Bloomers At Large / Features

BLOOMERS AT LARGE: “Creativity, Originality, and Productivity”

by Vicraj Gill

Ezekiel Emanuel’s “Why I Hope to Die at 75” has made waves on the Internet the last few weeks—understandable, given the scientist’s provocative criticism of what he calls “the American immortal,” individuals who assume that they will remain creative and productive well into old age. “[B]y 75,” he writes, “creativity, originality, and productivity are pretty much gone for the vast, vast majority of us.”

Bloom readers might find it slightly happier to hear about a study Emanuel cites in his article that marks ages 40 to 45 as the years when people reach their creative peak. Or they could read the rebuttal to Emanuel’s argument offered by 86-year-old psychiatrist Jimmie Holland and psychologist Mindy Greenstein, 51. In their piece, Holland and Greenstein acknowledge one reality to which Emanuel’s article points—that length of life shouldn’t be prized unequivocally over its quality—even as they gently reveal and refute the unfair assumptions Emanuel sometimes makes about old age.

Holland and Greenstein take particular issue with Emanuel’s apparent denigration of the mentor role that elders often take on. Alissa Nutting would probably agree with their assertion that older mentors are important. See her recent piece about the women she met at her favorite bar, Raccoon’s, which she first started visiting as a 22-year-old searching for role models for “ag[ing] into audacity.” The female patrons of Raccoon’s, Nutting writes, served as “surrogate mothers,” “women who didn’t judge the jagged path I was taking toward becoming a writer,” and “affirmed I was okay when I really needed it most.”

At one point in their piece, Holland and Greenstein talk about patients they counsel in support groups for the aging who, at peace with the thought of mortality, feel comfortable enough with the aging process that they’re able “to joke about disabilities and death.” Case-in-point: Clive James’s comments to The Spectator’s Douglas Murray, particularly James’s tongue-in-cheek take on his own late-life burst of creativity: “I am in the slightly embarrassing position where I write poems saying I am about to die and I don’t.”

That Bloomer Diana Athill—who debuted at 45 and has been writing and publishing steadily since she retired at 75 from a celebrated career at the publisher Andre Deutsch—regards death as openly and unflinchingly as James does is evident in her recent piece for The Guardian, “It’s Silly to Be Frightened of Being Dead.” In the essay, Athill describes how as a teenager she made a point of regularly contemplating death—a practice inspired by Montaigne—which ultimately led her to accept death as something that, being unpreventable and natural, “can’t be too bad.”

At Poetry, Ruth Graham writes about Laetitia Pilkington who, though not a Bloomer like Athill, published her memoirs late in life to great acclaim. (Fans of Cynthia Miller Coffel’s recent feature on Fanny Trollope and her Domestic Manners of the Americans will particularly enjoy Graham’s piece.) The public’s interest in The Memoirs of Mrs. Laetitia Pilkington stemmed from Pilkington’s status as a contemporary and longtime friend turned bitter enemy of writer Jonathan Swift. But she was also a formidable poet in her own right and a talented comic memoirist whose work, Graham argues, ought to be better known than it is.

The New York Times profiles Marlon James, who published his first book at 35 and at 43 has come out with what Publishers Weekly deemed the most impressive book of the fall 2014 season, the novel A Brief History of Seven Killings. James is also noteworthy as a member of a new generation of Caribbean “post-postcolonial writers,” whose work explores not only the colonial pasts of their home countries but recent immigrations to the U.S. as well.

Also at The New York Times, Bloomer Ayana Mathis on the scariest book she’s ever readMildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. That book might seem an unusual choice at first blush, given what we usually think when we hear “scary,” but Mathis’s reasons for picking it are profound. Mathis was the same age as Thunder’s narrator, Cassie, when she first read the book and learned its lessons about the weight of racism in black experience “right alongside” the character. (In the piece, Mathis also namechecks fellow Bloomer Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.)

Quite a few of the folks we’ve featured at Bloom have struggled with what it takes to juggle a professional career with creative passion. Readers interested in this question might be intrigued by Kristen Felicetti and Mack Gelber’s “6 Creatives Who Prove You Can Hold a Day Job and Still Make Awesome Art.” The pair’s conversation with graphic artist Adam J. Kurtz is particularly interesting. Kurtz juggles his design projects with insane hours at an advertising agency—more than 60, some weeks. “Sometimes I don’t even understand how I function as a human being,” he says. “But I’m stubborn as hell, want to keep learning new things, and I like having health insurance.”

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Homepage photo courtesy Colin Hattersley Photography for Luminate Festival

One thought on “BLOOMERS AT LARGE: “Creativity, Originality, and Productivity”

  1. I read Ezekiel Emmanuel’s essay and decided that his decision to suspend certain health-care activities at age 75 was rational enough. It gave me a chance to consider my own preferences because, like Holland and Greenstein, I don’t think length of life should be prioritized over quality of the life. Defining that quality is the tricky part and Emmanuel — though one of his colleagues and partners is 90 — appears to have fairly stringent measures for what makes up a good quality of life. I found it ironic that he describes his post-heart attack father as a person who, at age 79, enjoys his wife and children but isn’t operating at the level as a physician that he had been before the attack. So I guess time to smile and enjoy the people he loves may be okay for his dad but doesn’t add up to the kind of life Emmanuel wants for himself.

    Then there are those of us who, like many others in your post above, start or continue their creative lives well into the second half of their lives. I would not want to have missed their contributions — or the chance to make mine — for anything. I may taper off on certain health care interventions as I age but I won’t guarantee it will be age 75. It will be something I’ll measure as I go.

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