here’s an unfortunate tendency for these bio things to read like thinly disguised résumés. However, I can hardly avoid talking about my professional pursuits, since that’s what I spend almost all my time doing. I don’t really have much of “a life” in the conventional sense — you know, family, vacations, crabgrass — although I’m open to offers. Mostly I spend my time working, so this “personal” version of my bio necessarily discusses work, but from a personal angle.
Left Brain, Right Brain
I’m both a writer and an illustrator. Unfortunately that combination sounds a little unserious, for a couple of reasons. In general, we tend to give more credibility to specialists — and some professional combinations seem especially suspicious. Would you trust a surgeon who had a sideline etching satanic tatoos into bikers’ forearms? Or a baker with a second job shoveling toxic waste?
My own combination is not that threatening — or colorful — but even so, the ubiquitous stereotype of “left-brained” vs. “right- brained” activities makes the concept of a writer/illustrator seem dubious to some people. As far as I know, the only w/i’s who are taken seriously work in cartooning (comic strips, comic books, or editorial cartoons) or in children’s books. My own project history is somewhat different — and much broader — than that. It gets worse: I’ve also worked extensively in related fields, such as graphic design, computer technology, and teaching . This naturally raises a painful question: with so much, um, diversity, can I expect people to take me seriously in any of these vocations?
No, this sketch isn’t about multitasking. If you thought it was, you’re probably doing three other things while reading this Web page!
Actually, I don’t really engage in more activities than anyone else; it’s just that almost all the things I do happen to be work-related. Almost everyone divides their time between three or four major concerns, each of which they (and the people around them) take seriously — but usually only one of these is an occupation. The others may include such matters as family, community, religion, charities or other public service, travel, television and other popular culture, an active social life, and various hobbies. For better or worse, I’m not involved with most of those things. I’m no more scattered — and have no more time at my disposal — than anyone else; I’ve been able to seriously pursue more than one profession simply by giving up what most people spend much of their time doing.
I have time because this isn’t me!
I try to minimize my professional image problem by compartmentalizing my working life somewhat. My occupational diversity is obviously no secret, but I try not to push it in people’s faces, either. Clients who knew me only as a “business writer” sometimes had no idea that I could draw; conversely, an art director who knew me only as an illustrator once expressed surprise that my emails were so well written. I even maintain multiple email addresses for my different professional identities.
Born to be Bifurcated
It may sound crazy that I became both a writer and an illustrator, but there’s a logical (and totally different) explanation for my involvement in each of these fields.
I initially became a writer for a simple (and unflattering) reason: it came easily. Writing has always seemed as instinctive to me as speaking; it feels like work, but not like struggle. For example, I pulled straight A’s in my college English major , as well as in graduate courses I took to get certification as an English teacher, without those studies even being my main focus at the time. (In my twenties I thought of myself as a painter.)
I like to compare the styles of different public speakers. Of course this sketch doesn’t include me, because I’ve never seen myself speak!
Since then, as an adult, I’ve worked in numerous language-related fields. I was a high school English teacher in New York City — first in a gang-ridden inner-city school that one newspaper called “the most violent school in New York,” then in one of the country’s top-rated schools for the intellectually gifted. Later, in Boston, I worked as online columnist, editor-in-chief of a business webzine, marketing writer, tech writer, and public speaker. (I’ve given talks or professional training sessions in Boston, Cambridge, New York, Detroit, London, and Tokyo.) Unlike in my student days, I had to focus intensely on each of these language- centric gigs, but it all came pretty naturally to me.
Speaking of speaking… you might like to see a few photos and a brief description of my trip to Tokyo during a killer heat wave. I was there to give a public talk to Web developers, research local Web-development practices, and see the town.
By contrast, I had to intentionally plan, focus, and study in order to raise my visual artwork to a professional level. Although I had drawn joyously and continuously from childhood right into adulthood, I had to work hard in the art courses that I took. I never thought about my motivation at the time, but in retrospect, it wasn’t very mysterious; in fact, becoming a visual artist in the first place wasn’t even a conscious decision. It’s just what one did in our household.
While normal children went outside to play, my sister and I drew pictures, made collages, and built miniature dioramas in shoeboxes, encouraged by our bohemian-artist father, who filled our home with his paintings and subjected us to nightly rants about aesthetics and art history. In fact, by the time I was fifteen, our brownstone wasn’t exactly a “home.” Many of the interior walls had been ripped out, and what had been intended (by the Victorian builders) as living space was largely devoted to a neighborhood art center, complete with a gallery, picture- framing shop, tiny art-supply store, and private studios rented out to a couple of local artists. Every Friday night, perhaps a hundred or more people would come to lectures by various local luminaries in the gallery, right below my bedroom.
Given that peculiar upbringing , it may not be surprising that I moved out for good (actually, my stepmother threw me out) when I was barely seventeen. After graduating from college (with majors in English and history), I resumed studying anatomy, perspective, composition, and illustration at a few different art schools in New York, and spent most of my early twenties painting (and starving).
Eventually I drifted away from fine-art painting and became an illustrator and designer, which seemed more closely related to my interest in storytelling, and also helped to pay the rent. I still fantasize that I’ll start painting again someday, but it’s not exactly the sort of thing you put on a to-do list.
I’m not sure that this little history of how I became both a writer and a visual artist does anything to reduce the subtle prejudice that versatile people face; but it may, at least, make my career choices seem less incomprehensible.
Deep inside, I don't really feel as though all the things I’ve done — writing, illustration, design, teaching, and public speaking — are fundamentally different activities at all. To me they all feel like different modes within my one, single obsession: communication. To break through the classic existential barrier, to connect — somehow forge a link between my mind and others — that’s what drives me. I’ll learn any skill and work in almost any medium that helps me to achieve that overriding goal.
About My Strange Name
San River people were famous for their boats and rafts, à la Huckleberry Finn. I have no idea whether my ancestors lived like that, but of course I like to think so. So I made up this sketch.
When people meet me and realize I’m not Asian, they sometimes ask what “San” was shortened from. I’m tempted to answer that it was lengthened from “Sa” — but I restrain myself, because nobody likes a wiseass.
Actually, my ancestors lived on the San River in central Europe, back when it was the border between the Austrian and Russian Empires. (My grandfather used to joke that the first thing he did each morning was ask who won the previous night’s battle, so he’d know what country he lived in.) The river later became famous (or infamous) as the site of one of the first battles of World War II in Europe: the Polish army held the Germans there for about six days in the fall of 1939 before the Panzers broke through.
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I usually sign my illustrations but I suppose there is some danger of confusion with my (deceased) father, who often signed his artwork the same way.
As for my first name, I like “Lawrence” but dislike the nickname that’s commonly substituted for it — it just doesn’t fit my personality. On the other hand, I like “San” so much that I often use it alone as my professional name. (I invited people I met in Tokyo to call me “San San” but they were much too polite to joke about someone’s name.) People who know me personally call me either San, or Lawrence, or by one of my nicknames: Lorenzo (I hope to be reborn backwards into the Italian Renaissance) or SanMan, a childhood moniker.
Where Am I?
I often ask myself that question, philosophically speaking. But geographically, although originally a native New Yorker, I’ve been living in Boston for many years now. It’s a beautiful city — some people say the most “European looking” of American cities — and I get great pleasure just walking around here (which I do a lot).
While I was making this loose sketch at Boston’s Museum of Science, a volunteer anatomist came over to talk. He must have been at least eighty years old. He invited me into a storage room to see the museum’s collection of animal skulls, and we had an interesting conversation.
Like to Talk?
For the few (very few, I’m sure) people who’ve read this far, here’s a suggestion: send me your thoughts. For example, you might comment about this page, or mention a communications-oriented project I might help you with. Whatever you’d like to talk about, I’d love to hear from you.