How to become more creative later in life

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Carol Sorgen

After retirement, psychologist Francine Toder took up two new hobbies: playing the cello and creative writing. Her experiences led her to write a new book, The Vintage Years, about how creativity can flourish later in life.
Photo courtesy of Francine Toder

It’s never too late to develop your creativity, and two new books show you why and how.

Contemplating life after retirement and its inevitable question of “What’s next?,” psychologist Francine Toder impulsively, and almost simultaneously, took up cello lessons and creative writing classes.

What those two seemingly random events led to was an exploration of late (or later in) life creativity, the focus of her new book, The Vintage Years: Finding Your Inner Artist (Writer, Musician, Visual Artist) After Sixty.

Only recently, writes Toder, have neuropsychologists and other scientists confirmed that age 60 and beyond may be the best time in life to take up an art form like writing, playing a musical instrument, or a visual art like painting, sculpting or ceramics.

Contrary to what we might think, not only does the brain continue to grow new connections and become more efficient with age, but wisdom amassed over the years greatly enhances the expression of art.

Add to that, reports Toder in this engaging book, the  increased focus made possible by lifestyle changes and you have the ingredients for more satisfying, meaningful and creative “vintage years.”

Brain research

Toder has divided the book into three sections, and even suggests that they do not need to be read in order.

The first, and most research-oriented, part of the book focuses on the development of our brain from babyhood on. It also describes how and why many of us give up the artistic pleasures of our childhood (finger painting anyone?) — from inhibition to attention to career, children, etc.

For readers already familiar with the subject of creativity and aging, these first few chapters may not offer much new. Toder discusses the research of well-known names in the field, from geriatric psychiatrist Gene Cohen, a pioneer in the study of creativity and aging, to Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of such books as A Psychology for the Third Millennium: The Evolving Self and Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

But for those new to the topic, Toder does a good job of turning scientific jargon into a readable explanation of not only why it’s never too late to take up a creative pursuit, but why there’s a very good chance we can become successful enough to derive great pleasure from the pursuit itself, and perhaps even garner external acclaim.

(On the other hand, most of the later-in-life artists Toder interviewed for the book had little interest in receiving payment or recognition for their efforts, even if those happened to be the unanticipated and unsought results.)

This brings us to the second part of the book — the stories of more than 20 “budding late-blooming” artists, including musicians, visual artists and writers. Their individual stories range from simply interesting to downright compelling and inspiring.

Some, like Toder herself, stumbled upon their new passion shortly before or after retiring. Others faced life crises, notably health-related, that compromised their ability to make a living or pursue former interests and led them to recalibrate their lives in some new ways.

All, though, extolled the virtues of their creative endeavors and credited them with contributing to their health, longevity and ongoing participation in the world around them.

In the final section of the book, Toder offers a road map to “making it happen.” She addresses how to decide whether or not to retire (for some it’s not an option, and if they can’t, how they can still bring artistic endeavors into their life).

Also, she discusses creating a “decision tree” that can help you narrow down the possibilities by considering such factors as your personal style, resources and opportunities.

The book has already garnered positive reviews, with Publisher’s Weekly writing that “…Toder’s scientific acumen and the inspiration of these exceptional — yet everyday — elders will be sure to kick‐start readers’ explorations of their own late‐in‐the‐game creative potential.”

For Toder, her own creative explorations that inspired this book continue. She is planning a sequel and still practices the cello every day.

Getting the creative juices flowing

In another new book, Creative Thursday: Everyday Inspiration to Grow Your Creative Practice, artist, writer and textile designer Marisa Anne Cummings, who goes by the name Marisa Anne, offers a colorful guide to developing your creative muscles. (The book is liberally illustrated with her many whimsical drawings and designs.)

Unlike Toder’s work, Cummings’ book is not necessarily aimed at the older generation of  budding artists. And unlike Toder, Cummings is a “professional creative,” having always earned her living in one creative endeavor or another.

But if you’re looking to expand your creative horizons, whether professionally or personally, Creative Thursday is an enjoyable, informative guide to getting started.

Interspersed with Cummings’ own personal anecdotes (many of which she shares on her blog and social media outlets), are very practical suggestions for developing a more creative life, from how to get started (“start by starting” and “be willing to not make a very good start”), to finding inspiration (yoga, exercise, change of scenery, learn something new, and more), to learning to share your work (take classes, avoid comparison).

While Cummings’ suggestions come from her own personal experience, and Toder’s from her research and interviews, many of the ideas echo each other (for example, the importance of exercise, the willingness to not care whether you’re good at first, the value of taking classes).

But they each offer a different style and approach that make them both a worthy addition to your own personal creativity library.

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