Creativity is Golden

It felt a bit like I had found the answer to everything when I opened ‘Touched with Fire‘ by Kay Redfield Jamison. There it was, in the introduction; the explanation to all the strange and incomplete theories which trickled into my head almost every moment of every day.

One of those kids who wanted to know the answer to everything, when I didn’t find it, I had enough imagination to invent it, and enough anxiety to make the answer very unpleasant if I wanted to. This was the norm to me, why would I question something that was part of my daily routine?

There were times when ‘the routine‘ got in the way of what the world had planned for me, especially the world of formal education.

Like so many other anxious little people, I was fine until secondary school, and then it started to get out of control. The mere strands of melody from the theme music from ‘That’s Life’ which I used to hear at 9 pm on a Sunday night floating upstairs can still resonate dread in me, and that’s because of the association of what was about to happen to me the following morning. I wasn’t bullied, not by the fellow ‘inmates’ of Witton Park High School, anyway. I was smart enough to have worked out how to avoid bullies, and better still, how to get my mark on the register and then walk straight out of the gates again. I owed a lot of explanation to parents, teachers and friends who despite their efforts, still couldn’t get me to ‘like’ school, but for years I just didn’t have any to give. There was very little understanding of social phobia in 1981-86 in the high schools of Blackburn, Lancashire.

To return to the subject of the ‘scar’ left by ‘That’s Life’s’ theme tune, as usual I wanted to know why this was happening. Emotional disturbances via musical associations? Could this really be ‘a thing?’

Yes, it definitely could.

The agonising five years of secondary school finally ended. I was ‘asked to leave’ in 1985, and took them up on the offer immediately, departing without a single formal qualification, despite being in the top set for English and ‘qualifying’ for lessons in Latin! I was now free to re-invent myself. After a few jobs, and saving enough money to do it, I became an ‘Art Student’ at Blackburn College in 1988. Now, that was more like it. The first thing that struck me was the amount of hand painted portfolios. Everyone had them. My absolute favourite belonged to a lad who had customised his A1 portfolio with The Smiths ‘Meat is Murder’ album cover.

What was going on? I had thought that I was the only person in the world who spent 1982 – 1985 alone in my room producing millions of drawings to the constant accompaniment of indie music. It seemed that I wasn’t. I didn’t know if I felt cheated out of my individuality or if I should try to make friends. Morrissey had taught me not to trust many people so I played it safe and carried on with my re-invention. The confidence I gained from being allowed to paint and draw among other indie fans fuelled the need for a new challenge which nagged at me until I finally achieved it in 2008.

I became a lecturer….. at Blackburn College! I suppose it would have been even more of an achievement if I’d become a life-coach teacher at Witton Park High School, but that place is now an academy so I will stop setting the ‘life goals’ there. I was told that I would fail at life by so called ‘career advisors’ in 1984. I was told that ‘with my attitude to attendance, I would be lucky to get a YTS in flower arranging’. In fact, the advisor then took that statement back and said that flower arranging would be aiming too high for someone like me.

In 1984, social anxiety was mistaken for laziness, stupidity and so many other negative characteristics. My English teacher kept me behind after class one rare day that I attended her lesson to say ‘this essay is incredible. How can you be so intelligent…..and yet so stupid?’ As was my usual response to this kind of question, I stood there and said nothing. When you clearly have some kind of disability, preventing you from doing something, but you don’t know what it is, because you are a very young and inexperienced person, who assumes that every teacher and responsible adult is always right, you shrink further into yourself. You take the blame onto yourself. You become ashamed, and so the vicious cycle begins. ‘I can’t go out because I don’t deserve to go out. I haven’t been out for ages, so I’m now too scared to go out. What’s wrong with me?’ Thankfully for me, the cycle broke in 1985, after three long years, but for some it goes on for a much longer time.

So, anxiety was what was up with me, which as I said in the beginning, could be explained in that incredible book by Kay Redfield Jamison. I was a creative, so hard luck, I was going to be ‘troubled.’ At least, in art college I had allies. However, when you spend so much time in your room, alone, your main ally is often something that you can ‘dip into’ whenever you need it. Books, music, pens and paper. My best friend was music, and I knew that I owed everything to it. It has been the constant link between me and the things that drive me forward in life.

It makes sense, when you are 49 years old, writing a self-justifying blog for your website, that with the benefit of reflection, everything that happened was ‘meant to be’, but who really knows…maybe it is.

My first real music love was ‘Kings of the Wild Frontier’ by Adam and the Ants. My brother had been to see them play at King Georges Hall in Blackburn, and he gave me the album. From there on in, I was hooked. I read everything I could find about Adam Ant, and much later in his career, the world was exposed to his struggles with bi-polar disorder. I got to meet him in Waterstones, Manchester at the signing of his book, and then again in Liverpool, and it was always a comfort and a fascination to me that I had identified with his music, without knowing anything about his mental health situation. I had also felt the same invisible bond when I heard The Smiths, and I remember finding out that Morrissey was also a vegetarian when I read about it in Smash Hits, thinking that it was an incredible connection! A scientific mind may argue that the chances are high when finding similarities in our role models and heroes, and it’s best not to read too much into co-incidence, but it’s something that I like to do, because I like to keep an open mind on such things.

The idea of music as an ally in times of need, is something which continues to fascinate me still. Before I began writing this blog today, I asked my friends through social media to share their ‘go-to’ music when they’re needing an emotional ‘pick-me-up.’ Here are some links to their responses.

Naughty Boy ‘Running’, Mike Oldfield ‘Ommadawn‘, Max Richter, ‘On the Nature of Daylight‘, The Beatles ‘Blackbird‘, Blur ‘This is a Low‘, Linkin Park ‘One More Light‘, Clean Bandit ‘Symphony‘, Radiohead ‘In Rainbows‘.

(A huge thanks to those who contributed!)

The responses are diverse but the one common factor is that every person who did respond had something to offer to the list. Perhaps the diversity is not the important factor – the genre, the status, the song itself. The real need here is for a source of comfort which can be sourced easily, and also trusted as a means of relief from mental strain.

In times of severe anxiety, I have often had to plug my earphones into my ears because the sounds coming from the speaker can’t drown out the worries and doubting voices effectively enough. The ‘inner dialogue’ is very powerful and it’s so often the only thing we hear. Being alone in the house can be absolutely overwhelming. I don’t find relief in the pages of books because my own thoughts over-ride every word. However, I can control it if I am using reference books to answer one of my constant questions! One book which ticked all the boxes for me was ‘Musicophilia’ by Oliver Sacks.

Another of those ‘well, this explains everything!’ moments was sparked when I found this book, and it’s worth saying that it was only during my teacher training that I actually had to dig ‘Musicophilia’ and ‘Touched with Fire’ out for reference on a presentation I was working on which asked us to highlight the support strategies the college had in place for learners with disabilities. I pounced on the opportunity to address mental health issues in creative arts students, and since the day I delivered my findings to a group of senior lecturers and trainee teachers, I have been left with the feeling that more can still be done.

My career with teaching is not over, as you may have guessed since you arrived at this website. The current government have tried to kill off the creative arts. The courses I have taught on have been shut down, and like so many of the colleagues I’ve worked with, I’ve been made redundant after giving so much time and energy to teaching in the arts, part of which had to be dedicated to finding ways to getting the anxieties under control.

I’d like to say at this juncture that the government will not win. So many good lecturers now run their own workshops, and although ‘workshop’ may sound informal, to me they are making learning more flexible and less daunting. No longer do fees escalate to the point where willing students can no longer afford them. No longer do learners have to commit to long periods of study. Better still, teachers with ability and passion are still teaching what they love to teach.

I mentioned at the start that emotional ‘seizures’ (a term used by Oliver Sacks) can be made by music. Although I am clearly no expert, (leave that to Oliver!) I know that you can make whatever propels the seizure work to your advantage. In a recent BBC 6music Lauren Laverne show, the topic of ‘earworms’ was under discussion, and it was suggested that the harder the earworm is to shake off, the more the recipient ‘cares’ about music. I found that to be good news! Since watching Suede play at King Georges Hall recently, I have had their epic finale ‘ Life is Golden‘ as my constant companion. If the theme music from ‘That’s Life’ can instil 1980’s fear-memories in me, then the power of happy association music can surely instil calm and ease anxiety. My good friends who responded to my social media post are proof of that. I’m still researching the power of music and trying to get my head around how the creative mind works. My current project is a mindful workshop linked to music and mark-making and I hope to deliver the sessions as soon as I have refined the plan.

Thank you for reading my blog and I will leave you with the wonderful words of Brett Anderson.

The same blood runs through your veins
The same strange way of talking
The same thoughts sink through your pillow
The same crooked smile.

You’re not alone; look up to the sky and be calm
You’re not alone look into the light and be heard
You’re never alone; your life is golden

The same blood runs through your veins
But you, you have the light of your mother
She holds her love to her
Tender breast

You’re not alone; look up to the sky and be calm
You’re not alone look into the light and be heard
You’re never alone; your life is golden

You’re not alone; when the the world puts all the winter in you
You’re not alone; I’m there in the words that you use
You’re never alone; your life is golden