Elizabeth Stewart Dunford studied music and photography as an undergraduate, and is currently pursuing a Master of Liberal Arts at Harvard, one class at a time. She lives in Newton, MA with her husband, Michael and their three children with whom she has the opportunity to spend the bulk of her time.
My mother told me never to read anyone else’s diary.
Is that why all the diaries I coveted growing up came adorned with a miniature lock and key? To ward off all those who didn’t observe social protocol? Ashamedly, I have found myself in this category at times. (I have older sisters). So, when an opportunity to research Charlotte Brontë’s diary arose, my childhood impulse was to call my mom and ask if she thought Brontë would mind.
Charlotte Brontë fascinates me. She already had my attention with Jane Eyre, but after I read the following words from her diary, she commanded my attention.
How few would believe that from sources purely imaginary such happiness could be derived! … What a treasure is thought! What a privilege is reverie! I am thankful I have the power of solacing myself with the dream of creations … May I never lose that power, may I never feel it grow weaker.
Empirical data supporting the healing influence of the arts upon one’s subconscious, thoughts and feelings was not defined until the early 20th century—yet Brontë understood and utilized the healing effects of writing and painting in her life more than 150 years before the advent of art therapy.
A study of Brontë’s life reveals many sobering reasons why she turned to creative pursuits. The death of her mother and older sisters created a void that she felt obliged to fill. It was expected of her to assume the position of mother figure to her remaining younger siblings. It is a burden Brontë shouldered throughout most of her life. Creative expression is how she dealt with her day-to-day problems. As her diary firmly establishes, she found solace in creativity.
I identify with her.
Last summer I recorded some songs that I had written over a five-year period. Recording my songs facilitated a creative process that allowed me to find closure to painful relationships and celebrate current relationships. As I lost myself in the process and didn’t focus on the outcome, my creative endeavors healed and invigorated me.
The benefits inherent in creative acts are accessible to everyone. Creativity shows up differently from one to another: could be strengthening relationships, could be collecting sporks, or could be creating an edible dinner with what’s left in the fridge.
Creativity is not only available to everyone but easily visible during one’s early years. Think about this for a moment. All children draw. All children sing. In fact, it’s easy to find a 3- or 4- year-old child who will have a go at creating or trying anything. I am lucky enough to have one currently living within my walls—my daughter Ella Sophia’s creations are delightfully present all over the house.
(Noah's Ark animals being fed cut-up Twizzlers)
What happened to us between preschool and the present? We’ve all heard these reasons before—being taught that there is a “right” and a “wrong” way to do things, others’ criticism and fear. Even Charlotte Brontë feared rejection of her writing. Shortly after the publication of the wildly successful Jane Eyre, thirty-one-year-old Brontë nervously wrote to her editor “It has no learning, no research, it discusses no subject of public interest.”
So where to start? How can we, like Brontë, find solace in creative pursuits?
Observe the creative process undefiled. Grab the nearest preschooler and ask her to draw. Watch what she does. The preschooler has no fear and is almost always happy about her creation. If the preschooler is still present (hasn’t run off and “seatbelt taped” the Playmobil girl into the car—my recent favorite from Ella Sophia) you’ll notice that she enjoys the process as much as or more than the final outcome. You don’t need to create a masterpiece—a wildly successful novel or painting or song. Creation itself is the therapy.
What is creating? Your answer will vary from that of everyone else. The point is that you create without judgment. In the context of art therapy, the art created is secondary to the process. Go out and be a child. Create something and remove the critique.
Maybe I’ll get that diary with the lock and key and start by filling the pages with a story about a creative little girl who uses tape for seat belts.
Does your creative outlet sustain you through loss, grief, your day-to-day difficulties?
Mine is not a traditional outlet, like painting or composing, but when I can help bring to life to someone's story and ideas on ‘dare to dream', this for me is an act of creation — one that brings me happiness. As Elizabeth said, creativity can take so many forms — what does yours look like?
As we consider gifting the art of expression to our children, you may want to re-read Tie-Dye, Daughters and Dreams.
Finally, when Elizabeth and I first discussed a guest post after Kimberly Carlile's presentation at Fusion (Kimberly's presentation also inspired Julie Berry's Embracing Round post), I had no idea Elizabeth was a composer/vocalist/musician!