Schoolin’ Life: Nilah Magruder

In this week’s installment of Schoolin’ Life, we get to know cartoonist and author Nilah Magruder.



Give us a quick bio: who are you, what are you into, and how do you spend your days?

I’m a storyboard artist, comic creator and soon-to-be children’s book author living in Los Angeles. I’m very much into creating stories. My job’s pretty great; I draw and watch movies, then go home and do more of the same. On occasion, I go out to hang with friends or my coworkers, but I’m kind of a shut-in who likes to stay home and lie around with my roommate and my roommate’s cats.

When you were in your 20s…

What expectations did you have for yourself over the coming decade?

I was sure I would be an investigative reporter by now. Or maybe a business-savvy agent at a PR firm, wearing sleek business suits, living in a cool apartment with a massive kitchen in DC. Last thing I expected to be is an artist schlepping around Hollywood in jeans and hoodies.

In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?

I figured I’d go to college, get a degree, get a job, and that would be it. Step 1, step 2, step 3, profit. You know, the American dream (I guess?). I’m actually not sure what my endgame was. In school, starting your career seemed like this textbook, step-by-step process, and I believed that when I hit the right milestone that everything would fall into place and start making sense. I never hit that milestone. Eventually everything started making sense, but not in the way I expected.

What was your first job like?

I’ve been working since I was sixteen. My very first job was server at a restaurant, and I only stayed four months, enough time to make a bit of spending money. It was what could be expected: a bunch of kids goofing off too much while serving food to families and retirees for $5.25/hr. Some nights were fun, but I never missed the place. My first career-related job was freelance journalist for a local paper. I started my junior year in college (I’m still in awe that they gave a college kid a steady paying gig). It was a lot of fun; I wrote for the arts and entertainment section and got sent all over the county to speak with artists, writers, singers, dancers, and to cover events. I covered verything from fundraisers, to art exhibitions, to community theatre. I kept that job as long as I could, until I found a full-time position as a marketing writer and I didn’t have time to drive to Frederick anymore.

What was your first apartment like?
My first apartment was the one I lived in while I was attending Art Institute of Washington, in Arlington, VA (just outside of Washington, DC). I shared it with three other girls, and it was fine at first. Drama quickly set in though: lots of dumb roommate meetings and passive aggressiveness, and there was a cranky guy who lived under us that complained any time we so much as breathed or, y’know, existed at all. Writing about it now, it sounds like stereotypical apartment living, haha! It was tough, though, because I wasn’t working, I didn’t have any money and I didn’t like asking my parents for any, so there were times when I had no food and I didn’t know what I was going to eat. And I was lonely, so I took the train home pretty much every weekend. But I loved the city, despite all that.

Did you experience any big life changes?

Going to college was big. Studying in South Korea for a month was big. Starting my career was big. Going to art school. Interning at a large film studio. My aunt died in 2010. Those are the moments that stick out.

In what ways did your friendships change?

The friendships I have now run very deep, and most of them I developed in adulthood. I’ve never been the type that needs a huge social circle. I’ll cut off a relationship quick if I think it’s become toxic, but at the same time I’ve become more accepting of people. A lot of my friends are people I’ve shared important moments with, like the friends I made in Korea, and my art school friends. Others simply share the same goals and we help push each other along. My friends are all over the place. I don’t know how I’d get along without the Internet. I’m sure I’d be a lot lonelier.

What did you learn through your romantic relationships?

I’ve never had any! Never had a boyfriend, never even been on a date. That level of intimacy has been a curiosity at best, but I’ve never felt a craving for it. My only boyfriend was in first grade, and it lasted until the following day when we found out we were cousins. ;P

How did your relationships with your family change?

At the same time I got closer to my mom, I feel like I’ve grown apart from everyone else. I talk to my mom every day, and everyone else only now and then. It’s weird and sad if I think too much about it.

How do you feel society viewed you?

I’m not sure society noticed me at all.

How do you feel you changed emotionally?

I’ve chilled out, I think. Gotten more confident. I know who I am, I know my strengths and my weaknesses. Being aware of those things has made me more comfortable in my own skin. In my twenties, I was a lot angrier, a lot more prone to flying off the handle or falling into depression. I have those moments now, but for the most part I can manage them. I’m a little more flexible, more ready to accept whatever happens in my life and roll with the punches.

How did you change intellectually?

I feel like I’ve gotten dumber sometimes, haha. Like I knew more when I was younger. But I’m savvier now, less apprehensive of change or new experiences. I think a lot of my book intellect’s been replaced with life experience.

In what ways do you feel your identity changed?

I’ve always been “the artist.” That hasn’t changed much. I’ve always been a fly on the wall, too – it’s what made me a good journalist!

How did your worldview change over the course of the decade?

I’ve become much more aware of oppression and hypocrisy in government policies, of the struggles that people face across populations. Growing up black, female, and lower class has exposed me to a lot of prejudice, but it’s made me more compassionate, too, so I’m glad for that. Funny enough, I was cynical when I was younger, but these days I’m more optimistic.

What was the most embarrassing moment?

I’ve had so many, how can I be expected to choose only one? Once I was riding a bus in Seoul and wasn’t prepared for the hard stops it made. I fell back and stepped squarely on this woman’s foot. She screamed loud enough for the whole bus to hear, of course. The worst is I didn’t know how to say “sorry” in Korean, so I feel like I never fully conveyed my regret.

What was your biggest disappointment and how did that affect you later?

I didn’t win some award in art school. Well, that happened a lot in art school, haha. I was so determined to succeed and prove myself, but for the particular accolades I’d set my eyes on, my work was never quite good enough. I was good, but not the “it” person I wanted to be. These days, it feels silly that I was so stressed about it, but I cried a lot of bitter tears over it at the time.

Who was your biggest influence and why?

My mom, I think. I didn’t really have role models… no one I wanted to emulate. My dad’s an alcoholic, and there’s not a lot I care to remember about growing up, but my mom did everything to give me and my brother a somewhat normal upbringing. She was the person I had complete and unshakable faith in.

Is there any one experience that you feel defined the decade? Or one historical moment that changed you?

9/11, perhaps. There aren’t a lot of moments over the decade that I remember with clarity, but I remember that day. I lived three miles from the Pentagon. I was walking to class that morning and a fire truck sped past me, and I thought, “Whoa, where’s the fire?” Next thing I know, I’m at school and students are scrambling because the city’s about to go on lockdown. It was also the year I turned nineteen, and it’s around that time that I was starting to think about the world around me and my place in it.

Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?

Still wish I’d done a semester abroad in Spain. I was a transfer student, already overloading on credits to make sure I graduated on time, and study abroad would’ve thrown off my schedule. I didn’t want to risk graduating a semester late. I’m glad I got to go to Korea, though – I almost chickened out, so I’m really glad I stuck with it.

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