I was sixteen when I went on a Catholic retreat for five days with school, on a mission to go and ‘find myself’ (naturally said with teenage sarcasm and air quote marks). I think I believed in God then, not something I can claim to do now, and I was genuinely curious about how I’d react to such a long period of prayer and discussion of the deeper things in life.
I don’t remember much about the religious side of this experience. We watched the Truman show and discussed the apparent biblical resonance with a priest. We debated the idea of a just war, and role-played our own vicious conflict in which we built a chair barricade and a girl was carried over it as hostage (no-one wrote that into the risk assessment, I bet). There were nightly prayers before bed time – and as bed time was about two hours later than I was used to, I was mostly just trying to stay awake. It was the week I read Bridget Jones: the Edge of Reason, lying on a bunk bed, pop punk mix tape on my walkman. On the day we were supposed to fast to sympathise with the plight of the poor, we all snook off to McDonalds.
This was all fifteen years ago and initially I didn’t know why it popped into my head today, except that I’ve been going through a bit of an identity crisis over the last few weeks, not sure of my next step. I remember doing rounds of cheesy icebreakers on that retreat – describe yourself in three adjectives, introduce yourself with two truths and a lie, that sort of thing. How nervous we were, giving a little piece of ourselves in front of our peers. One of the girls said her hobby was ‘shopping’ or described herself as ‘fun’ – the rest followed suit. I remember catching my teacher shaking his head in disappointment. I don’t remember what any of the boys said but I’m sure it was a bit more interesting and surely a lot more confident. It makes me cringe to think of it, actually. Anyway, I remember this vividly because I was quite happy to say that my hobby was in fact painting, not shopping. I described myself as ‘creative’, avoiding the generic answer ‘fun’. I like to think I showed a bit of maturity, a bit of confidence. At sixteen, I think I was a bit more self-aware and – dare I say it – a bit more interesting than a lot of the other girls showed themselves to be.
I was rarely bored as a teenager, happy be alone in my bedroom, to paint, write fanfiction and read. Of course I played computer games and watched hours and hours of Friends re-runs like everyone else, but I often had a pen or a paintbrush in my hand. It’s only recently that I’ve remembered how important this creative part of myself is. Drawing and painting is so therapeutic, and as an adult I’ve forgotten how I used to use it to deal with stress. I’d paint pages and pages of sketch books in watercolour washes, letting the colours drip into each other, throwing salt on them to create lovely feathery edges and cloud shapes.
It wasn’t taxing like close-observation sketching – it was very relaxing. Because I studied A Level Art, I could even classify it as homework, using the lovely rainbow washes as beautiful backgrounds for my notes. I had permission to chill out and be creative, and it was great.
Of course I can’t really compare the homework of a sixteen-year-old to all the stuff I have on my plate now. Working in a new school where behaviour is tough and Ofsted are due any second means that my workload is currently enormous, and I’m just not coping. My worrying about said workload is worse than the workload itself, and it’s really not good.
It’s a shame that my working life has had to get to breaking point for me to realise this.
At half term, I was looking for my latest creative writing files on my computer and it had been so long since I’d looked at them I couldn’t remember where I’d saved them: my ‘recent documents’ list was full of Jekyll and Hyde teaching resources and sixth formers’ coursework. I don’t think I’ve picked up a paintbrush once this year. I think I’d recategorised writing and painting as indulgences, distractions, things that don’t really matter. My creative self has been well and truly neglected.
A few years ago, I went part-time at work to do my MA in Creative Writing. I was finding teaching so hard and wasn’t even sure if it was the right career path for me. It was only by working fewer hours and allowing time for myself to be inspired again through the MA that I realised how crushing work can be. I felt like that last week – like work had crushed the happiness out of me, and I was mentally bruised. So anxious, and unable to sleep. I didn’t want to be a teacher any more – it was just too hard – but I didn’t know what else I was or what I was supposed to be. If asked to describe myself with an adjective, I wouldn’t have said ‘creative’ or ‘fun’. I’d have said ‘exhausted’, and that’s of no use to anyone.
So I think I need to be a bit more like my sixteen-year-old self again (though perhaps with better taste in books and music). I know painting and writing isn’t homework any more, but it’s what I need, and it isn’t an indulgence: it’s essential for staying happy and dealing with stress. I suppose it’s my own version of mindfulness. It makes me a bit more interesting than the book-marking, data-checking automaton I’m in danger of becoming (and nobody wants to spend any time with her, believe me). I know this won’t fix everything – my marking pile won’t magically *poof* away, no matter how hard I wish it away – but it’s worth trying.
We all need to remember to be creative. It’s so good for us. This is why bookshops are currently lined with mindfulness colouring books, and the BBC is broadcasting every permutation of hobby competition it can think of (and I love it – especially The Great Pottery Throw Down this week). So here’s to watercolours dripping down a page, to writing in coffee shops, to blogging! All of these things are so good for us, so lets not stay an extra hour at work. Go home and make a pot, bake a cake, doodle, do some colouring. It really is so good for you.