Will the ten-year-old Bronte please stand up – Catherine Lowell

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By Catherine Lowell

Today marks the 201st birthday of Charlotte Bronte, which means that around the world you can find millions of fans paying homage to their favorite literary trailblazer, a writer so beloved, so firmly entrenched in Literature’s Hall of Fame, that she may as well have sprung from the womb fully clothed and holding a quill pen.

The enduring popularity of Charlotte Bronte’s story stems in part from its very improbability: with no connections, little money, no great beauty, and precious few contemporaries who supported the idea of a woman writer, there wasn’t much to recommend Charlotte as an international icon. The key assets at her disposal were creativity and courage, which she had in bottomless supply, and which ultimately helped transform a tiny, four-foot-ten governess into the stuff of legend.

If you’ve read about her story, you can’t help but wonder: where does that kind of creativity come from? It’s no small question — every writer, entrepreneur, innovator, or artist wants to know the same thing. Are you born with the germ of genius inside of you, or it is something you pick up later?

When considering Charlotte Bronte’s particular creative genius, it’s sometimes helpful to look away from the adult author (who more or less had things figured out), and instead examine the young writer, the teenage Charlotte, who was only just starting to flex her creative muscles. What does this Charlotte teach us about creativity, and how to nurture it? Does her journey hold any lessons for our own creative pursuits?

Here are three helpful tips we might glean from Charlotte’s early writing career.

1. Find a place where no one can judge you

Charlotte’s interest in writing began at ten years old — when she and her siblings wrote about an imaginary world called Glass Town — and continued throughout her teenage years. In 1834, at eighteen, she and her brother invented a spin-off fantasy world called Angria. The stories she wrote were filled with wild and unseemly things: dramatic romances, lurid acts of violence, eyebrow-raising political intrigues, and a collection of brooding hunks. They were not the sort of topics polite young ladies wrote about in 1834 — unless, of course, no one else was going to be around to read them.

The Brontë Parsonage was in many ways a Mecca for creative freedom: geographically isolated, with little by way of social contact, it lacked an audience, critics, and opportunities for public scorn. The Brontë children therefore had a relatively safe space to flex their creative muscles, and the freedom to think differently. Little wonder that Charlotte produced something the world had never seen; be yourself, and you’ll find you have no competition.

It helped, too, that Charlotte was a child, since children tend to worry less about the opinions of others. (Writer’s block, after all, is an adult invention.) But the takeaway is the same for adults: if you’re stuck in a creative rut, try going Full Bronte. Turn off your phone. Disable social media for a month, so no one else gets inside your head. Write to have fun, not to get published. Let your imagination run around the block. If you’re lucky, maybe it won’t come back.

2. You already have all the great ideas you need

Peruse the early writing of well-known authors, and you’ll often find a strong connection between the child writer and the adult writer — particularly in the subjects they choose to explore.

It comes as no surprise that teenage Lewis Carroll was already writing about rabbits, or that long before Pride and Prejudice, fifteen-year-old Jane Austen was already satirizing British society.

One of Charlotte Bronte’s most famous creations, Mr. Rochester, is arguably an updated version of her childhood invention, The Duke of Zamorna. While her novels seem very different from her juvenilia, many of the same themes reappear.

Great works may not be the product of singular flashes of genius, then, but instead may be what happens when people nurture ideas and interests that have long percolated within them. If you’re looking for creative inspiration, it may be worth remembering what you cared most about when you were younger. Finding inspiration may simply mean rediscovering it.

Remember Goethe’s observation: “If children grew up according to early indications, we should have nothing but geniuses.”

3. Creative genius looks a lot like hard work

For all the romance attached to Charlotte’s story — a young woman on the Moors, nurturing a rare talent — she still had to put in the hours to be successful.

Even back then, being a great writer was a function of time, work, and lots of editing. As with most authors, it took years for Charlotte to develop into the fully-formed artist we know today.

She spent her youth practicing the craft, exploring the range of her emotions and finding her authentic voice. Nor was she working entirely unguided; her tutor, Constantin Heger, became an invaluable mentor, working with her to transform her uneven childhood writing into the sophisticated prose we know today. Like everyone else, Charlotte Bronte had her fair share of misses, too: it’s easy to think only of Jane Eyre and forget its less successful precursor, The Professor.

The real path to greatness? Patience, and practice.


Catherine Lowell is a writer living in Manhattan. Her novel, The Madwoman Upstairs (2016), is a mystery about the last descendant of the Bronte family.

cathlowell.com

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