Time to think outside the box
Creativity is a strange thing. We experience the creative urge very strongly as children but only certain people seem able to take this skill into adulthood. I would blame this largely on the demands of the modern world. My recollection is of writing many stories and poems in primary school and being encouraged to use as many descriptive words and expressions as possible. My children are now being guided to do the same. However, after I made the transition to secondary school, I barely recall producing a single piece of creative writing. Suddenly, the focus was entirely upon comprehension and factual reports.
It isn’t the fault of teachers, they have to operate strictly within the constraints of the curriculum. Anyway, I believe that my drift away from writing stories was self-imposed. I wanted to do well at school and get good grades. Creative writing didn’t seem to play a role in this. Instead, it was my interest in History which I pursued more rigorously, studying the subject to degree level and then teaching it myself.
My return to creative writing only came about when I fell ill a couple of years ago. My illness was as a result of stress and anxiety, but was a physical illness nonetheless, with physical symptoms. My mind remained as sharp as it ever was – which is why I flinch when people refer to nervous exhaustion and breakdown as a ‘mental illness’. It is entirely physical – as a result of too much strain being placed on the nervous system over too long a space of time. It is due to trying to take on too much and worrying about stuff which is largely beyond your control.
One manifestation of my illness was the desire to re-kindle the love of writing that I had enjoyed as an adolescent and young child. I believe the urge was probably prompted by a desire to return to a place where I felt comfortable and secure – before the pressures of adulthood set in. In fact, much of my recovery process has been about clawing myself back to the person I used to be. If I had to describe the process, it is a little like feeling yourself enclosed in a box. In my case, one of the boxes labelled me as a wife and mother and the other as a teacher. When at the height of nervous exhaustion, it feels as if there is no escape from these boxes – that if you did something against the spirit of these dual roles you’ve taken on then your whole existence would collapse – so you simply keep on going. It’s one of the illusions created by the condition.
As I recovered, I discovered that I wasn’t actually confined to these boxes at all. It was perfectly possible to take a step outside and change the pattern. This was quite a liberating discovery. My family didn’t suffer at all. In fact, as I was happier and more relaxed, funnily enough, so were they.
But as a result of these experiences – a legacy of the illness perhaps – I find myself with a deep dislike of being slotted back into one of these metaphorical boxes. In my writing, I would rather not be tied to a particular genre or style. If a traditional publisher demanded that I write books within a narrow prescriptive set of rules I would absolutely hate it. So I publish myself.
In the real world, it means I have difficulties being constrained in situations I can’t get out of – like being in tube trains or aeroplanes. This is a typical manifestation of nervous illness, but I can kind of see the logic behind it. I want to be free, not pinned down by the whims of others or at the mercy of decisions outside of my control. I’m not ready to return to that reality just yet.
Hopefully, it isn’t necessary to suffer some sort of breakdown in order to release your creative freedom. I watch my children do it everyday – they aren’t worried about how their picture or story is supposed to come out. They simply stick their brush into the paint and go for it.
I’m been fortunate to have the time over the past few months to re-engage with my creative side and to make a business out of it. I don’t think I’ll ever want to climb back into the boxes that, in reality, I had made for myself. I’m too busy enjoying the childhood sense of freedom that I’ve been able to re-discover.