Over the past three weeks I’ve been taking a break. That might sound like a bit of a joke. How can I be taking a break when I’m semi-retired and every day can be exactly what I want it to be? Be that as it may, it’s been a very relaxing time.
As always when I have time on my hands - time to call my own, when there's nothing on my to-do list and no obligations I must fulfill - I find myself thinking about life, the universe and everything. Often my musings aren’t much more than vague ramblings through the tortuous, tangled jungle of my imagination. That’s a place I seldom allow myself to visit, filled as it is with the loose ends of stories that demand to be pulled on, hauled out into the light and explored from beginning to end. I don’t go there much, because I know that although I’m good at beginnings, I hardly ever go on to middles or endings. After the initial flash of inspiration, my enthusiasm for a story gets lost in the noise of my inner critic loudly proclaiming, “this is shit, no one’s ever going to want to read this garbage, so why am I wasting my time?”
Anyone who’s done any personal development work will recognise that line of reasoning. It’s a good, old-fashioned limiting belief. We all have them, lurking in our subconscious mind and surreptitiously sabotaging our efforts to learn and grow. I’ve known about this one for years, and I've always thought that one day I’d challenge it. One day!
Recognising that this limiting belief is still active led me to thinking about how it became established. Like so many other such beliefs it has its origins in my formative years. Thinking about it, I realised that I have a vivid memory of the exact moment this one was born. Here’s how it happened.
As a kid I was always a keen reader. I still am, for that matter. Then as now, I always had at least one book on the go, and I read newspapers, magazines, anything and everything that I could get my hands on. Not that I fully understood everything I read, of course, but it was all grist to my mill. I learned a lot about language and how writers use it to tell stories, and I was fascinated. I vividly recall reading Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” when I was nine years old, and how the author's telling of that tale grabbed me and dragged me in so that I was right there on the road with Bilbo Baggins and the dwarves, fighting off the spiders in the forest of Mirkwood and plotting the downfall of Smaug the dragon. Through reading I learned the power of storytelling to entertain as well as to educate and to inform. I loved it and I wanted to be part of it.
Later, when I moved on to secondary school, English was one of my favourite subjects. Once in a while we’d be set a homework exercise that involved writing some kind of a story, and I always looked forward to doing those. I’d sit down and start scribbling and I’d soon lose myself in my story in exactly the same way I did when I picked up a book and read about the adventures of Bilbo Baggins or Jim Hawkins or so many other characters. I’d hand in my efforts for the teacher to peruse. Sometimes they’d come back with a comment, sometimes not.
School. Ha! The establishment I to which I was sent was called a school although there were precious few attempts to provide its unfortunate inmates with anything approximating an education. It was more of a remand centre where low-intelligence kids with little to no chance of achieving any academic success (most of us had failed the "eleven plus" exam) were sent to occupy the otherwise wasted years between leaving primary school and embarking on a full-time career in petty crime. Among the motley gang of disillusioned, time-served old lags who passed for teaching staff, there were only two who were worthy of the title "teacher". One of them, let's call him Mr Smith, taught English language and literature.
Mr Smith was a middle-aged, chubby, energetic, "hail fellow well met" kind of a guy, with greying, curly hair and an open, engaging manner. He obviously had a passion for teaching, and he was good at it, which often led me to wonder what he was doing in that alleged "school". The two or three "students" with the wit to pay attention in his classes quickly came to like Mr Smith and to trust him, particularly after he wangled an exemption to allow us 14- and 15-year-olds to see Roman Polanski's then X-rated movie adaptation of Shakespeare's "Macbeth." The Scottish Play was one of the texts that the examinations board had chosen as its instrument of torture that year. (The other was William Golding's classic "Lord of the Flies." Torture indeed.)
One time, Mr Smith set us a story-writing exercise to do as homework. I had an idea that had been growing for a while, waiting for this opportunity. It took me several writing sessions, each more intense and more exciting than the last, to get that story down on paper. When it was done, I was very pleased with it. I knew it wasn’t brilliant, probably wouldn’t make any best-seller lists, but it was mine and I was proud of it.
I handed it in and waited with bated breath for feedback from Mr Smith.
A day or two later, I saw Mr Smith in the corridor. I may have asked him what he thought of my story. What I remember so clearly is the way he looked at me with a wry grimace and a slow shake of his head.
And that was all it took.
If that was his response to my story, that I’d worked so hard at and that I was so proud of, then obviously it was crap. Obviously, I had no talent as a writer so I’d better give up any aspirations to be one that I may have had.
I never wrote another word. Not in the creative sense, anyway. Sure, as my various careers progressed I wrote technical reports and business related papers, even worked as a Technical Author for a while, but I never again let my imagination take flight and pour out on the page or the computer screen. I could not deny that I had a technical ability to string words together and make sense, but as a storyteller, I had nothing.
Looking back now, I don’t recall asking Mr Smith for any further feedback. I don’t remember him saying anything at all. That look and that shake of his head had said it all.
I wonder, now, how often this kind of thing happens. A well-meaning parent or teacher or some other trusted person makes a seemingly innocuous remark, or reacts as Mr Smith did that day, and makes a life-changing impact on a child without ever knowing what they have done.
What if Mr Smith’s reaction had been different? Would I have gone on to make different career choices? Would I have become a real writer - a journalist, or a novelist, or something like that? Who knows. What I do know is that ever since that day, any time I’ve felt an impulse to sit down engage in some creative writing, that memory - that limiting belief - has immediately jumped in and put a stop to it.
It’s there right now, as I’m typing.
“Why am I wasting my time? No one’s interested in my ramblings. I should hit the trashcan icon, I know it’s there for shit like this.” And so on.
This story, though, has a point. More than one point, even.
The first is that limiting beliefs can become established by the simplest of things, and quite often through a misunderstanding. Did Mr Smith mean to indicate that my story was rubbish? Probably not. He probably meant that I hadn't followed his instructions, or that I'd gone over the top with some of the embellishments I'd put in.
The second is to get you, the reader, thinking about your own beliefs about yourself and about the world and your place in it, and how those beliefs have had unhelpful, limiting effects on you throughout your life to date.
If there's a third point it's to warn you to be very careful, and very mindful, of the effects that your comments and reactions might have on the children in your life. This story illustrates how easy it is to establish harmful, self-limiting beliefs and how difficult it can be to overcome these beliefs in later life.
Well now, does the fact that I've written this story - and you're reading it - mean that I'm finally (maybe today's the day!) challenging my long-standing limiting belief that I don't have what it takes to be a storyteller? I wouldn't go that far. You see, this story is true. It's from real life. From that point of view it's no more than one of those technical reports or business papers that I used to write. Really? Or is that just another manifestation of my limiting belief? What do you think?
So am I, in the spirit of demolishing a long-standing limiting belief, going to sit down today and start writing a best-selling novel? No, I'm not. But at least my reasons for not doing so are no longer dominated by the mistaken belief that my creativity either doesn't exist or is worthless.