For my thirteenth birthday, a grandmother figure gave me a five-year journal. I’ve received some pretty generous and wacky gifts over the years, but I think that one sticks out as my absolute favourite. I kept that journal every day from the ages of 13 to 18, and now it sits, along with every other journal I’ve ever written, in a discreet pile at the back of my bookcase. An achingly honest, often painfully awkward, perfectly preserved record of me growing up.
Like most kids of my generation, my childhood was filled with productive learning. I was fortunate that my education incorporated the arts too, with music lessons, creative writing classes, and art sessions, all at school. In many ways, it’s a wonderful thing that most curriculums have been broadened far beyond The Three Rs (Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic – honestly, who came up with that?). Focus on education has massively increased in the last few decades. Parents are generally more invested in ensuring their kids succeed, and educational resources are more widely available and developed than ever.
But sometimes, in the focus on education and its outcomes, I think we lose touch with a really important part of enjoying and practising the arts, and that is unproductive creativity.
Preparing coursework for an art exam will teach you discipline, dedication, and the benefits of focused intention. But if you want to discover your artistic identity, enjoy the surprise of creating things you couldn’t have foreseen, let off some emotional steam? Then there’s nothing better than sitting down with some paints and no plan or goal. Similarly, writing a short story to get a good grade will help you practice the craft of writing, but if you want to discover if writing is your calling – if it fulfils and delights you? There’s nothing more helpful than a notebook and no aim but private scribbling.
When I’m seeing a friend on their birthday, or agonising over what I haven’t yet bought my husband, I often think about that five-year journal and why it meant so much to me. I suppose it felt like an encouragement, but not in a direction I was used to being encouraged. It wasn’t a push along the path of conventional education. It wasn’t an object that marked me out as a teenage girl, and told me to have typical teenage fun. It was a present that said, in its quiet way: “You’re a human being, with lots of interesting things inside you. Go exploring.”
That permissive encouragement, from a wonderful woman in her eighth decade, (who then proceeded to hitch up her skirts and ride the dodgy zip-line in our garden), started a proper dedication to self-exploration and creativity. I don’t want to go as far as saying I wouldn’t be a writer and an editor today if she hadn’t given me that little gift, but I know it helped me find out that I wanted to be.
I find myself regularly having conversations with people who confess secret creative aspirations. They want to write books, learn instruments, take up drawing… but seem embarrassed about it. Whenever someone talks to me about wanting to be an author, I try to give as much help and advice as I can, because it seems such a shame to have so much energy kept closeted. But the truth is people don’t usually need a book editor’s insight. They just need a nudge, a nod – a set of inks, or a journal. Because there’s no better gift than encouragement.