My Creative Awakening - The Teenage Years

Thank you to everyone who read last week's post, it was actually quite a fun one to write and brought back all sorts of wonderful memories, I could have included loads more stories and musings, but you probably have other things to do with your time! This post has been a little more tricky to write. I started thinking about it last week and it's been interesting to see the things I've remembered, both events and emotions, and how they fit in my creative journey. My teenage decade definitely has a more bittersweet feel to it as more serious concerns take the place of pure play, and that childlike enthusiasm starts to be dampened. But we haven't got to that part yet...

As I said in the previous post, I was definitely the clever one at school, so it wasn't really a surprise that I easily passed the 11+ exam to get into grammar school. We'd been to all the open evenings at the secondary schools in our area, and I'd decided which I'd like to go to - of course my parents probably had a fairly big say in this too - because everyone seemed friendly, the buildings and classrooms were nice, and there was lots of variety in the lessons and extra-curricular activities.

I think I settled in pretty quickly, I enjoyed the routine of different lessons throughout each day and the week, and all the different subjects that I was learning about (well OK, I could have happily skipped P.E but never mind...). I joined the choir, the orchestra, the wind band, carried on having flute lessons, spent lunchtimes reading in the library, and tried different things that hadn't been part of primary school life - cooking, sewing, metalwork and woodwork. We went on lots of different outings to interesting places, and later on I took part in a French exchange, and a tour of Barcelona. All this variety suited me perfectly, and I thrived academically, soaking up as much knowledge as I could, and getting top marks in tests and homework.

Then things seemed to change. I was bullied at different points throughout my school years, sometimes by girls who had previously been my good friends. It's incredibly hard to understand why someone is being mean to you at that age, when you haven't done anything that you can remember to make them not like you. Was it jealousy because I was doing so well? Was it because I was different? And why wasn't that OK? It really knocked my confidence and I started to hide away more, being more quiet in lessons so as not to draw attention to myself, and the music practice rooms became a sanctuary because the bullies never went there.

The other thing that happened a few years into secondary school is that I had to start narrowing down my options - choosing fewer subjects to continue at GCSE level, and fewer still for A Level. This was horrible! I remember agonising over my GCSE choices - how could I drop history? or geography? or textiles? Trying to get the best selection to fit into the timetable was near torture, but eventually I made my choice, and so began the serious business of qualifications and preparation for university and a career. The thing is, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life - I didn't want to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or a teacher like some of my friends, I just couldn't conceive of doing one thing for the rest of my life, what about all the other fascinating things there were to learn and explore and experience?

This funnelling of potential, looking back now, definitely feels like it was guided very much by the 'grown ups' - my parents and teachers. However much they asserted that I should make the choices myself, it was very much with the caveats of 'sensible', and 'useful' and 'practical', rather than learning and enjoyment for its own sake. My parents would be disappointed when I got a B grade instead of the As and A*s I usually got, asking what had gone wrong and saying I should do better next time. The careers adviser at school used to get incredibly frustrated with me because I would go in every time with a different plan for what job I wanted to do. There were more subtle ways too - I had actually (nearly) always enjoyed art lessons, and had produced some pretty good pieces of work, trying out a number of different skills, and yes, getting some high grades. But I was never actively encouraged to continue this at GCSE, my art wasn't as good as some of the other girls', not as technically proficient, not as neat. To the point that more or less ever since then, I've believed that I can't do 'art' - I can't draw, I can't paint - when the evidence I've uncovered of pieces I created during those years would suggest otherwise. OK, so I'm unlikely ever to win the Turner Prize, but I was 15 years old! What I was drawing was at least recognisable. I vividly remember one drawing assignment - we had to draw a face, but to get us out of the mindset of our pre-conceived ideas of what a human face looks like, we were to copy a photograph, but upside down so that we instead focused on the lines and shapes. I copied a photograph of Princess Diana, and it's still one of the things I'm most proud of in my 'art' career - I just wish I could find it, it must be in a box hidden away in the loft somewhere.

Creativity during these years feels like it always had conditions attached - I had to be good enough to get high marks, or play the flute well enough to take first seat in the orchestra. At the time, I would still get immersed in what I was doing, in that flow state of mind. The biggest adventure of my secondary school years was a 12 day tour of Ghana, the first for our school, and the inaugural link in a 'cultural exchange' with a Ghanaian girls school. It was both the most exciting and the most terrifying experience of my life, and I shed quite a few tears while I was away, but what kept me going was making a video diary of the trip - filming nearly every moment of our days, all the places we visited, people we met, historical sites, local markets, torrential rainstorms, entertainment evenings that we put on ourselves, a walking safari at dawn and seeing a family of elephants. It was truly life-changing, and then when we got back to school I spent the best part of a week in the media editing room cutting the footage together, adding music, and making copies to give to everyone who'd been on the trip. Because the tour had been essentially extra-curricular, there were no grades attached to the work we produced, so that video was created for its own sake, and is something I still treasure, wonky camera-work and all.

So with this play-like kind of creativity rapidly shrinking in my world, choosing only four subjects for A Level, and then just one to study at university (well actually I managed to sneak in two by taking a joint honours degree), the blinkers were very firmly on, the expectations made clear, life from now on was about work, qualifications, and getting a good job and a career at the end of it.

University didn't start terribly well for me, coming from a small town and an all girls school, a huge mixed university was almost more of a culture shock than Ghana had been. It was also my first time living away from home, and things weren't altogether smooth with the group of housemates I ended up with. Bullying continued, and for me that sense of being different from everyone else grew stronger. I tried to hide it, spending more and more time on my own, keeping my bedroom door closed, not going on nights out, going for long walks, going to the cinema several times a week on my own. The studying itself was fine - good even - I was interested in what I was learning, my tutors were wonderful, and I continued to get good marks, spending hour upon hour in the library devouring book after book in an attempt to learn as much as I could.

I've been a fairly regular diarist and a sporadic journaller since I was about 13, and some of my diaries from university reveal that I was deeply unhappy, lonely, and massively unsure of my place in the world. I missed the familiarity of home and the love of my family hugely, but I was so exhausted from studying all the time, and from trying to protect myself mentally and emotionally because nobody seemed to understand me, that creativity outside of my work virtually disappeared. I still read voraciously, but mainly to escape into a different world than my own, and going to see different films left me so drained that I would be asleep in bed hours before anyone else in the house. I was still unsure about my path after university - yes, there were options, different jobs and career paths to consider, but I wasn't inspired to investigate them or put the effort into even getting work experience.

My one solace during these times was nature. I went to university in Aberystwyth on the coast of west Wales, where I loved to walk along the sea front, and sit protected by the stone of the castle ruins looking out across the water, or head into the woods behind the campus, following paths through the trees to a look-out with a bench at the top of the cliffs. I would sit there and let the wind buffet me, watching the swirling murmurations of starlings over the pier as the sun set, and it felt like nature was mirroring my own turmoil, allowing me an outlet for my emotions, but letting me see that there was beauty and joy still in the world.


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