I know how people see me now: super-organised, controlled, energetic, confident and ice-cool under pressure. Because I’m articulate in front of huge audiences or being interviewed, I appear extrovert and unselfconscious. People see me as mentally and physically healthy. I certainly don’t “suffer” from stress.
I’m also seen as someone who knows about the brain and can explain human behaviours by linking neuroscience with observed reality. I can talk about the suprachiasmatic nucleus, the mesolimbic pathway, myelination and brain bandwidth and avoid the psychobabble traps surrounding mirror neurons or brain laterality.
But that person is not who I was.
This is my message to young people, or people of any age, struggling with how things are for them:
“Everything changes. Some of it will change anyway and some of it you can make change, once you know how you work. And what you can’t change, you rise above, deal with, park.”
Throughout school, I suffered what I now realise were stress-related health problems, often making me miss school or just under-perform. I was horrendously self-conscious, afraid of failure and hated speaking in class, let alone standing on a stage; anxiety was my middle name and phobias restricted my enjoyment of life, although I somehow thought that one day I would wake up as a different person, which was a very comforting thought.
I was also “different”: I was the only girl (apart from my sister) in a rural all-boys’ school until I was 11, most of that in classes with people three years older than me, and then arrived at a girls’ boarding school where I was a shy, skinny, naïve, never-been-to-a-city 11 year old in a class of sophisticated 13 year olds. Those girls were not impressed by my tree-climbing and weapon-making skills. Or my appalling crimplene-heavy fashion sense.
Weirdly, I describe myself as enjoying school, except for my Lower 6th year, when all the teachers gave me deeply critical and pessimistic reports, telling me I wouldn’t get to University, except for one who suggested that I might be unhappy rather than unteachable. Full marks to that teacher. (I did go to university – Cambridge.)
I was also regarded as being poor at science. I know this because I have my last science report, which includes the words: “She does not seem to have great deal of aptitude for science subjects”. (You’ll see that “aptitude” is spelled wrong so we might guess the science teacher didn’t have much “aptitude” for spelling. That’s fine: aptitude is very over-rated.)
Apart from science (OK, and maths) I was always seen as a brain-box, teased for being a swot and knowing the meanings of ridiculous words or being able to unpick the errors in complex sentences or arguments. I unhelpfully underlined my “difference” by being the only person in my year to take Latin and Greek A-levels, which was guaranteed to reinforce me as the brainy one.
It is certainly true that I “suffered” from stress and did throughout my twenties and thirties. I don’t suffer from it now. And I don’t plan to again.
So, what happened? Was it just time or something I did? I think there were several things but one I value most: I fell in love with the human brain and decided to find out how I could control mine better.
I was training to be a dyslexia specialist in the early 1990s. We had to look at what was known (not much) about brain differences between dyslexic and non-dyslexic people and what I learnt about brains how small changes affect our behaviours, emotions, thoughts and physical and mental health just gripped me. People ask me why I’m so interested in the brain and I can only say, “How can you not be?”
And so I read. And read and read. I have never stopped reading about the areas of neuroscience and neuropsychology that interest me. Now, I read the original research and communicate with the practising scientists, who have been amazingly helpful and welcoming to this non-scientist. I also do now understand how to think scientifically, you’ll be glad to know. You can learn to do anything if you want it enough and work hard enough.
So, from stressed-out, unsociable outsider to confident author and public speaker. Same personality, different behaviours. More self-respect and self-kindness. Better strategies. A real pride in my introversion. And completely different mental and physical health.
I believe that makes me the perfect person to help others live a life where biological stress motivates them rather than traps them in dizzying anxiety and suboptimal function.
I wish I could talk to the cripplingly self-conscious, illness-prone and mentally unresilient teenager I was. I would say to her: “Your brain is in your hands far more than you think. I can show you how you can affect your own wellbeing and have the best chance of self-driven success. Trust me.”
- 1961 – born in a boys’ boarding school, where I was a pupil from age 4 to age 11. Lived very rurally. To a girls’ boarding school aged 11.
- 1979-82 – Cambridge University – studied Classics and Philosophy, including metaphysics.
- 1982 – aged 20, decided I wanted to be a novelist. Realised I needed a salary as well, so became a cook, producing high-end business lunches and dinner parties for the wealthier people of Kensington and Chelsea. I managed never to have to cook a soufflé by the simple expedient of telling all my clients authoritatively that soufflés were so last year.
- 1983 – aged 21, accidentally became what I had vowed never to be: a teacher. (My aversion came from having been born in and lived in boys’ schools. I’d had enough of chalk and peanut butter.) One day I went for an interview but there was a mix-up in the application letters and, instead of being interviewed to do occasional creative writing classes, I found myself appointed to a teaching post. The school had a high proportion of pupils with dyslexia and other reading challenges, so there began my new interest and knowledge, leading to a Diploma in the subject.
- 1987 – aged 25, first daughter born and soon after we moved to Scotland. Second daughter two years later.
- Over the next years, I had many home learning books published and then, aged 40, my first teenage novel, Monday are Red, followed by Fleshmarket and many others. And Thomas the Tank Engine books. I was what I wanted to be: a writer.
- 2003 – my publisher asked me a question: “Would you like to write some non-fiction?” Because I was still reading and learning about the brain, I’d just come across new research about teenage brain differences relating to emotions, sleep and risk-taking, among other things, which no one had written about outside the academic community.
- 2005 – Blame My Brain was first published, later reprinted countless times and sold in many countries. It’s my most successful book and changed my career and life.
- 2005-2018 – I produced several more award-winning novels; The Teenage Guide to Stress (winner of the School Library Association Award in both the judges’ and the readers’ categories); The Teenage Guide to Friends; Exam Attack; the teaching resources, Brain Sticks and Stress Well for Schools; and new titles for 2018, Positively Teenage and The Teenage Guide to Life Online.
- 2010 onwards – invited all over the world to deliver keynotes and other talks at conferences and schools and festivals, to audiences of teenagers, parents, teachers and educational leaders, sharing my rigorously-considered and evidence-based knowledge of my subjects.
- Cambridge University MA Hons
- Diploma in SpLD
- Diploma in Youth Counselling
Suggested biographies for event organisers
For adult audiences
Nicola Morgan is a multi-award-winning author and international expert on teenage brains and mental health, how stress impacts wellbeing and performance, effects of screens and social media and the science of reading for pleasure. A former teacher and dyslexia specialist, Nicola was a prize-winning novelist whose career changed after the success of her best-selling examination of the teenage brain, Blame My Brain, short-listed for the Aventis Prize, and The Teenage Guide to Stress, winner of the School Library Association award in both readers’ and judges’ categories. The Teenage Guide to Friends, her popular teaching resources, and new titles, Positively Teenage and The Teenage Guide to Life Online, have established Nicola as the go-to expert in her field.
For student audiences
Nicola Morgan is one of our leading writers for teenagers: an award-winning novelist and expert in the teenage brain and mental health, who is invited all over the world to talk on a huge variety of fascinating topics.
Nicola has won several awards, including Scottish Children’s Book of the Year twice. Her novel, Wasted, was on lots of award lists and nominated for the Carnegie Medal. Fleshmarket is popular in schools and Mondays are Red has been optioned for a film deal: this doesn’t mean it will definitely become a film but watch this space!
Most importantly, Nicola cares about your wellbeing and has masses of science-based advice to help you be healthier, stronger, happier and more successful.
An actual song for me
I’ve had many lucky things happen in my life. One was when I won an auction item in the Authors for Refugees auction. My prize was to have a song about me created by John Dougherty.
I could not have known how amazing it would turn out to be. So many lovely people took part in this. Thanks to all of them. Even The Other One features. (There probably should be a trigger warning.)
Some random facts:
- I used to go to an all boys’ school.
- I have one leg longer than the other.
- I have had one jaw-joint removed.
- I do press-ups every day. Well, nearly every day.
- I was, briefly, a professional cook.
- Each time I have a new book contract, I buy new boots. I am a bit obsessed by boots.
- I am useless with left and right. In fact, I come out as dyslexic on tests.
- I hate slugs and frogs.
- I like change, adventure and the future.
- Somebody once tried to abduct me (and my dog…).
- I can gut fish, use an electric drill, tile a bathroom, put up shelves, and once made a mosaic table.
- I cannot use my hands at the same time as talking, so I can’t drive, make tea, type or put make-up on unless I stop talking. Seriously.
Frequently asked questions about my boots
Q: You’re known for loving great footwear – has this always been the case?
A: Absolutely not. This is another thing about me that has changed profoundly since my hopeless youth. I used to be blind to the value of great boots or shoes, which was fortunate as I only had two pairs apart from wellies: my Clarks school T-bars and my plimsolls. Mind you, at the time I was also into brown crimplene trousers – or “trews” as I may actually have called them – the ones with a strap under the foot, which was unnecessary as the static electricity would hold them in place just fine. Seriously, I was the most appallingly dressed girl in my year. There was a lot of brown going on. And a lot of nylon.
Q: So, what happened?
A: A pair of purple suede boots came to me in a dream and my life changed. (No, I’ve no idea but people change and I did, thank goodness. I also ditched the crimplene.)
Q: We heard that you always celebrate a new book contract with new boots. Is that correct?
A: Absolutely. It’s a necessary part of my brand. I can’t let myself down.
Q: And you’ve had 100 books published. So…. Really?
A: Ah, well, 100 books but not 100 contracts. Some of the books were contracted as a series, such as the Thomas the Tank Engine books that I never even mention at all because they were so stressful to write. So they don’t count as individual pairs of boots, I mean contracts.
Q: Don’t you think you’re missing a trick there? You could have 100 pairs of boots.
Q: So, changing the subject, favourite pair?
A: Unfair question. That’s like asking which is my favourite child. They are all perfect. Even the ones that are crazily uncomfortable. And especially the pink tartan ones. Or the purple tweed ones that are identical in style to the pink ones so I could, should I wish to, wear one of each. But then the black patent ones are worth a mention, as I’ve replaced them three times with an identical pair. And the cute red suede very pointy ankle boots are eminently gorgeous.
Q: Favourite brands?
A: I am completely uninterested in brands. Couldn’t care less. The boots just have to do their thing brilliantly, whether that’s looking elegant, being an amazing colour, or being extremely pointy. Pointy is very useful.
Q: Have your boots ever had a round of applause?
A: I’m really glad you asked that because in fact, yes, they have. I was once chairing Marian Keyes at a televised event at the Edinburgh Book Festival and I was wearing some cute red suede very pointy ankle boots. Marian asked the audience to give my boots a round of applause, despite the fact she was wearing some pretty cool footwear herself.
Q: Have your boots ever saved you from a difficult situation?
A: I’m really glad you asked that because in fact, yes, they have. I once had to travel to London for a photoshoot with The Times when The Highwayman’s Footsteps was published. I was asked to turn up in Docklands late in the evening and to be dressed appropriately, which to me could only mean any old dross clothes and some cute red suede very pointy ankle boots. I arrived in London, from Scotland, and wisely left all my luggage in Liverpool St station so that I wouldn’t have to lug it through the underground etc.
Wisely again, I didn’t want to travel through the underground etc wearing cute red suede very pointy ankle boots so I put them in my capacious handbag. This turned out to be particularly wise when the heel of the boots that I had judged to be sensible for walking through the underground system in broke off on an escalator. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to walk with a broken heel but it’s surprisingly impossible and correspondingly amusing for everyone else. And you can’t change footwear while on an escalator in rush hour – trust me on this. So, I hopped to the platform, which unfortunately was at the end of many long passages full of annoyed commuters. Once on the train, the next problem was how to change into cute red suede very pointy ankle boots while being leered at and while I didn’t know how much time I would have between stations, especially as this was the very new Docklands Light railway, which I’d never been on and which could have had very short spaces between stations, for all I knew.
I still hadn’t achieved the boot transfer by the time we got to West India Quay or whatever it’s called. Eventually, I had to sit down and just get the deed done and not care who was watching, even the leering man.
The photoshoot went surprisingly smoothly, mainly because the photographer didn’t ask me to smile, because he was nice and nice photographers don’t ask me to smile, and because actually I did keep smiling, smiling every time I thought how wise I had been to pack those cute red suede very pointy ankle boots in my handbag.
Personally, I think I should get some more. After all, what if the heel comes off on an escalator?