“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.”
So said Nobel Prize-winning novelist Doris Lessing of creativity. The author of The Golden Notebook, who passed away recently at the age of 94, said this five years ago when describing a creative slump. But as Tara Bahrampour notes in The Washington Post, in many ways creative thinking can stay with you well into your final years, and perhaps even be stronger and more dynamic.
I put forward as Exhibit One the estimable Dr. Francine Toder, author of The Vintage Years: Finding Your Inner Artist (Writer, Musician, Visual Artist) after Sixty. In her guest post for The Artist’s Road in May, she profiles creatives who started a new creative passion later in life. Francine herself took up the cello at age 70.
I am ill-inclined to push back against a Nobel Prize winner such as Lessing. And readers of my most recent post must know the empathy I felt for Lessing when I read of her stalled creativity. But Bahrampour highlights some key points as to why we mustn’t extrapolate Lessing’s late-life struggle with writing across all older creatives.
- The human brain is hard-wired for creative thinking. Absent other changes to the brain, we’re creative from birth to our final breath. Damage to the brain changes that calculus, obviously, and Lessing did suffer from a stroke late in life.
- Creative thinking requires adventurous living. You don’t have to take up skydiving when you turn 65, but you should shake up your routine at times throughout your creative life to force your brain to think differently, like Toder did by starting the cello.
- Naturally occurring biological changes can facilitate creative thinking. As we enter our 40’s, a sheath that protects our brain’s axons begins to break down. The protection that sheath brings can help lead one to that “Eureka” moment, but a decrease can facilitate the kind of free thinking that leads to unique creative output.
There is one other point Bahrampour makes in her article that I’d like to highlight. She says “[o]lder artists can also be galvanized by their own sense of mortality.” In other words, the ticking clock serves as a powerful motivator.
I hear that clock. No, at the age of 46 I do not feel that death is knocking at my door. I don’t particularly think about my mortality much, to be quite frank. But I do constantly take stock of where I am in my life and what I have accomplished to date.
When I chose to return to the path of an art-committed life at the age of 43, I told myself that I was two decades behind. I felt behind at times in my recent MFA program, where more than half of the students were younger than me. I was inspired, however, by several other students who were similar in age to Francine Toder when she took up the cello. So I now am less inclined to mourn those lost years, but I remain hungry to “catch up.”
The bottom line is that if you are inclined to be creative, be creative. If what you’ve always done isn’t working, try something different, and know that creative possibility is awaiting you somewhere in your brain.
ADDENDUM: I’d like to welcome visitors who have found this post via Freshly Pressed. This is the second time I’ve been Pressed this year, and I love how this service brings in thoughtful and insightful new readers!