How I adventured across the world to become a competition winning cartoonist

The most cartooning I’d ever done was the electronic smily face on my signature after buying coffee. So when I sat down at my desk, and gingerly outlined a rat on my iPad, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.

That first awkward cartoon rat I drew that April afternoon would be the making of something much bigger — but of course, I had no idea of that then.

Two years earlier, I shifted in my seat at the World Domination Summit in Portland, USA. The main stage speaker was taking us through a series of exuberant high fives and energy boosting woohoos, such that I was certain I was about to wack my neighbor in the face.

Bittersweet Bubble, Sarah Hunt

Drunk on heady conference proclamations — ‘change your life’, ‘become the person you dream of’, ‘you can do it’ — I turned to my friend Sameer and exclaimed: “I’m going to leave Australia and I want to become a creative artist!”

Back home, my life was passing by like a beached whale gasping for the ocean. My job no longer excited me, and some days I could see my entire life starting to map out in front of me like a Christopher Columbus fantasy. So I decided right then — in that moment at the Summit — that it was time to push my boat out into uncharted waters.

In early 2015, I packed up my life, and set off around the world with nothing but my burnt orange backpack and my creative life intention. My journey took me through 23 countries across nine months — I met my partner Matt in the middle of Nepal’s largest earthquake in 81 years, motorbiked across South-East Asia, hitchhiked the length of Europe, and landed in San Francisco after Matt received a job offer. It was an epic trip, both in its power to transform my sense of possibilities in life, and my thirst for more adventure.

But when we arrived in San Francisco, it felt as if my adventure speedometer suddenly went from 100 back to 5. In the idle hours waiting for my working rights, I became coffee buddies with the guard at the local Social Security office, an expert noticer of squirrels in the park, and bag carrier for the elderly señora on my block.

Drawing a Blank, Sarah Hunt

I needed something more, and the deeper truths from my trip continued to reverberate through my mind. I had been a writer for years, but knew wanted to create in another form. And if words were like pointed spears used for pinning concise ideas, then cartoons were like hugs, wrapping you with a little thought you could take or leave.

Driven by a vague notion of emulating my cartoonist idol Michael Leunig — a gentle Australian artist whose critiques of society and politics usually came in the form of flowers, tea pots, and butterflies — I began drawing small rat doodles on my iPad.

My first cartoon sucked (and that’s a technical cartooning term by the way). My second sucked equally. It was like being one of those Thai baby elephants that were given paint brushes and then expected to produce a Jackson Pollock.

Spooning, Sarah Hunt

Nevertheless, the freedom and beauty of producing things that were truly uninspiring was something completely amazing to me. I came to love the singularity of cartoons. They felt like tiny pieces of lint on your jacket that fall off like the last stars of the morning. They appealed to both my inability to concentrate on one idea for more than a few minutes, and the ease of doodling while waiting for perennially delayed BART metro trains.

I created each day, twice a day, in the loft of our apartment. As I drew, the sounds of mariachi bands, Jesus preachers on rusty portable PA systems, and chants from the protests snaking along Mission Street permeated through the windows. One afternoon, even Bernie Sanders came past the house — literally — amidst a gaggle of primaries fever.

Out of Towner, Sarah Hunt

It was the subtle allowing within myself — the letting go of being good and letting people see it — that made the cartooning possible. And sitting each day, in the monastic zen habit of a creator, I began to see a new type of magic take hold in my life.

Late one afternoon, my friend Sameer called me up again: “You going this year to the Summit?”

“Nah, I don’t have the money but I hope I can find another way,” I said — the sad truth of being a cartoonist in a city of $5 lattes.

Later that same afternoon, another friend contacted me to tell me about the Live Your Legend group, an organisation I’d never heard of but whose title seemed like PR genius (who hasn’t imagined themselves, for example, as pilot legend Amelia Earhart?).

I clicked through to their website and there it was — the Live Your Legend 2016 Bloggers Competition opening up that week. The prize they had on offer? A ticket to the World Domination Summit.

My kismet dial was spinning out of control so I took it as a sign and submitted. Suddenly my careful nest of secret cartoons was blasting into a much wider public space. It was as if I was going from running a marathon to being told to do the whole thing in handstand.

As the weeks of publishing cartoons for the competition went past, I continued creating in the dark, despite having no idea if I would win or discover I was a cartoon fan club of one.

Two months later, I was sipping my third chai tea for the day (one of the perils of Costco bulk ordering), when a little Gmail icon popped up from Chelsea Dinsmore, the Live Your Legend CEO.

I glanced over at the title — you are a blog challenge winner. Oh, I thought glumly, it’s one of those peppy inspirational emails with something we say to kids like, ‘you’re always a winner when you give in a go’.

But not this time. This time I was that kid who was told I could have not one Kinder Surprise, but a thousand.

Live your Legend, Sarah Hunt

I had won. My retrospective psychic predictions powers were on fire and I was going to the Summit, not just as a travel-crazed attendee, but as a creative artist.

The circularity of my decision to follow my heart all those years ago seemed completely unbelievable, even to me. Yet it also made perfect sense.

For in trusting myself to follow my own intuition, I ended up in exactly the right place — drawing the path of my own future.

The Happy Rat is a cartoon blog about living a wise and creative life by cartoonist Sarah Hunt.