Schoolin’ Life: Colter Jackson

In today’s installment of Schoolin’ Life, we meet illustrator and writer Colter Jackson.

author photo final

When you were in your 20s…

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

In my 20s I had this agonizing, paralyzing ambition to “become a writer.” Hell or high water, I wanted to publish before 30. Guess what? I failed. But I needed that failure. It taught me a lot. I started having fun in my writing. I started drawing again. Letting myself play and pursue fun side projects – that’s when I started getting published and I think that’s not a coincidence.

In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?

Society shrank my expectations of myself. I grew up in a very small town in Missouri (500 people or so). In that culture, girls were encouraged to be pretty but not interesting, defiant or smart.  Also, art was not valued. It was considered something the weird kids were good at. And I was good at it and worked hard at it, so I guess I was a weird kid. Creative pursuits were unheard of and I’d never met an author or an illustrator so I didn’t understand that these were things you could be. Even though I’ve made a career of it, my family still refers to my artistic inclination as ‘artsy fartsy’.

What was your first job like?

I was a waitress at a diner and I got fired. They said it was for my terrible handwriting. I was devastated. I thought it meant I was destined for a life of failure.

What was your first apartment like?

I was 15 when I moved out of my mother’s house. It was a small one-bedroom subsidized by the government. My English teacher had to write a note for me explaining that I was a responsible kid and would pay the rent. I hated the apartment then – the dingy carpets, the dark rooms, the leaky faucet, but I love it now. The idea of it. I can see myself up late at night at the kitchen table working my ass off on my college applications. Doing everything to get myself out of that little town.

Did you experience any big life changes?

I had a health scare that really transformed my life. I was working in advertising as a writer but I had always dreamed of writing books and pursuing my illustration more seriously. Then I got sick and realized I didn’t have all the time in the world to squander at happy hours and late-nights at the agency. After they let me out of the hospital, I quit my job, went freelance and started making things (novels, comics, illustrations, kids books) furiously and with absolute abandon.

In what ways did your friendships change?

In my 20s, it seemed like I had a million friends. But a lot of those friendships were shallow and based on nothing more than shared space. I have fewer friends now in my 30s but life feels so much richer because the connection to those friends runs very deep. I feel so fortunate to have found a tribe of people who all really love and respect each other and want good things for each other.

What did you learn through your romantic relationships?

I learned life is too short to put up with shenanigans. Find someone awesome and wake up and love them with all you have every day.

How did your relationships with your family change?

Family is so complicated. I’m the baby of five, so I think I had to get far away in order to carve out my own version of myself. Being the youngest child, I had a bit of hero worship for my older siblings. I had to grow up and realize they are just humans and their approval of me doesn’t make or break my life. Their beliefs about the world, don’t have to be my beliefs. That was very freeing. I stopped trying to make everybody happy with my choices. The strange result of that was deeper, more authentic relationships with my family. I enjoy most of them. I’m friends with them.

How do you feel you changed emotionally?

In two large ways. I let go of the reins and this constant feeling of wanting to control the direction of my life because there is so much out of our control. And I let go of the crippling desire to make everyone happy. I realized people would still love me if I made choices they didn’t approve of and if they stopped loving me – they weren’t the kind of person I wanted in my life, were they?

How did you change intellectually?

I’ve always been a reader but I think I started to understand the value of reading books that are really challenging and not just entertaining. That books actually get inside of you and make you bigger and better in a lot of ways, opening your eyes and opening your heart.

In what ways do you feel your identity changed?

The adjectives changed. I went from striving to be pleasant and pretty to striving to be interesting, tenacious, brave, intelligent and kind.

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

I grew up so insular. Travelling and reading really opened my eyes to how connected we are as human beings. How we should do everything we can to minimize the suffering of others.

Who was your biggest influence and why?

My high school English teacher had a profound affect on my life. She was always so fiercely intelligent and well-read. I grew up in a cultural desert and she was this magical oasis of knowledge and poetry. She encouraged me in my outlying interests and it’s the only encouragement I can find when I look back.

Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?
The things I regret aren’t really missteps or mistakes – I think those are valuable. I regret time wasted and I regret anytime I’ve ever hurt anyone.

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