how-to by Lisa Larson Walker

Liana Finck on personal doodles, and how to lead a private public life.

reading time 10 minutes

Lisa Larson Walker: You’re a New Yorker cartoonist, a published author, but you’re probably best known for your prolific Instagram account, where you chronicle your daily life, your thoughts, your experiences, in a way that’s both startlingly personal and strikingly universal. How did you get into that habit?
Liana Finck: I started it to impress a certain person I was dating. He wasn’t being very nice to me, but he sometimes liked my Instagram posts. He’s an illustrator, too. In fact, I made sure to never post any illustrations, because I didn’t want him to think I was copying him. But when he broke up with me, I was like f*** it, and I started posting illustrations, illustrations of him, and it was very cathartic. That’s how I started. Revenge. The account has been a great way to deal with bad feelings. It gets me through them completely. I’m naturally very anxious and good at getting myself into crises. In a crisis, you think in a very black and white way, and you can be nasty, and it’s okay, and you’re not very nuanced. I think my Instagram represents that part of me. It’s a lot harder to do when I’m happy and calm — like right now. I have things to say right now but I think they belong more in long fiction. I still do the Instagrams but they don’t feel like they’re wrenching their way out of my soul. I feel a bit like a phony.

I am astounded by the amount of experiences distilled in your doodles. I tend to wonder, could this all happen to one person? Do you sometimes draw on other people’s experiences? If so, how do they respond to that?
I am more likely to make something from the point of view of a friend than about them. Once in a while, I’ve made a sharp cartoon about an interaction with a family member or friend and I always felt like I forced it. I do that every six months or so and it’s never felt quite right. I think I mostly make cartoons about people who I don’t see as fully human, people I meet on dates who I haven’t fully let in yet, or just plain old strangers. My boyfriend hates when I draw about him. My drawings about him are a tiny bit sharp sometimes but also very loving. He doesn’t like them because they expose him, which I think is the wrong reason not to like them. I think the right reason not to like them is that they’re not good, or they don’t say anything. [Laughs.]

It may be a surprise to some of your readers that you’re in a happy relationship, because you speak so much about romantic misadventures. I guess you have a lot of experience to draw on?
Yes, this is true because I’m very naive and obsessive and I can’t stop something once I start, even if it goes bad. And I’m not gorgeous, but I’m good-looking enough that I can find people to date. And when I can’t, I’m very offended, which means I have very good self esteem [laughs].

You talk about all these personal issues, but at the same time you are a very private person. How do you square those two things?
I don’t see it as a contradiction. To give an example, I was in a documentary once and it was really fun. I would never let anyone into my house while I’m working, but if the person’s filming me, it’s okay, because I’m an actress, so I’m not myself anymore. I feel similar about my Instagram. I’m turning my life into a performance, which is in a way the most private thing you can do.

This performance has made you a very public person. Everyone I know follows you and they all feel like you’re a voice in their daily lives. How do you maintain your privacy in this role?
I actually think that social media is very private in a way. No one can touch my work there. It feels very small and private and I like that, and I’ve never figured out a way to reproduce that even for a magazine. I don’t like having all the anonymous followers, and I don’t like that they can talk to me directly without any filter. That freaks me out a bit sometimes. I don’t really have a desire to grow my following. I’m glad my work’s being seen, but I don’t feel like I fit perfectly with this wave of illustrators posting their stuff online and getting loads of followers. Anyway, I think I’m medium-successful at it. I think if I were stupider, I’d be more successful at it.

Have you gotten to know yourself better in the course of this ongoing public performance?
I know it’s made me a lot better in my friendships and my relationships. It’s made me more direct. I have a better idea what I need from people. While drawing, I learn things about myself. I learned, for instance, that I’m afraid of crowds, and I don’t think I could have put words to that before. And now that I have recognized that, I don’t tell someone that I’m going to meet them at a big 4th of July party by the water, because I used to agree to that kind of thing and then I would freak out and cancel and blame the friend. It’s also made me more assertive with strangers. I used to be very nice and kind-of weak. I would always let people ahead in line, for example. Maybe it was more of a fear of confrontation masquerading as actually being nice. I would talk to everyone who wanted to talk to me, which is a bad way to be in the city. I ended up going home with some strange men and never being able to get my coffee on time, so I started asserting myself more. I had to learn to set boundaries.

You have a few trolls, but there are way more people who are genuinely moved by your work. How do you interact with those people?
Yeah, there’s very little actual troll stuff. I just overreact to it [laughs]. When someone’s nice and moved, I’m really happy, but I’m also so self-protective that there’s always a tiny bit of fear when someone’s nice to me. In the past, if someone would write me a nice email, I would write back, and I’d end up hanging out with them, and I’d end up with this person who thought I was their best friend, and then I’d have to make them into my enemy. This happened so often that now I almost prefer to ignore it. I’m not great at setting boundaries. When I get better at it, I’ll enjoy people being so nice. I do enjoy it. People are being so nice.

You could do this project as long as you live. How do you deal with that boundlessness, and how do you balance it with your work?
The less fulfilled I am in my other work, the more fulfilled I am by my Instagram. Right now, for example, I  happen to be in a good place with my book. I think that part of growing up is learning that you’re finite. I think my worry right now is that the Instagram won’t fulfill me anymore. It’s the best thing that I’ve done. It’s felt the most natural to me. I like art because it’s like life but simpler. And my Instagram was like my life but so much simpler! And that was great. But now it’s not like my life anymore. I really hope I can tweak that back into place.

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