Saturday, 23 April 2016

Trophies and photographs - by Helen Murray

Apologies if this is an odd sort of post. It's about something that happened earlier this week and it's not quite straight in my mind yet. It's a bit difficult to talk about, partly because it's deeply personal, but also because it's still a bit raw and unprocessed. I'm sort of processing as I write.

On Monday I sat down to pray with two very wise and perceptive ladies that don't know me at all. We were talking about God the Father, families, our Christian journey, that kind of thing. I found myself telling them of a memory I have from junior school. The memory for me is frozen into a photograph.

There's a little girl in a blue and white checked school uniform dress standing in a school hall. Actually, she's not so little - she's only about nine or ten but she's tall for her age and ... er... not thin. She has long golden hair over her shoulder and she's looking down and smiling. She has a trophy in her hands; a polished silver rose bowl. Standing back slightly to her right is a beaming elderly lady in a patterned dress, and all around are people who appear to be clapping, some of them classmates and others parents and onlookers.

The teacher was Mrs Riley, a favourite of mine. She was my class teacher in Second Year (now called Year 4) and she donated a silver rose bowl to the school to be used as a prize in a writing competition. On the first year the competition ran, I won it. The child in the photo is me, and I have just received my trophy. I have no recollection of who took the photograph, but someone thrust it in my hands days after the event. It would have been about 1979, I think, and so quite amazing that the occasion was caught on film.

However, I have always had very mixed emotions about that picture. Despite the moment of triumph that it captures, it's never been a happy photo for me.

It was around that time that I started getting bullied for being fat, and the first thing that jumps out at me from the photo is the dress that I'm wearing. Standard issue summer uniform; probably from M&S. I remember how that dress felt. It was too tight on the sleeves. My arms were uncomfortable and I was keenly aware that it didn't fit well. I look at the picture and I feel embarrassed. You can detect self-consciousness in the picture too; my cheeks are pink and my eyes are averted. I look distinctly awkward.

I have never been able to see Mrs Riley standing back, smiling at me proudly.
I have never been able to see the applause of the audience.
I've never really been able to remember what the Rose Bowl felt like in my hands.

A few weeks later, someone showed me the Rose Bowl that was back from the engravers. There was my name, with the date of the first writing competition. It looked nice. The teacher put it on a glass shelf in the trophy cabinet and placed the silver mesh lid on top of the bowl. The deep lip of the lid completely covered my name. You couldn't see it any more.

I remember that moment very clearly.

My daughters now go to the same school. Before my eldest was old enough, we went to look round and meet the headmistress. As we stood in front of the trophy cabinet I asked about the Riley Rose Bowl but the new Head hadn't heard of it. 'It's probably here somewhere,' she said. 'I must look it out,'  She didn't.

I don't know why the photograph came to mind as I sat praying this week. I began to cry as I told the story. I've known that the photograph represented to me problems I've had with body image for a long time and I've been working through at lot of that in recent years, but this was something else. One of the ladies suggested something that knocked me for six.

She suggested that this moment was significant for my writing, too.

I write. I love to write, and I hate writing, and all the stuff in between. I know you understand. I want to be a writer, I AM a writer, I want to be a proper writer. I want to write novels, I want to be published! I want to 'be successful', whatever that means. Yet, I have found a hundred things in my way. Indeed, most of my blog posts here have been about what's stopping me from writing.

Among the many obstacles, I have long understood that I suffer from perfectionism and a pronounced fear of failure, but after she'd listened to my story about the photograph, my friend on Monday suggested that I have another deep-rooted fear: a fear of success.

The idea that I am afraid of actually achieving what I dream of achieving was a new one for me.

She went on to suggest, very gently, that this fear dates back to the time of the photo. Winning the Riley Rose Bowl had not been the happy thing it should have been. It wasn't a triumphant moment; it was not cause for celebration. My parents were not there when I received the award; it took place at a performance of the summer concert and they had attended a different evening. They didn't hear my name announced and join in the applause. I was uncomfortable in my dress and hated that everyone was looking at me. My engraved name was obscured by the lip of the lid and I felt humiliated. The school has since lost the trophy, even though some of the other (sporting) trophies still in the cabinet date back to those years and before.

My achievement had turned out to be a great disappointment.

So here's the thing. If success equals embarrassment, self-consciousness and humiliation, then it's not what it's cracked up to be. If winning is being the object of unwelcome attention, then maybe it's better not to win. If the commemoration of your achievement is invisible and eventually discarded, what's the point? That thing you hoped for and dreamed of, well, you did it, and it turned out to be worth nothing.

Why bother even trying?

Mrs Riley died last month, aged 96. I saw her obituary in the paper and I felt sad. A couple of years ago I went to the funeral of another favourite English teacher. There are a small number of people who have been deeply significant to me with regard to my dream to be a writer, and now all but one are gone.  I hoped that one day I would present them with a signed copy of my bestselling novel and I would see in their eyes how proud they were of me.

They would read it and tell me that it was good.

That will never happen.

I could end this post (and indeed, I should end it, before it descends still further into the maudlin) by announcing 'No more!' and claiming my release from the lies I've believed and been freed from. I don't know about that. I need to think, and to pray. I think it's good that I've come to this point now - indeed the ladies who prayed with me were very clear that it's not a co-incidence.

I've never liked that photograph, even though you'd think it would be a proud moment, but I only just begin to understand why it's been so full of pain and not joy.

Isn't it good that God has a very different definition of success?

I hang onto the fact that I know for a certainty that my heavenly Father already has pride in His eyes when He looks at me, whether I've penned a bestseller or not. Whether I ever complete my WIP or not. Whether anyone ever reads what I write.

He loves me not because of what I do, but because of who I am; because I am His child.

One more thing, before I go off to continue this in my journal. The piece of writing that I did to win the Rose Bowl - it was a little hymn.  No doubt it had a rhyme scheme that would make you cringe, but it was a child's offering of praise.

I think God smiled, even then.

Helen Murray lives in Derbyshire with her husband, two daughters and her mum.

Having spent time as a researcher, church worker and Hand Therapist, Helen is now a full time mum and writer, currently supposed to be working on her first novel. 

As well as writing and reading, she drinks coffee, takes photographs, swims and has seventy six Aloe Vera plants at the last count. The observant among you will note that this is fewer than last month: with regret I have to report that a whole windowsill-full of plants recently met with an unfortunate accident.

Helen has two blogs: Are We Nearly There Yet? where she writes about life and faith, and Badger on the Roof where readers are treated to a blow by blow account of her novel-writing progress, or lack thereof. It's been a while since there was anything to report. 

You can also find her here:

Pinterest: @HelenMMurray

Twitter: @helenmurray01


  1. Helen, this is very honest - and very beautiful! Your writing always moves me. I love the way you can be open about your own hurts and disappointments, but still allow your faith to shine through. I don't know what God has planned for you in terms of your writing, but I do think you have an ability - through your words - to reach out to others who are struggling. God bless you. xx

    1. Thank you so much, Fiona. That means a lot. x

  2. Thank you Helen for writing this today. I can feel your raw pain through your words and it has moved me to tears. I know I too have a fear of success. I have no idea why and where that fear stems from but I know it is there. Your post has encouraged me to seek God about it and ask Him to help me to look forward to success - whatever that may mean for me. I too am stuck on my WIP - maybe this is why?

    I pray that you will know a release from your fear. You are talented with your words. I pray you will finish you WIP and I look forward to reading it. God bless you Helen.

    1. Praying the same for you, Lynda. I'm so glad it meant something to you. Thank you so much for being so encouraging. x

  3. Well done for sharing this, Helen. I too have been wondering what I think about "success" - what constitutes it, how I feel about it. Contentment as a writer is a rare and precious gift, and I pray that both of us find it. Keep going. :-)

    1. Thank you Philip, really. Sounds easy, on paper, this writing thing, doesn't it? :-)

  4. One of the saddest things was that the trophy which your teacher had bought had been lost. I too won a prize for writing at school, £10 worth of books, which I still have, and I don't like talking about them, or the very juvenile novel that earned them.

    Don't put yourself down, Helen. I too have problems with the idea of success. I'd have to share what I was writing about with my friends and family!

    1. It is sad, as you say. Mrs Riley was a lovely gentle soul who loved children and wanted to encourage them. I wish there were more like her.
      Thanks, Rosemary.

  5. Your story is my story too, Helen. Bullied at school. Could do better reports. Naughty girl, smacked bottom at home. Today, when I went to the World Book Night event, once again I reflected on how insecure I feel inside. Spare seat beside me - reason, no one wants to talk to me. Big crowd, all chatting among themselves: no one notices I'm alone. No one likes me.
    Invited to speak at the front, suddenly, I'm a different person. I'm not me. I'm a different persona. I'm an actress, playing the part of an author. I'm not trying to engage people in conversation and failing. I've been invited to speak. People are sitting, waiting and wanting me to speak.
    You are not alone, dear Helen. You have me alongside you. And I suspect, from what others have written, that you are one of many. xx

    1. Mel, you brought tears to my eyes. Thank you so much for the 'Me too'. It often feels as if I'm the only one who has a problem; others get on with pursuing and enjoying their dreams and I'm always revving in neutral. I really appreciate your encouragement and that of other people here. What a blessing the ACW is, really. x

    2. I can identify with this too, Mel - although I did quite well at school, I never felt like it was good enough. I spend a lot of my time in large groups feeling isolated and excluded, and not knowing how to join in. I don't think people understand how I feel - or believe me - because when I'm teaching or standing at the front of church leading worship, I project an aura of confidence. Inside, though, I feel like a fraud.

    3. Yes, I can see that too Fiona and Mel. When there's a job to be done, we can get on and do it, but it's exhausting. In normal life I avoid the large groups and tend to panic when invited to things for exactly the reasons you both describe.

  6. I am totally with you on this. Failure feels scary, but success, and the challenge to STAY successful, is worse ... Great post. It switched some lights on in my head. x

    1. Thanks, Fran. Praying that the light gets rid of some shadows. Thank you.

  7. Dare I say, fear of success is actually quite common? Here we are, lots of us, discussing it and saying 'me too' to it. It might be worth looking around and researching its possible causes. School is often an exacerbating factor. Teachers are weird: they are probably also scared of any chid who is not easy to control, in terms of being creatively talented, asking penetrating questions, having dyslexia, anything which they can't control easily as a group thing. I sense this from my own miserable time at school. My sense of me at school was utterly unwanted person, please disappear. I had long hair, and had it cut because that might make me acceptable since many of the others had their short. I tired to not be noticed. I learned to hate my own name. Indeed I have changed it by deed poll . WhenI shared with others from my school, and indeed quite recently several of us met on Twitter so I shared with some who were in other years than me as well, we all felt we were the only 'me' who had suffered - but we all had. One thing I wonder is, did we ever tell our Mum about this suffering? Did we have the words to tell ourselves what we felt, and confide in our mum? Or anyone? I wonder. WHat's true is, lots of people feel like this. Adults all all role-playing out there! Many more than we think! People learn coping strategies ... Thanks for sharing, Helen, it;s brought out the sharing among a group of us here (and probably there are far more than this in the ACW group alone). Yet here we all are, married with children: I bet we all thought we would be left 'on the shelf'? And that we were doomed to failure at everything?

    1. Thanks so much, Clare. You're right - it seems so many of us have been through experiences that leave nasty scars and it's very easy to go through life feeling all alone. I think we've believed a lot of lies about ourselves over the years, and those lies are very deeply rooted and hard to uncover and discard. I believe that God wants to help each one of us do exactly that, until we know who we really are as his sons and daughters.
      Thanks so much for your honesty.

  8. Helen, when I look at that photo I don't see a fat girl at all! I see a tall slim girl, built proportionate to her height, and looking much more mature than her years. Our perceptions of self are always so distorted, for a number of reasons, especially for women who are so judged on our appearance. Congratulations on winning a prize with your writing at such an early age. I pray that you may have many more 'successes' and feel good about them this time.

    1. Thank you so much for that Veronica. To be honest, I can no longer tell whether the child in the photo is fat or not, but I know how I felt, and how my dress fitted, and have felt pretty much like that ever since. You're quite right about distorted self-image, and about the way society judges women. I want so much more than this for my daughters.
      Thanks so much for your comment. x