Mid-life Creativity Crisis

Working with the young women in my ward is one of the best callings I’ve had. I love being with them, soaking in their enthusiasm for life and for the gospel. They’re at an amazing stage of life, when anything seems possible.

Sometimes I miss that stage. When I was that age, I was convinced I would do something amazing, that I would be someone amazing. Teachers fed this belief—for example, my seventh grade teacher said she wanted me to autograph my first novel for her. Twenty plus years later, I’m pretty sure she’s no longer around (she was old even then) and that novel has yet to materialize.

Now in my mid-thirties, I struggle to reconcile what I imagined my creative life would look like and the life I actually live. It’s not that I don’t enjoy my life—I have three kids, a great husband, and a degree that lets me teach occasional classes at a local university when I crave more adult interaction. But the ghost of those childhood creative ambitions frequently comes back to haunt me.

I try to write, wrangling words and plotlines in the spare minutes I have between mothering, my calling, and other responsibilities. This effort does help—but these crumbs of creative time leave me hungry for more.

Part of my problem is, I’m pretty sure, a societal problem. We live in a society that venerates youth and venerates genius—and it prefers to do both at the same time. The older I get, the more obvious it becomes that I’m never going to be a youthful genius. (Let’s be realistic: I’ll probably never be a genius either, but somehow losing the youthful part seems to hurt the most).  In a fascinating essay on the difference between precocity and “late bloomers,” Malcolm Gladwell writes:

Genius, in the popular conception, is inextricably tied up with precocity—doing something truly creative, we’re inclined to think, requires the freshness and exuberance and energy of youth.

In our culture, it’s easy to feel like our creative efforts aren’t worth it—if we’re not going to accomplish something important before thirty (or at a stretch, forty), then why bother?

I can think of a couple of reasons.

For one thing, there’s no real evidence that genius that flares young is any better (or even more common) than creative genius that takes a lifetime to develop. Gladwell, drawing on the work of David Galenson, describes the difference between artists like Picasso, whose talent is evident early on, and Cézanne, who didn’t really come into his own as an artist until his late fifties:

The Cézannes of the world bloom late not as a result of some defect in character, or distraction, or lack of ambition, but because the kind of creativity that proceeds through trial and error necessarily takes a long time to come to fruition.

The idea of creativity as a work-in-progress is even more important for women, I think. Although society has come a long way in terms of providing equal opportunities for women, many of us still find ourselves (often by choice, sometimes by necessity) prioritizing family life over creative life. This is not necessarily a bad thing—but it is a choice that means developing our talents may take longer. In my case, I stopped writing creatively for ten years while I finished my degree and started my family.

My second, and perhaps most important, reason why we shouldn’t abandon our creative efforts is simply that creativity is an essential aspect of divinity. Becoming more like God means becoming more, not less, creative. Most of you probably remember Elder Uchtdorf’s wonderful talk at the General Relief Society meeting in 2008:

The desire to create is one of the deepest yearnings of the human soul. No matter our talents, education, backgrounds, or abilities, we each have an inherent wish to create something that did not exist before.

Everyone can create. You don’t need money, position, or influence in order to create something of substance or beauty. . . .

What you create doesn’t have to be perfect. . . . Don’t let fear of failure discourage you. Don’t let the voice of critics paralyze you—whether that voice comes from the outside or the inside. . . .

The more you trust and rely upon the Spirit, the greater your capacity to create. That is your opportunity in this life and your destiny in the life to come.

Here’s what I forget. Creativity isn’t about being famous or being recognized as a genius (although that might be nice). It’s not a set of attributes that you might or might not have (for the record, I recently failed this creativity test).

Creativity isn’t an event. It’s a process.

What is your relationship to creativity? Do you think of yourself as a creative person? What are your goals for your creative life? How do you balance creativity with the other demands in your life?

About Rosalyn

(Prose Board) currently lives in Southern Utah with her husband and three small children, where she teaches writing part-time at the local university. She has a BA in English from BYU, and an MA and PhD (also in English) from Penn State. She served a mission in the Hungary Budapest mission. In her spare time (what's that?) she likes to read, write, try new recipes (as long as she doesn't have to clean up), watch movies with her husband (British period drama is her favorite), go for walks, and generally avoid anything that resembles housework.

8 thoughts on “Mid-life Creativity Crisis

  1. The more I toddler chase the more I feel mediocre – the creative activities I enjoyed before has fallen away with the change of priorities.

    For the sake of being creativity I’ve taken up embroidery. I have a small 3″ hoop. It’s easy to pick up, easy to put down, and easy to hold while trailing the child. Embroidery isn’t my heart’s desire, but I am enjoying learning how to wield a needle and thread to create something small to make me smile. Completing small pictures and then quilting them into a larger product gives me a much needed sense of creative accomplishment.

  2. Janell, I did most of my handwork when my children were small. I did a bit of embroidery, some crochet. It was something measurable that stayed done (barring a child unraveling the crochet), unlike most of my other efforts like cleaning, etc.

    Thanks for posting this, Rosalyn. I love the idea of late bloomers, and also expanding what it means to be creative.

  3. Love this, as I aim to be a late bloomer. I need to be more diligent, but life is so crazy sometimes, right!? Mother to 5, work for my husband, YW pres, etc. Now I plan to paint and have a show. I feel like my life experience enriches what I will produce (if I can manage to finish!)

  4. I pursue my creativity via the visual arts and I’ve always taken comfort in the way how these master artists that I look to all had life long careers, which usually meant that they kept getting better or more interesting or deeper thinkers as they aged (across the board I tend to prefer later works by artists). I’m definitely more of a climb-the-ladder kind of personality, not a shooting-star type (which is what you’d need for a career in something like sports, I imagine). I’m not willing to ‘burn bright’ and ‘boldly go’… I want to go step at a time, getting a bit better, and let time be the judge whether my efforts will be remembered.

  5. Janelle–I fully get the feeling of mediocrity! I think it’s been one of the hardest adjustments of my life, going from school (where I consistently did well and was regularly praised) to life with kids where I’m not particularly outstanding.

    Melissa and Sage–here’s to late bloomers! And I love the idea that our life experiences make our work that much richer. I certainly think I understand characters now in a way that I would not have fifteen or twenty years ago.

    Inari, I like the idea of being a climb-the-latter artist. Thank you.

  6. What a wonderful post! Thank you for writing and sharing your experiene. And for giving us space to share our own.

    I agree, it’s a life-long process. And I love the ladder imagery. Nourishing one’s creative process throughout the chaos of child-rearing is a real pain sometimes. But, it was critical for me. It’s part of how I survived and flourished during those years. (I’m speaking as a working professional who raised three kids as a single parent.)

    Carving out space required small moments of (sometimes enormous) energy. But it was amazing how just a snippet of time fed my soul.

    At fifty-one years old, my passion for writing is blooming. My grown children and grand children are thriving and that tiny space I began carving in their youth now occupies a wide swath of emotional landscape in my life. I thank God for this every day. Empty-nesting is plum full of time for creative work. There’s nothing empty about it.

  7. I almost didn’t bother reading this post past the title because I don’t consider myself a particularly creative person. But I’m so glad I did! Beautifully written. I also get caught up in the notion that since I didn’t really accomplish all my goals in my twenties, I should just give up. Thanks for the reminder that my best years may still be ahead of me.

  8. Thank you for this thoughtful post, Rosalyn. I fight feeling like my creativity is drying up with my menopausal body, and that whatever creativity I once had was expended in mothering. Now with an empty nest rushing toward me, I appreciate your perspective, Melody. Hope stirs after reading this post. Thank you!

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