“The Art of Aging.” It was a headline recently in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, my local newspaper. The subtitle asked the question I have asked in this space before: “Is creativity destined to fade as we get older?”
The article quoted Doris Lessing who once said about creativity, “Don’t imagine you’ll have it forever. Use it while you’ve got it because it’ll go; it’s sliding away like water down a plug hole.”
Alice Munroe and Philip Roth made a similar announcement this past year. Both said they were through writing. She was 81, he 79.
Not very encouraging, to say the least, especially for those of us who can no longer fit into that broad category called middle-aged.
I celebrated my 75th birthday in November. By any standard, that’s not the middle of anything.
And I don’t need to hear the research director of the NEA say “Enhanced creativity is associated with greater satisfaction” to know it’s true. I’m holding my writing more lightly these days, but I haven’t put it down. Any time I do—even for a short while—the satisfaction seems to drain out of my days like that “water down a plug hole” Doris Lessing mentioned.
Only later in the article are two things named as the necessary components for keeping creativity strong: brain health and the willingness to do new things.
Brain health we have little control over. We can do what’s possible to enhance and protect our bodies, our brains, and, after that, it’s a matter of genetics . . . or maybe simply luck. (Perhaps the two are pretty much the same.)
But “a willingness to do new things” is completely under our control, and it’s an easy kind of control to master.
Michael Merzenich, the author of Soft Wired, a book about optimizing brain health, has said, “One-trick artists ‘become automized, they become very habit borne. They’re not continually challenging themselves to look at life from a new angle.”
The problem, of course, is that we all find such deep comfort in the familiar. And everything about adulthood encourages us to seek that comfort. In the first place, our authority in the world usually comes from narrowing our choices in order to develop expertise. Not to mention that much of the satisfaction of adulthood comes through finding our greatest, most naturally fitting power and living into it.
As children we weren’t permitted to study history and leave out math and science—or major in recess as my eight-year-old grandson would love to do. At least not until we had quite a few years of education under our belts. I have always admired deeply the adults who showed up in my classes saying, “I’ve never written a thing, but I’ve always wanted to try.”
I have never drawn a thing, have always wanted to try, but have never had the courage to walk into a class.
That has been my loss.
Nonetheless, narrowing my choice to writing has made success possible. That narrowing has given me power, exactly the way flowing water becomes a torrent when confined between banks . . . so long as the banks don’t become so confining as to form a dam. We are fortunate that there are so many ways to keep the stream flowing.
One of the most obvious ways, as writers, is to experiment with different genres. Doing that has been essential to me. Stepping away from a long novel to the exacting demands of a four-hundred word picture book is like opening a window for fresh air. When I finish a young chapter book and begin a longer piece, I rejoice in the time I now have to gather richness. When I return to younger fiction, I find it a relief to be able to move through a chapter in four or five pages. When I embark on nonfiction, I discover an entirely different and pleasurable rhythm for my work.
Even when I’m revisiting territory I’ve traveled many times, if I come to it after doing something else, it feels new. I don’t need research to prove to me that seeking variety in my work has kept me fresh. And the longer I work and the older I grow, the more essential I find it to keep challenging myself to keep my work alive.
It works at any age. Try it!
And by the way, Alice Munroe recently indicated that she hasn’t quite stopped writing, despite what she said. Apparently the ideas keep coming.