Age and the well of creativity
I am not a young man, though I have no idea how this came to be. I have been, perhaps, too unaware of what age means to be unhappy about it, though recently I have begun to wonder whether if, no matter what one’s head says, there is a peak in our creative lives and I have passed mine, without even scaling it.
From an early age I wanted to write. Words have always been better friends written than spoken. Yet, for reasons important only to me, writing slowly faded from my life, like a cherished teddy bear that gradually ceases to be able to help with life’s burdens. As children we survive on comfort; as adults we make what comfort we can while needing more practical assistance. By the time I was 20, I had confined my writing to my head, to scraps of paper and notebooks until the paper and notebooks became clutter and only what I wrote in my head remained.
It was to be more than 30 years before I came back to writing. I left my job overseas, returned to Australia, and started my first book. Not one I had saved from my youth, but a book born in that time. It came in a rush: nearly 110,000 words in slightly more than three weeks and slightly more time again to edit it. It wasn’t the speed at which it came that surprised me, but the fact that it was a book for teens and young adults. Everything I had written or thought to write before then had been for adult literary fiction. Nonetheless, once it was finished, I was overwhelmed; every book and play I had thought, scribbled and abandoned came tumbling back into my head, jostling for space with a host of new stories.
It would sound gentler to say that it was as if all the things I hadn’t finished or even started had been Sleeping Beauties and that first book had been the Prince Charming which woke them – upon which Princess Beauty promptly invited all her relatives to the Wakening. In truth it was a lot more unruly in there than I imagine Sleeping Beauty and her family would make it. It was more like the old woman and her brood had left their shoe and moved into my head, with each and every one of the children clamouring for my attention.
Two more novels and a picture storybook followed over the next 18 months or so. I had made a list of all the works I wanted to write and they were the ones ready to be born. Looking at my list, though, it didn’t take me long to realise that the normal span of a man’s life was going to be insufficient for me to finish them all – and that it was extremely unlikely that Nature would tack on another year or so for each new book that popped into my head. All in all, though, I thought the realisation to be rather good news; the alternative – not having anything to say and write – was far more frightening.
I found myself working on several books simultaneously. All seemed eager to be written and I couldn’t choose which would get my sole attention. With hindsight, I probably should have chosen one and shut the others in their room until their turn came but I was also pleased to be able to have an alternative to hand when one gave me grief. And yet I found myself unhappy with all of them when they were completed or nearly so. They seem to grow tall and straight and strong, passing from uncertain toddlers to ripe adults but none seems to be as good as it can be. I was dissatisfied with each and every one and so they remain as works in progress.
All writers probably feel each book is not as good as they wanted it to be, that they have failed with every book they have written. Being self-critical, however, is very different from being full of self-doubt, though what separates them is more a crack than a chasm. The fight to stay on the right side of the gap can be a daily battle.
During the course of my research for one of the books, Falling Apples, I read A Mathematician’s Apology by the great English mathematician, GH Hardy. What caught my attention was his contention that mathematics is a young person’s game and that a mathematician’s best work is created before they are 30. I began to wonder if the same is true of writing or any other creative endeavour. Or, perhaps it is that we all have a fixed well of inspiration within us and most of us, since we pursue our passions at an early age, use it up before old age. Is creativity exhausted by age or by use?
We can all think of those who creativity continued well into old age and who never seemed to have had a dotage, let alone fall into it. Equally, though, it is not hard to think of just as many whose work either dried up or fell off in quality and originality as they aged. Nor does it tax us too much to think of writers who have produced one or two great works amidst a small library of rubbish.
Now, the consideration of age or use is naturally an important one for me. If creativity wanes with age, then I have much to regret, and the real tragedy is not the personal waste, but that all the books I write will never be quite as good as they could have been had I written them years ago when I should have. On the other hand, if creativity is a well from which we draw until it runs dry, then I am in for a very happy ending.
Working away towards that happy ending, I am reassured by the several things: first, that my books are brilliant; secondly, by the knowledge that age is less easily distracted than youth, so I have the advantage of a nose pressed more closely to the grindstone; and lastly, that if I was born with, say, half a hundred books in me, it makes little difference to them or to me whether they were born over a span of 60 years or twenty.
So, I’ll dip my bucket once more and keep cracking on, then.