taking it Bird by bird

Written by Courtney Cook, a 24-year-old artist living out her dream.

As an artist, I believe it’s always inherently scary to share your work with the world. In some ways, it feels more vulnerable than being naked; it’s putting your heart on display! But for me, creating art and writing stories about my life feels more like a necessity than a luxury, and because of that mentality, my desire to share my work overpowers my fears about people’s perceptions of it.  

I began to publish my writing back in high school, and have since published essays, poetry, and art in major publications that I’ve admired for literal years, such as The Rumpus. Though it’s gotten increasingly scarier to share my work as I’ve been accepted into larger publications, it also gives me a huge rush knowing that my work is able to be seen by so many people. I’m lucky to have that opportunity, and that helps to quiet my fears and anxieties.  

Because I write nonfiction, I’ve had to come to terms with the idea that my life is on display to the public to be judged and ridiculed. But with judgement and ridicule, there is also those I inspire and uplift, and I try to focus on the latter side of things. I mainly write about suffering from mental illness—namely Borderline Personality Disorder—and if I can provide hope for or make even one person feel understood/seen, putting myself on display to be judged is worth it.

I’ve struggled immensely with my confidence for as long as I can remember.

It may not have been until I entered grad school that I became comfortable with myself. A big part of my mental illness, Borderline Personality Disorder, is having an “unstable sense of self,” causing me to spend many years just sort of trying different versions of myself on and testing out who I could be. I was always changing my personality to fit in and mimicking traits I thought would lead me to being liked or accepted. It was only once I was diagnosed with BPD at 22 that my life began to change and I realized that I didn’t have to change myself to be loved or to be seen as whole. Some people may argue that diagnoses are limiting, but mine truly gave me a newfound freedom. 

Not everyone is going to like my work, and that’s totally okay!

I’ve always been the type of person people either LOVE or really, really dislike, and it’s been the same experience with my art and writing. Myself and my work aren’t for everyone and I have learned to take that as a compliment. If everyone liked me, I’d consider myself boring and not opinionated enough! As far as clichés go, I’d rather be disliked for who I am, than liked for who I’m not. As the band MUNA says, “it’s gonna be okay, baby.”

 

When it all comes down to it I will always love myself — and I’ll always love my unending empathy. 

My mom has always called me a “turtle without a shell” because I feel so strongly and seem to sense the emotions of those around me. I’ve always been the girl putting earthworms back in the grass after a rainstorm, or hugging all the trees in the park to ensure they’re warm enough when it snows. At times, this has felt like a curse because I can get easily overwhelmed by my emotions, but at the same time, my tenderness and sensitivity make me who I am. I truly don’t believe I’d be able to write or create art in the way or capacity that I do without being so sensitive and empathetic. 

I want to be remembered as someone who was authentic, above all else. 

I believe the best way to resonate with others is by being vulnerable and deeply personal, which is why my art and writing is so revealing. I hope that being authentic and true to myself in my work leads others to do the same, whether that be in art or their daily lives. I also hope that being open and honest about living with mental illness inspires others to seek treatment if they’re struggling, and helps to end the intense stigma those with mental illness face every day. I dream of the day where I’m not scared about opening up about that part of myself!

I think it’s important to note that I suffer from depression, anxiety, and Borderline Personality Disorder, and yet I’m still accomplishing my dreams. 

So many people believe that mental illness is a death sentence and I want to be an example that it absolutely isn’t. It is entirely possible to live a fulfilling and bustling life with, or in spite of, mental illness. I believe that mental illness informs who I am in an incredibly important way and has shaped me into the person I am, and for that, I’m thankful, because I’ve come to love who that is.
However, I do have to acknowledge that I’ve been immensely privileged and received ample therapy and outside help for my disorders that have made it possible for me to arrive at where I am now. I know that not everyone is as lucky as I’ve been, and access to mental health services can be difficult or impossible for a myriad of reasons. If mental health services are inaccessible to you for whatever reason, I want you to know that I believe in you, and that I’m proud of you for doing your absolute best, whatever that may be or look like.

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You are capable, magnificent, joyous, creative, and WORTHY! And if for a second you don’t believe that, therapy is magical if you put in the work. A good therapist will help to set you free.

“Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird”

This is a quote from Anne Lamott. It basically means ‘take it one step at a time.’ My mom has quoted it whenever I’m overwhelmed or stressed for my entire life, and I love it so much I have it and a large bird tattooed on the back of my left arm. It reminds me to slow down, breathe, and tackle things one by one. Things can seem overwhelming when you look at them fully, but breaking them down into small tasks makes things feel much more manageable!

It takes a village though, and I could never do it alone.

My family is a huge source of support, and I’m thankful every day I have them to believe in me and to motivate me when I want to give up because I’m exhausted or discouraged. I’m grateful for my boyfriend, Clem, who is always honest in the feedback he gives me and supportive of my artistic endeavors. I’m indebted to my editors, Masie and Elizabeth, for pushing me to be my best and always encouraging me to enter uncharted territory, for Tin House Books as a whole for choosing to publish my work and take a chance on me, and for my professors at UC Riverside, specifically Katie, Tom, Reza, and Emily, who have helped me grow since I began my MFA program in 2018.

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Courtney Cook

Courtney is a 24-year-old located in Orange, California. She identifies as an illustrator, writer, and artist, as well as an MFA candidate with a focus in creative nonfiction. Professionally, she is an English and creative writing teacher of students in the 6th-12th grades, a professor of undergraduate creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, and an owner of a small illustration-based business called Art School Pariah. When she’s not working, she loves to draw, read, and nap with her senior cat, Bertie.

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