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Good news on age and creativity: You may still have time to create your masterpiece

Are you over 40 and wondering if it’s too late for you to write your Great American Novel?

Hey, don’t worry.

Despite New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus’ essay last week on the “essential truth about fiction writers,” that they “often compose their best and most lasting work when they are young,” you may still have time to create your masterpiece.

And that goes for those of you whose creative muse inhabits a non-literary field, say, painting or composing or even biology.

At least, that’s what science writer Jonah Lehrer proposes in his blog, Frontal Cortex (and I’m at an age where I want to believe him).

Unlike Tanenhaus, who relies on anecdotes for his argument, Lehrer (who’s under 30, I might add) cites some research on the topic:

[A] psychologist at UC-Davis, Dean Simonton, has assembled the historiometric data. He finds that the vast majority of disciplines obey an inverted U curve of creativity. … For instance, Simonton has found that poets and physicists tend to produce their finest work in their late 20s, while geologists, biologists and novelists tend to peak much later, often not until they reach late middle age. Simonton argues that those disciplines with an “intricate, highly articulated body of domain knowledge,” such as physics, chess and poetry, tend to encourage youthful productivity. In contrast, fields that are more loosely defined, in which the basic concepts are ambiguous and unclear — examples include history, literary criticism and biology—lead to later peak productive ages.

Lehrer also cites research by David Galenson, an economist at the University of Chicago:

Galenson divides creators into two distinct categories: conceptual innovators and experimental innovators. In general, conceptual innovators make sudden and radical breakthroughs by formulating new ideas, often at an early age. In contrast, experimental innovators work by trial and error, and typically require decades of tinkering before they produce a major work.

Whew! There’s still time.

Creative anecdotes

Although Lehrer says anecdotes aren’t helpful to this argument (they can cut both ways), I personally find them … well, reassuring. So I asked my friend, local writer and illustrator Eric Hanson, to send me a few examples of people who produced some of their greatest works in their fifth decade — or beyond — from his own post-40 creative masterpiece, “A Book of Ages.” Here are some of the examples he sent me:

  • Wagner began his “Ring” cycle at 40, finishing it 17 years later.
  • Raymond Chandler wrote his first novel, “The Big Sleep,” at age 51. Until a few years earlier, he’d been an oil executive. [This may be welcomed news for BP CEO Tony Hayward, 53, who will probably be finding himself looking for a new line of work soon.]
  • Leonardo da Vinci painted “La Gioconda” (better known as the “Mona Lisa”) when he was 51.
  • Picasso painted his 12-foot-by-26-foot mural of the bombing of Guernica at age 55.
  • Rachel Carson published “Silent Spring,” the book that created the modern environmental movement, when she was 55.
  • Miguel de Cervantes published Part I of “Don Quixote” when he was 58. (He’d been working as a tax collector.)
  • Feodor Dostoevsky finished writing “The Brothers Karamozov” at age 58.
  • Irving Berlin wrote “Annie Get Your Gun” at age 58.
  • John Milton, also 58, found a publisher for his new epic poem “Paradise Lost.” [Those of you who are age 58, take note: It seems to be a particularly creative year. Also, this example seems to defy the argument that poets peak by their late 20s.]
  • Gertrude Stein published “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” when she was 59.
  • Grandma Moses was discovered at age 78 when a New York art dealer saw her paintings displayed in a drug store in Hoosick Fall, NY.
  • Ben Franklin flew his kite in a thunderstorm when he was 46, or so they say. He invented daylight saving time when he was 78; bifocals, at 79.
  • Frank Lloyd Wright designed the home Fallingwater at age 72. He designed the Guggenheim Museum when he was in his 90s.
  • Collette was 72 when her most famous novel, “Gigi,” was published.
  • Edward Elgar conceived the theme that became the “Pomp and Circumstance” March while receiving a driving lesson at age 73.
  • Galileo invented the clock pendulum at age 77.
  • Titian painted “The Education of Cupid” at age 88.

“The most successful artists … aren’t slaves to their chronological age,” writes Lehrer. “Instead, they succeed by speaking to the age in which they live.”

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