Sunday, March 07, 2010

How Does Age Influence Creativity?

In this weekend's Age magazine, columnist Maggie Alderton wrote about the suicide of Alexander McQueen (fashion designer) and "the loss of his talent". He was 40, young by today's standards in our Western pampered world. She then went on to comment on Michael Jackson and Elvis and how by the time they'd died, their talents were "in decline". She's not getting any real arguments from me! But it did set me thinking about this whole thing of youth and creativity and innovation.

Recently Scribe Publishing here in Melbourne ran a manuscript contest for writers over 35. Possibly this was to contrast with the well-known Vogel Award for the Under-35s, but I was interested to see the following on the Scribe blog:
The CAL Scribe Fiction Prize for writers over 35 attracted 534 entrants, with the eldest born in 1919 (90 years old), while 22 entrants were born in the 1920s and 64 in the 1930s.

To translate that less tactfully into ages, 22 were older than 70 and 86 were older than 60. The winner, Maris Morton, was born in 1938, which makes her 72 if my subtractions are correct. It shouldn't be at all surprising. Once the kids are out of the house or you've retired, it's the big opportunity to write whatever you want, whenever you want.

Of course, there are other reasons for not writing early in your life. Many older people didn't finish school and feel their language skills aren't "good enough". Some, like a friend of mine who had her first novel published in her 60s, were put off when they were young by someone who heaped scorn on their efforts. We love having older writers in our course because they're always so keen and committed and interested. But no doubt older writers also look at the "young and beautiful" on the festival circuit and feel they've got no chance. Thank goodness for Scribe!

Another great friend, Doris Leadbetter, wrote copiously during her lifetime, but rarely sent her work out. When she finally met an editor who asked to read her manuscript, we all cheered, and the book went on to be published. Unfortunately, too late for Doris who saw the cover but never got to hold her first novel, Forgotten Dreams, when in print. The lesson is, of course, don't wait. But I also like to quote my brother-in-law who says "Don't peak too early".

What does this mean? For writers, immediate success with a first novel can be daunting. The second-novel-syndrome is still talked of in whispers! I can name several writers whose first novel came out in the 1990s and I've never seen another one from them since. Then we come back to the stars mentioned earlier - MJ and EP. How do you sustain success without it affecting your life and how you want to live? JK Rowling is being sued yet again by someone who seems (from the materials I've read) to have no real grounds whatsoever. Some would say that's the price of fame, but I wonder why it has to be? Why does being successful so often come with attached mad people who want to make you pay in some way?

And how do you sustain success? The pressure to produce doesn't become any easier when you have ten bestsellers behind you. The operative word is behind, because in a few years those books may well be out of print, and with no new "products" to sell, what does an author do then? We seem to be swamped with comeback tours in Australia at the moment. Everyone from George Michael and Supertramp to Deep Purple and Daddy Cool. Maybe performers are lucky in that even if they're playing to two men and a dog, they're still out there doing what they love. Does it feel the same for an author to be writing if they're not being published?

Which brings me to another author I knew in the 1990s who stopped writing. He wrote literary fiction and short stories, and then penned a thriller that sold quite well. Not long after, he told me he was giving up writing. It was too hard. He couldn't make a living from it, and he didn't want to teach, nor did he want to keep living hand-to-mouth with a family on the way. So he stopped and went off to find a workable 9-5 job. I wonder how many authors secretly wish they could do that, or at least forget about the selling side of their books and just write for pure enjoyment again.

Finally, (yes, I have meandered a little here) I thought about my bank manager in 1993 who gave me a loan to buy my house. At that point I had had one collection of poetry published and won some short fiction prizes - there were no children's books in sight then! When he looked at what I was doing to earn money, and therefore pay back my loan, and saw the word author - which is what the Tax Office uses - he said, "Oh, you'll be working and earning money until you die then! Yes, you can have the loan." What faith the man had in me! Unlike many other bank managers who would probably have pushed me out the door with a resounding "NO!". Seventeen years later, and I don't think I'm in decline, nor have I peaked, I hope. What about you?


Anonymous said...

I haven't peaked yet... but I'm only halfway through my life and so bloody busy with kids and work and everything else. I don't think I'm in decline.

I can't believe Doris Leadbetter never sent anything out! Clearly she knew her stuff.

Sandy Fussell said...

I often wonder if creativity is some enormous multi-dimensional matrix - that I'll never understand! - of which age would be a dimension and as a product of that, available free time. The younger and the older have more leisure time to indulge a passion.

For me it's an ironic catch-22. I didn't start writing until I was busy with family life and had no time for anything else. Then my children's foray into books led me to start writing - at exactly the time when I had no time for it!

Peaked? I hope not. Writing until I die? I hope so.

John Nicholson said...

And let's take the notion of creativity beyond writing. Creativity is necessary in virtually all forms of life activity. Fortunately, age brings life experience, which includes an opportunity to modify the wheel rather than reinvent it.

While not writing as I hope to when time permits, I'm finding that as an "older" person I can draw on my experience to find solutions to problems that seem to tax the inexperienced.

Ah, Doris Leadbetter, she really inspired the fiction writer in me during that short period she was my teacher. I'm still thinking about the Romans interacting with our First Nation people.

Sherryl said...

I think many people have very fond memories of Doris, and she inspired us all! You'll have to read "Forgotten Dreams", John - she gets quite a bit of that stuff into it. It's not in any sense a romance - more an archaeological puzzle novel.

Yes, let's all be creative any way we can until we die.

Kristi Holl said...

Great article, Sherryl! I wonder if my creativity is very highly linked to my health. Getting older brings health concerns and tiredness if you don't ramp up your self-care permanently, and I find the tiredness affecting the creativity in ways it never did when younger. I have reluctantly realized that good health (all that exercise and eating right) has to be a daily thing now if I expect not to peak--and poop out! A really good night's sleep can leave me feeling super creative though! 8-)