Ours is a youth-oriented culture. A glance at the tabloids tells us of the exploits of the young. There is not as much of a platform for the artistic achievements and accomplishments of the older or even the middle aged. We falsely believe that creativity belongs to the young, and so, when we pass a certain age, we tell ourselves we are “over the hill.” We ignore the fact that many artists create well into what might be called their “dotage.”
The idea that creativity fades with age is false.
Twenty-five years ago, I wrote a book on creativity called The Artist’s Way. Over four million people have worked with that book. I have taught many live classes and have often found my just-retired students to be the most poignant. Setting out to write a book on creativity and aging, It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again, I discovered that many of us have a fiery passion we long to express in our golden years. As we turn our hand to the page, crafting a memoir of our time on the planet, many dreams surge to the fore. It is not “too late” to begin their pursuit. Often, our life’s experience gives us a “leg up” in creating meaningful art. Comfortable in our own skin, we may find the gift of candor as a passion that has been brewing for decades pushes to the fore with energy and conviction.
We are taught to believe that negative equals realistic and positive equals unrealistic. Nonsense.
Internalizing these destructive messages, we believe we’re “too old,” decide it’s “too late.” But “I’m too old” is something we tell ourselves to save ourselves from the emotional cost of the ego deflation involved in being a beginner.
And the truth is that anyone can tell themselves they’re “too something” to be creative, regardless of age: “Too young” to have enough experiences on which to draw, “too busy” to have time for creating or “too stressed” to take the time to pay attention to the subtle inner voice that might whisper an authentic desire. Every person is creative. Every person has the power to make small, authentic changes that will, over time, adjust the trajectory of their lives. In 30 years of teaching, I have never met an exception.
Making art of any kind is an alchemical process. Making art, we turn the dross of our life into gold. Making art, we recreate ourselves. We transform the events of our life into golden adventures. The ordinary becomes extraordinary; the commonplace becomes special. We transmute our memories into priceless episodes. We make our past present.
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My friend Judy Collins, at age 76, gave 150 concerts last year. She used her time on the road to write a fiery manifesto about her youthful eating disorder.
At 68, writer Natalie Goldberg has two books debuting simultaneously. “I think they’re my best ever,” she says.
Georgia O’Keeffe worked steadily into her 90s, creating a legacy of fine work. Playwright Tom Meehan, who gave us Annie, Hairspray and The Producers, approaches his 90th birthday at the height of his powers.
My friend Rob Lively published his first book, The Mormon Missionary, at age 72, one year into his retirement from a long career in academia. “I have the time, I have the money and I have a lifetime of knowledge,” he tells me. “This all informs my creativity, and my book is better written than it would have been 30 years ago.”
These artists believe they have so much more to say, and they have set about saying it.
I have also recently written a book of prayers and meditations called Life Lessons, a distillate of what I have learned in my four decades of writing and teaching. I could not have written the book any sooner, as life’s lessons are often best understood from a mature perspective.
In the moment of creation, we are ageless. We feel both young at heart and old and wise. “Artists work until the end,” my photographer friend Daniel said to me recently. Yes, they do. This is why retirement from one career— even if it is our major career—is not, by any means, “the end.” Because the act of creating something, anything, renders us timeless, because the act of creation is led by that inner, youthful part of ourselves, we continually reinvent our lives through our art. The capacity to create is as innate as our very life force. I would even say that our creativity and our life force might be one and the same.