How to write a book · Inspirations Scrapbook

What I wish I’d known at school: two instructions for making a creative life

A few weeks ago I posted about exercise and my ineptitude at school sports. In the far warrens of the internet, somebody at my old school pricked up her ears and wrote me an email.

We love hearing what alumnae are up to. Would you write a few words for our magazine, with advice to current pupils? Not in sport, obvs.’

What would I have liked to know at that age? I remember my main worry was what I would do in the outside world. I dearly wanted a life that was creative, but I had no artistic family members or role models to show the way. How would I become the sort of person who made an art my profession?

Obviously skills would be necessary, but I think it starts before that; a crusade at an intrinsic, instinctive level.

So this is the advice I’d have appreciated.

First, follow your interest.

In my day, the school was housed in three handsome old houses, joined by their gardens. Our classrooms had tantalising remnants of their times as family homes – stucco ceilings and fireplaces, which I would gaze at, daydreaming.

The maths room was in a small Gothic building and was particularly delightful. Outside its window was a set of grassed-over steps that led to the original front door. I had no aptitude for maths, and anyway those old rooms suggested mental exercises that were much more beguiling – to imagine the people who had lived here, with their own dramas, before it was a school.

After a few years we moved to new classrooms with breeze-block walls and my maths improved considerably. But that old building started me on a lifetime habit to roam in my imagination. It also gave me an abiding love of lost places – which still entertain me today (you’ll certainly see evidence of that in Lifeform Three and Not Quite Lost).

My second tip is this: make your own rules.

In those days, English O level had two papers, one of which was an essay. Our teacher advised us to avoid the story option. ‘Because no one does the story well,’ he said. I was a quiet, law-abiding pupil and took every instruction seriously, but this was a maxim I couldn’t follow.

All that term, I turned in story after story, as I always had, and the teacher didn’t mind at all. When it came to the O level, the examiners didn’t mind either. Sometimes when you defy the rules, you find your true path.

So, to pursue an artistic life:

  • Follow your interest.
  • Discover your own rules.
  • Definitely stare out of the window.
  • Don’t worry about the sport.

But perhaps pay a bit more attention in maths.

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Tell me your thoughts. What would your school-age self like to have known about making a creative life? What advice would you give?

16 thoughts on “What I wish I’d known at school: two instructions for making a creative life

  1. I’m glad that I perfected my essay writing at the O Level phase – it’s paid off. (And I got to study some awesome architecture at a certain college across the river from Windsor Castle.)

  2. I think I opted for the story every time.
    A few years later (well, five) I saw a career’s adviser just after my finals and she asked what did I want to do when I graduated. I said I wanted to be a writer. She laughed at me. I’ve never forgotten how appalling that made me feel.
    Thirty or so years later, I am what I was then: a writer. All the rest, the dreams of success and so on, they’re just the same, too, but with less substance and much less hope.

  3. Cruel, but you proved that what is in our hearts can win through. At school, I got sent to a career consultant and ended up doing some weird test – which directed me to a journalism career. My parents wanted me to study estate management at Cirencester Agricultural College. However, a few years later, I became a sub-editor at The Field country sports magazine.

  4. I think my school-age self would wonder–and probably worry–whether it is possible for a person with a learning disability to have a career as a writer. (I have dyslexia) Thankfully, I discovered that the answer is yes. Thankfully, the answer is yes. Fine examples: Agatha Christie and Jules Verne and Hans Christian Andersen and…

    1. Leanne, I didn’t know that Agatha Christie, Jules Verne, Hans Christian Andersen (and others) were dyslexic. Congratulations for persisting – you probably didn’t know at the time that they had trodden the same path.

  5. I had a teacher who advised the same and I wrote the story anyway. It won high markings from her. Another time, we had the choice of a speech or inventing a story to be related to the class. I chose the story and my peers were actually intrigued by my inventions, lol. Looking back, this should’ve told me what I was meant to do sooner!

  6. The piece of advice I would have appreciated: ignore the naysayers and so-called experts who try to control your mind and actions. I suppose that’s really a corollary to your advice of following your interest and discovering your own rules. The rules always reflect the personal agenda of someone else, and the only reason they are “rules” is because that someone else has more power than you.

    To quote Christine Comaford, “Everything’s an illusion, so pick one that’s empowering.”

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