Friday, September 25, 2009

Telling me

As far as I am aware, the end result of this image still hangs in a tertiary education facility somewhere in the North of England. Media: felt tip pen on jotter pad.

"Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag..."

When I was seven my grandfather taught me to paint with watercolours. It became my hobby. I have his tartan printed shortbread tin with his paints and brushes, a pencil and a putty rubber, and a piece of charcoal.

When I was seven I wrote my first story and showed it to my primary school teacher. She didn't believe I had written it. Writing became my secret.

When I left high school I had failed my mathematics. I wanted to study journalism because I had to be able to get a "proper job". I was refused entry to the course because the then head of the course thought I was too shy to make it as a journalist. I was brought up to accept the advice of my elders and of professionals: these people knew what they were talking about, apparently.

I looked to science - I had an aptitude for chemistry and biology - I had no mathematics and was refused entry onto the science courses. I enrolled to study art, modern history and English language, and to re-take mathematics. A few months into the course I had dropped history and was re-failing maths. I was deemed unworthy to go to university. I hadn't thought about university. On the advice of a lecturer I dropped out of my other courses - because what use were they if I wasn't going to university?

If I wasn't studying I had to get a job.

I signed up for an art and design course when I was still seventeen, it included fabric and fashion design, jewellery design and ceramics, and in the summer break I got myself a job at my college - painting murals. I still have a great interest in fashion and fabric design, I still make my own jewellery, I went on to study and make ceramics. I still paint. My writing is no longer a secret.

A while ago I was asked if I thought my writing and art were connected. I know the thought processes behind the two definitely are but it took me a while to step away from myself enough to be honest about my work to see what my painting and my writing, and, therefore, what I am about.

"And smile, smile, smile..."

We all have an image of what we want to be. We all aspire to be the best that we can be. We all want to be open to others and embrace difference. And underneath all that - if we were paintings and someone x-rayed us, beneath the layers of what we've told ourselves and everyone else what and who we are - there would be us; raw, rough and unfinished, but us nonetheless. I call this potential. Every blank canvas has it. Every empty screen, clean sheet of paper, new beginning; they are the tabula rasa, the potential. But when we create upon them a mark which we later decide we do not want, do we say - that's it, that was your one chance? Or do we continue with another sheet, another layer of paint, a new document; a new beginning. Does potential cease to be because we didn't achieve it in the first draft?

So, anyway, last week I found the design of the mural I painted in my summer job and I thought of this poem. I wrote it last year.

She wore VERY FLAT
sandals, the type that
history tells us
were worn by Jesus,
though I doubt if He
were real He would be
inclined to wearing
successes such as
these samples of mass
production nor source
purposefully coarse
skin making designs
dyed a lurid lime.
And even if He
were He probably
could not find any
sandals SO VERY
similar; with the
chrome buckles and the
gluing of the straps
concealed within flaps
tucked inside the SO
FLAT soles. Who would know
for definite? No
real proof exists though.
As is commonly
the case, like her, He
more than likely had
soiled, cracked skin: a pad
resulting from too
much wear of a shoe
severely lacking
support; cushioning
secondary to
looks. Feet which tried to,
shed in blocks only
becoming ingrained
with dirt and the dead
skin becoming grey
in pallor. I say
the word probably;
the reality
was I couldn't see,
well not properly,
her feet, because frayed,
trousers, discoloured
from being trodden
upon and sodden
in all weathers, hid
them. I think she did
this on purpose, part
of a student's art
project, a no jest
feminist protest.
Lurking within brown,
corduroy worn down
to the ground were no
doubt legs that were so
hairy they were part
of the protest art;
intrinsic to what
it is to be that:
a feminist. I
realise that my
description does, on
the whole, rely on
gathered unwisely;

In my short story collection there are two semi-autobiographical pieces: one is called Potential. With age comes the ability to project confidence. People who meet me are intimidated by my height and outspokenness - ironic that in school I was bullied for my height and quietness. I was called scaffolding (as well as cardboard cut-out and dictionary) I couldn't shorten myself so I upped the volume. I wear bright colours. I speak my mind. I am honest even when it would serve me better, and those around me, to lie. If I have offended you with this or any other post or comment I have made please tell me; directly. There are, as any writer or reader will know, multiple interpretations of any word or combination of words - it all goes back to that slippery chain of signification - and it would be a fool who professed to know what any one person means by a small selection of words, or to take from that comment an assumption of what a persons views might be. I would say to such people, go back and look again at what offended you from another perspective. I am many things. Other people think I am different things; but, underneath, I am still there, shy as I ever was; writing.

"What's the use of worrying? It never was worthwhile."

I could tell you another version of me, and another, but really, what difference would it make? You'll each have your own perspective, some of you will have more than one - hopefully.


Rachel Fox said...

A very interesting read.
'Getting to know you...' (sing please!) and all that.

Rachel Fenton said...

"getting to like things about you, la la la la laaaa!" Glad to be of interest, Rachel, thanks :)

Jim Murdoch said...

My story is different and yet we have encountered many of the same hurdles in our lives. I'm not tall and I don't wear bright colours but I do tend to tell the truth no matter what the consequences. I don't have height but I have intellect, enough intellect to project even greater intellect and that can be a great defence mechanism. I too listened to my elders and boy was I disappointed when I realised that most of them were just faking it, putting on a good front, saying things with an air of confidence as if they really knew.

I passed maths but I have no altitude for science. I wanted to be a draughtsman but had to quit the job after three months because my eyesight wasn't good enough. That was a scunner. If they'd sat me down with technical pens at school and not pencils I would have realised there and then that I was never going to be fast enough or accurate enough. What was I going to do with the rest of my life? I hadn't considered a Plan B.

Yes, we all have an image of what we want to be. The trouble with that is that we quite often ignore what we actually are. I was a writer and yet I spent thirty-odd years doing my duty and paying the bills. What kind of life is that? This is not to dismiss duty out of hand – duty is important – but a life that revolves around duty is a bit old fashioned.

I started to go bald at 15. I'll leave it up to your imagination to guess what I was called – it would take too long to explain anyway – so I know what school must have been like for you. Essentially though the picture I carry around of you is based on the photo you display and there are no bright colours there nor do you look especially tall not that any of that matters because let's face it you could post a copy of the picture that came with a photo frame and I'd be none the wiser.

I'm not one for taking offence. People are entitled to their opinions and if someone says something out of character then my usual point of view is that I've taken it the wrong way rather than assume the worse.

Oh, just for the record, I have no intention of 'singing' extracts from The King and I at you. You're safe there.

Rachel Fenton said...

Thank you, Jim, I always appreciate and value the honesty of your comments.

What I don't want to happen is for people to feel they have to say something nice, or anything at all, if they don't want to. But also, I want people to know I actively invite criticism because I want my writing to get better.

"I'm not one for taking offence. People are entitled to their opinions and if someone says something out of character then my usual point of view is that I've taken it the wrong way rather than assume the worse."
This is very insightful, Jim, and is a good thing to keep in mind for blogging!

I think you have more than made up for your late start in choosing the right career path.

Thomas Taylor said...

Rachel, I was also overtall and shy, and struggled with -- or rather without -- Maths (I only passed my GCSE on the third attempt). I also had to endure being told I wasn't capable of doing things I have since done. We seem to have tackled some of the same hurdles, and yet...

A very thoughtful and thoughtmaking post.

Donna Hosie said...

What a reflective post, and I loved Jim's comment as well.

For me it all comes down to a sense of self. I have a lot of confidence and know when to speak my own mind. That has to be balanced though with a healthy dose of reality. I know what I can do; I know what I can't do; and I know what I would like to do.

Negativity is often the result of jealousy.

Rachel Fenton said...

Thomas - hurdles seem to have been directly proportionate to inside leg measurement (I don't suppose mine were any larger, relatively speaking, than anyone else's)! I'm sorry you had a hard time but it is reassuring to know that you understand where I'm coming from. Many people think being tall is the thing to be - and as an adult I embrace it: it has its advantages. It was less great between the ages of 14 and 20! Being bullied and feeling stupid is tough. (I got my maths a few years ago - when I went to university!) You are certainly a great example of acheiving potential! Thank you.

Donna, what you have said about "a sense of self" is key, I think. And yes, a big dose of reality is my counterbalance too, as well as being able to laugh at myself and allow others to laugh at me without taking it personally, and step out of my introspection to see things from another person's point of view. Writing is good practice for that, I guess.

Anonymous said...

Candid and direct. Tall in the saddle, literally and figuratively, is a good way to be. A great read.

Rachel Fenton said...

Thanks, Dick.

SO, no one has mentioned the poem...not wanting to offend me? ;)

catdownunder said...

I am finally getting around to this. I almost failed maths at school and almost failed statistics at university. I hated both despite Terry Tao insisting that maths underpins everything else in the universe. I dare to disagree with him.
I wanted to be a lot of things. I ended up being none of them. Dag Hammarskjold said it, "The way chose you and you must be thankful." It is damn difficult to be thankful!

Andrea said...

An interesting post - I had some similar experiences growing up and while they were unpleasant at the time, they've probably made me a stronger person in some ways.

I like the poem, and I'm not just saying so not to be offensive! I think it's good when people speak their minds - I appreciate your comments so you don't need to worry about offending me either :)

Rachel Fenton said...

Thank you, Cat, I like that quote. The funny thing is, I do like maths. When I finally discovered I have dyscalculia it explained a lot for me, beyond merely the numerical, and it revealed - on paper as a written report - what my strengths and weaknesses are. It was such a revelation to me and was, despite confirming my mathematical inabilities, empowering to know that my brain was capable of rerouting so spectacularly to get around its deficiency. Apparently I have a mathematical brain - maths should, in theory, be my strongest subject! I don't know how they worked that out! Anyway, I have a brain which seeks out and plays patience with patterns but an incredibly poor short term memory....but an incredibly short term memory...but an...however, my long term memory stepped right on up there and took up the slack! Brains are marvellous!
I am rather pleased your way found you, considering it brought you here!

Andrea - Thanks for that. I guess a lot of people have had many of the same ingredients growing up but with varying quantities! I do not assume I am at all unique in my experiences. You are absoloutly right that (who said this?) "what doesn't kill you can only make you stronger. Too strong, some might say! It's strange to me how when I went to uni, only a few years ago, at first, a lot of the undergrads in their late teens and early twenties wouldn't socialise with me, not because I was loud or obnoxious or anything like that (which I can be at times but don't want to be), but because I wasn't in an age bracket they could relate to. I wasn't one of them - I had a child and was independent of my parents for a start, but I wasn't a mother figure either. They seemed to think I was trying to be accepted by them by trying to be like them. My friends, therefore, tended to be the true mature students, the people in their forties and above - a defined group. What's funny is that, when I was in my late teens and early twenties, I was trying so hard to be more mature than I was - like I was racing to be an adult as fast as I could and to acheive all the respect etc that I believed came with that. Only when I turned 30 did I realise that we are always kids and it's when we realise this that we try to claw back the enjoyment in everything we dismissed at the approapriate age! But I have to say, it's so much nicer, plus more fun, being thirty-three than thirteen!

Glad you liked the poem!)

Sorry for the monster responses!

Thomas Taylor said...

Reading my comment again, I think it's open to misinterpretation. I was just struck by the similarities, not trying to muscle in:-/

Anyway, I was struck by your mention of mature students. I remember as an eighteen-year-old first year student being intimidated, and even standoffish, with people in their early twenties. How stupid! One of them turned out to be one of closest friends.


Rachel Fenton said...

Sorry Thomas - no, there was nothing off about your comment, and I only meant that I wasn't trying to suggest I had a terrible time of it - not any more than anyone else! Was trying to undo my whinging I suppose! I'm sorry if I made you feel I had misinterpreted/or that I everyone on the defensive now, haven't I? :(

I felt a kinship for the response was more a realisation that I am not alone in my experience :)

And teenagers, indeed, - wouldn't want to be one again!

And thanks for asking about my son - he's slowly on the mend.

Thomas Taylor said...

No, Rachel, it's me. I think I was looking through my glasses the wrong way again. Sorry.

Anyway, you probably don't like me anymore because of the horrible things I've been saying about books. The Devil put me up to it, honest;)

Rachel Fenton said...

No no no, I insist, it is I who was wrong, Thomas...let me be wrong, please, do! :)

And I only don't like you as much as you don't like me ;) I can summon up a little devil when I want to!

I much prefer this sort of blogging to -- oh that's lovely, so so lovely, isn't it lovely (whilst thinking -- what a pile of tosh)...please tell me what you think is tosh! Please. I'll still like you :)

Thomas Taylor said...

Let's call it quits, Rachel:) Anyway, your blog is a Tosh Free Zone.

Dave King said...

I can see that all the incidents and events you have picked out would have had great significance for you and for your development. It's a fascinating and excellently told biography.

Rachel Fenton said...

Right o, Thomas! Thanks :)

Now - no tosh, Dave - I know how you like to compliment...does a "fascinating" on your scale equal a "great" on mine? :)

Thank you for taking the time to stop by and read my blog anyway. I truly do appreciate all of your comments - and that goes for everyone else, too, and I'm pleased to have provided a stimulating and engaging read.

Now for something different....

Dominic Rivron said...

An interesting post. It leaves me with a not unrelated thought rattling round in my head (and it's probably the story of my life, looking back): "life is what happens to you while you're making plans".

Rachel Fenton said...

That's it, in a nutshell..should have just quoted that to begin with!

And, I suppose somewhere in there, it shows that as much as we all think we are one thing or want to be, as much as we want to be different or think others are different, we all have those common threads, and writing is the thing which gathers up those loose ends and draws all together. Writers are social scientists with cluttered laboratories!

Thanks, Dominic.


V interesting, R. I am shy too though people often don't believe that because, like you, I talk lots! Hugs. N x

Rachel Fenton said...

I know about talking to overcome shyness! Wish I could press the mute button on myself sometimes! The times I've said something deeply regrettable just because the awkward silence was killing me! I'm all or nothing! Especially when I laugh--hahahaha-nervous laughter-hahaha!
:) x

Anonymous said...

I'm coming late to this but... I'm tall, school nickname? Wardrobe...(coathanger shoulders). Teachers? If you weren't a shining star you didn't warrant the attention from the maths teacher (apart from detention) Art was my only redeeming feature, but of course that's not academic. Left school with big inferiority complex. Next encounter with teachers was my childrens' primary school when I was told my eldest son wouldn't amount to anything(that was Thomas!)In my experience it takes most of the rest of your life to get over your childhood, and then to get over your childrens childhood!! sorry, a rant, but I'm all right now!
Penny x

Rachel Fenton said...

Awe, Penny, you made me cry! Well, we just have to prove our detractors wrong - which I think you and Thomas have already done, and, hopefully, I'm on my way to doing! Thank you for sharing this, by the way x