level, it reveals things within my own heart as well. I think many, if not all of us, struggle at some capacity with the fear that we will not have enough to give.
We fear that we will not have enough in our inner reservoir [to give] so we retreat and hold back.
When I found this pattern appearing in my life, I knew I had to do something about it. I am so grateful for the grace that showed me that I didn’t have to sink further into this idea of “not having enough to give.”
Instead, I choose to bravely step forward and continue to give, trusting that whatever I was meant to share with others in my life, whether personally or professionally, it would be. I am still learning that it is up to me to take a deep breath and not let these fears hold the reigns of my creativity, my purpose, my life.
How do you begin writing a poem for a reader who requests one?
When someone requests that I write something for them, I always start with some variation of this: “If I were standing face to face with this person for the first time and wanted to say something encouraging, what would I say?”
There’s this pressure when it comes to writing that if it isn’t “deep” or “original” then it’s not worthy of being written down.
The truth is, telling someone, “It’s going to be okay,” or, “You are stronger than you think,” can really have an impact on someone, even if it’s been said a billion times before.
From there, I write thinking of different ways to say that phrase. I also always over-write and then edit later.
I firmly believe in spending a little time digging for the right words, and sometimes, you don’t even know what you’re looking for until you sit down and write it all out. This is why I love writing for others so often. It’s so easy to judge my own writing as I’m writing and let self-doubt take over the process, but when I remember that there is another human being on the other side of this and the purpose is to encourage them, it becomes a lot more like a writing a letter and a lot less like trying to create the most perfect piece of art.
Additionally, I use the mind map method, especially when I feel stuck. This is just one way of getting those words down on paper first without worrying about how it’s going to fit perfectly together.
What would you say is your mission specifically with your Instagram audience?
My mission with Instagram is to inspire others to tell their story, in their own unique and creative way. There are a lot of creative, charismatic people on this platform, and while that is inspiring, it can also be incredibly intimidating, even for people who are seasoned in their field.
I want to show that while it may seem that it is only the viral video or shock-factor content that makes a difference, this is far from true.
There is always at least one other person out there scrolling through their feed looking to be inspired by something new or to be reminded of what they already know to be true.
Some days, that person might be a stranger, and some days, that person might be you! Either way, I hope to be an example of how overcoming your fears of self-doubt and showing up with what you have to give is entirely possible and worth it, and you don’t have to ‘have it all figured’ out to do that.
Flipping through the multiple versions of designs for each poem is a unique part of interacting with your work. What does publishing more than just one finished product do for your creativity?
Oh wow, I love this question! I arrived at the “idea” of sharing different variations of one piece in a funny way — I am incredibly indecisive! I would start working on a piece, imagining it in black and white, and halfway through, I’ve started to add yellow and blue, and before I know it, it looks different from what I started with, and I would find myself wanting to use the original idea and the new idea.
So about six months ago I just decided, “Why not just publish it all and let the community decide?” Because so much of my work is based on interactions with other people, I have actually come to really enjoy seeing how different people respond to different designs, styles and colors.
It can be hard to keep it all organized on the back end, but it’s still worth it for me to be able to see other people interact with the art in this way.
This month at Yellow, we’re focusing on the theme “Belong”; exploring the many ways we desire to belong as humans and recognizing that this is a shared search to be part of a larger whole. Not only are we all in this thing together, but we are a much richer palette as one than we ever could be on our own. How has the idea of belonging influenced your life and your work?
“Belong” has been a very potent word in my life. I grew up as a homeschooled preacher’s kid in a small town. Oftentimes, it felt like the concept of “belonging” didn’t really extend beyond my family. I never had strong friend groups and struggled to understand community’s role in my life, especially leading into my college years.
Afraid of really dealing with those emotions, I retreated inward, and thought that it would be easier to just try and go at things on my own. If other people came along, then great, but if they didn’t, I had to keep going. However, as I began to create more and share it online, I met other people who were dealing with these same feelings.
I began to learn that community wasn’t made up of people who had this whole “belonging” thing figured out in every aspect of their life.
Healthy, meaningful community was made up of people who were broken and who had questions just like I did, and if we all allowed ourselves to open up and be a little more vulnerable about this, we would see that at our core, we have more in common than we think, and that there is a place for all of us.
How did the way you grew up influence the themes of what you write and draw?
Both of my parents are in ministry and are highly creative. They are both writers; my mom is an artist, and my dad is a drummer. I spent my whole childhood watching them come up with creative ways to not only get things done, but positively impact the lives of those around them.
I often joke with them that all I really do is copy what they did, but with Instagram! I do consider it an enormous blessing that even though we didn’t have a lot growing up in terms of material things, the creative gene and compassionate spirit I got from my parents is priceless and I wouldn’t trade it.
Who are a few artists that inspire you?
Jon Foreman of Switchfoot is probably one of my favorite artists/writers of all time. I discovered their music in high school when I was dealing with those feelings of not belonging, and when I listened to the message in their music, I felt understood, and it gave me so much hope.
I am also inspired by the photographer Ansel Adams, writers like C.S. Lewis, Langston Hughes, Rita Dove, John Muir and many, many more.
Lastly, what advice would you give to a creative person wanting to grow their body of work?
My advice to the one who wants to grow their body of work is first, to pay attention.
Pay attention to the things that you could spend hours doing. Pay attention to things that calm you or give you a fresh perspective on life.
Do you feel that way when you are painting? Designing? Writing? Photographing? And from there, continue to dig deeper. Pay attention to the kind of photography that speaks to you to the most. Pay attention to the subjects you tend to write a few more paragraphs about over other subjects.
Even when it gets hard or things aren’t turning out the way you want them to, you can still look back at all the work you’ve created with gratitude for how far you have come. Why? Because the work will be honest and authentic to you, no matter what happens.
Secondly, I would encourage them to make their work about other people. Join a conversation of a cause you’re passionate about and contribute to that conversation with art. Keep seeking ways to make a difference in everyday life by choosing to make things from your heart, for others.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Find out more about Morgan Harper Nichols by following her on Instagram: @morganharpernichols.
Images courtesy of Morgan Harper Nichols