The Art of Aging

Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing

“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.

Alice Munro

Alice Munro

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.

19 thoughts on “The Art of Aging

  1. Lindsey McDivitt

    Marion, your post was powerful–I’m so glad you tackled the issue of ongoing creativity as we age. Even talking about aging in a positive way is rare, but so important. I’m hopeful other writers–for all ages–will embrace portraying late life creativity. I hope you’ll check out my blog which focuses on positive portrayals of aging in picture books. Thanks again! Lindsey

  2. Barbara Younger

    Marion, I agree. My mom, Nancy Kiehne, is 89 and producing the most whimsical paintings of her life (and she enjoyed two solo art shows in the Baltimore area last year.) Creativity does NOT fade with age.

  3. Karen Henry Clark

    I understand completely. After working for years at writing prose picture books, I suddenly found myself interested in rhyming. Maybe it’s a paint-by-number kind of poetry, but it makes me feel incredibly lively. Whether or not it’s sell-worthy, I love doing it.

  4. :Donna Marie

    I think it’s pretty evident that this, just like many other things, is largely dependent on the individual. Some people, as they age, slow down and get to the point at which they’ve had enough. Others never have enough. Health-willing, creative people will have the choice to continue creating, though the medium or format may change.

    I happen to have brain issues for the past 36+ years, since before I was 20. It inhibits recall and makes thinking more difficult, especially when I experience exposures that create more problems, but I can tell you it definitely hasn’t inhibited my creativity. My brain is considerably worse now than it was then and I often wonder how I believe I can take on a complicated YA series, but my desire to do so hasn’t waned.

    And, Marion, when it comes to art, if you expect too much of yourself or have preconceived notions about what it takes to create art, that is what makes you (or anyone) feel intimidated if you believe you have no talent for it. Talent simply makes it come easier. You also need to dive in and experiment with mediums to find out what you are most comfortable using. Typically watercolors are the most difficult to control, so don’t start with those. Oils take long to dry, but colors blend easily. Acrylics dry quickly, but you must develop experience to learn how to handle it, too. Pencils are naturally easier to control, and if you don’t use very waxy pencils or press too hard, you can erase easily.

    Anyway, don’t worry about your skill or lack of. I highly doubt a teacher or any other beginning students would judge harshly. Try not to be afraid. You never know what talent may have been hibernating all these years 🙂

    And you know, in thinking about these expectations of creativity fading? I don’t buy it and it’s not inevitable! Just like in baseball: “It ain’t over ’til it’s over!”

      1. :Donna Marie

        Marion, I’m glad you found what I said useful. What I’m really hoping is it gives you enough to consider taking the leap and trying artwork. You don’t have to create anything that has to be “sell”-worthy. Even if it’s something you simply find fulfilling and enjoyable, and always remember that the more you do something, the more you improve 🙂

        1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

          Thanks again, Donna. I would never think in terms of doing visual art that would be “sell-worthy,” only in terms of finding myself doing it well enough to give myself pleasure. On the other hand, there is that issue of time. Is this where I want to invest my time? I’m not sure. But I’ll keep considering it.

          1. :Donna Marie

            Ah, I get that, for sure. I spend way too much time doing things I don’t want to be doing. You can also consider just dabbling in it, not making it a big part of your life. I’m sure you’ll figure out where your new passions are hiding 😉

  5. Mary Atkinson

    Oh Marion, please take a drawing class! I took my first ever art class last fall, a colored pencil course, and I fell in love. In two weeks I start another drawing class. I came to realize that I have never truly seen the world around me. My head has always been full of words, words, words. It’s been a great relief to shut them out while drawing and just see. Have you read DRAWING ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE BRAIN by Betty White? Even if you don’t pick up a pencil and try it, the book is fascinating.

    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Thank you, Mary, for the recommendation. I knew about that book, but have never picked it up. That would be much less intimidating, to sit down with a book instead of enrolling in a class and, who knows, I might even try a class after that. Your experience speaks to me!

  6. Rita Hornsby

    Thank you, Marion, for sharing your heartfelt thoughts. I do so enjoy reading them but always hesitate to share mine with you and your followers. Maybe I can today.
    I have tried for many years to write stories for children but as the old joke goes it’s always a case of a beginning, a muddle and an end. This year I want to complete at least one story. Your testimony to life and living fully to the end is my inspiration. I have a few hurdles to get over in the next few weeks and church music claims a lot of my time but I just have to write my novel about Nathaniel whose parents abandon him to a harsh life on a farm in the middle of nowhere. There doesn’t seem to be any story in it but I have to find one.
    Thank you for listening. I wish you a wonderful and happy new 76th year! From Rita

  7. Carleen M. Tjader

    Beginning my writing adventure just 2 years ago–at age 65, I surely hope this is true!
    I love the learning, finding great picture books (that as an elem. teacher I have always loved),and the exposure to wonderful writers through their blogs. Such as you. Thank you.


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