Friday, May 15, 2009

Writing, Creativity and Aging

Here is a question that comes up every now and then in my writers workshops with adults. How does aging affect your writing, especially your ability to connect with kids? I usually answer jokingly. “ Who me? Age?” or something to that effect.
Recently, when I was invited to be on a panel, sponsored by Washington University Medical School, entitled “In the Words of the Artist: The Influence of Age on Creativity and Expression,” I was forced to give this subject more thought. I mentioned to my daughter that I actually had agreed to participate on such a panel, and she remarked, “Perhaps you’ve decided finally to act your age.” It occurs to me that our children expect us to age gracefully, to age with dignity. What popped into my head was a line from Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.” “Rage, rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Well, forget the rage. I prefer to age creatively.
In preparation for the panel, I began to consider how my writing had changed over the years. I began my first novel for young readers when I was thirty-five. It was motivated by the challenges of raising three daughters. I wrote every day, five days a week, while they were in school, and the books focused on domestic issues, having to do with peer pressure, illness in the family, or sibling rivalry. Editors called this genre “the problem novel.”
But when the girls grew up and went off to college, those teenage stories didn’t interest me as much anymore. I knew I had to stretch my brain in a new direction.
Letting go of that stage in my life was difficult for several reasons. I no longer had a prescribed schedule to my days. And I needed to find a new subject. My husband and I began to travel more, and through the places we went and the people we met, my world view changed, broadened. Working on a novel, I used to immerse myself in the characters, the voice, and the rhythm of language. I had to stay in the room. But when I started my first book on contemporary art, The Painter’s Eye,” with Sandra Jordan, I found myself visiting artists’ studios, museum exhibitions, and art educators all over the country. In other words, I definitely left the room!!
What I found as we wrote books about artists Chuck Close, Louise Bourgeois, and Christo and Jeanne-Claude was that their most ambitious artworks were done past the age of sixty. The architect Frank Gehry’s iconic museum in Bilbao, Spain opened just before his seventieth birthday. What drives them, I think, is the need to be remembered, to get it better, to do one more great work. Their art-making stimulates and challenges them. Problem solving energizes them. They’re not stepping aside.
Several weeks ago there was an intriguing article in the New York Times, entitled “The Artful Codger,” which talked about aging writers and the fact that improvements in health care allow us to work longer and more productively. “Shakespeare didn’t have Blue Cross,” the writer quipped. Writers, such as Saul Bellow, John Updike, and Philip Roth, have written novels full of ardor and energy way into their seventies. According to the article, “late style” tends to be provocative, energetic. Instead of rocking their way to old age, these authors write of “romantic yearnings” and “memories of the flesh.” As for me, I’m still in my “middle style.” I’ll wait until I’m much older to start writing my “late style” lusty novel. In answer to my students’ questions about relating to young readers as I grow older, I can say that my grandchildren supply me with endless material. In fact my next two books are geared toward younger children, inspired by Alexander, age 9, and Coco, age 6. And as I age, I’m celebrating my creativity, instead of worrying about losing it.


Susan E. Goodman said...

Jan--what a great post. I think that there are other things about getting older that boost creativity as well. I find that I don't get in my way as much now as I used to. When I reread my first book, for example, I still really like it, but I cringe at my clear need to prove that I can write beautifully instead of just doing it in a less is more kind of way. I'm also more inclined to find things to write about that are interesting and important to be--which really gives you a leg up in the creativity department.

steve jenkins said...

I often tell my wife that our job now — vis a vis our two grown kids — is to get old gracefully. You've expressed that perfectly. I have to wait a bit for grandkids - something to look forward to.

Jan Greenberg said...

Thank you Susan and Steve. The downside of this aging thing is that my literary memory isn't what it used to be. For example the Dylan Thomas quote I barely remembered. The internet search helped!Recently, when I went to the Children's Literature Festival in Warrensburg, MO., I asked some of my writer friends how aging was affecting their creativity. A number of them had taken up new hobbies, new art forms, such as painting,dance,or piano.This summer I'm taking a mystery writing course, which puts me, for the first time in years, in the role of the student, rather than the teacher. Will keep you posted!!!