On the Ticking Clock (and How It Affects Our Best Work)

So I keep telling myself that NEXT BOOK doesn’t have to be good.

I mean, obviously, I want it to be good. I’m going to try my hardest for it to be good, which is to say that I’m going to try my hardest to do my best work. *

But NEXT BOOK is also a big experiment for me. I’m approaching it differently than I’ve approached previous writing projects. It feels more exploratory, both in the way I’m building it and in the sense that this could be one of those stories where the characters lead me somewhere I wasn’t expecting.

It feels kind of like play, both in the spontaneous, generative sense and the “there is a difference between playing and performing” sense.**

Which means it could turn out to be good, in the way that these types of experimental from-the-heart projects do occasionally turn out to be good, or it could turn out to be derivative and indulgent and all kinds of things, since our hearts are also often derivative and indulgent.

Which is fine, and some of this could be worked out in revision. The book will become what it is becoming, and if it turns out to be not my best work, in the sense that it isn’t as good as The Biographies of Ordinary People or whatever, I’ll still have had the joy of writing it and I’ll have learned important skills that I can use on the NEXT NEXT BOOK.

Except.

I was doing some reading into the aging process (as part of the NEXT BOOK research process) and I came across this article by oncologist and bioethicist Ezekiel J. Emanuel called “Why I Hope to Die at 75.”

Despite the headline, which I am going to attribute to The Atlantic rather than the author, Emanuel doesn’t actually want to die at 75. Instead, he wants to stop receiving certain types of life-extending healthcare:

Once I have lived to 75, my approach to my health care will completely change. I won’t actively end my life. But I won’t try to prolong it, either. 

[…]

At 75 and beyond, I will need a good reason to even visit the doctor and take any medical test or treatment, no matter how routine and painless. And that good reason is not “It will prolong your life.” I will stop getting any regular preventive tests, screenings, or interventions. I will accept only palliative—not curative—treatments if I am suffering pain or other disability.

I’ve seen this philosophy pop up in a few different places, most recently Barbara Ehrenreich’s Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer — but while the books share similar themes, Ehrenreich writes from the perspective of someone trying to avoid both the expense and the discomfort/indignity associated with, say, getting a colonoscopy in your 80s.

Emanuel tells a different story.

American immortals operate on the assumption that they will be precisely such outliers. But the fact is that by 75, creativity, originality, and productivity are pretty much gone for the vast, vast majority of us.

[…]

Dean Keith Simonton, at the University of California at Davis, a luminary among researchers on age and creativity, synthesized numerous studies to demonstrate a typical age-creativity curve: creativity rises rapidly as a career commences, peaks about 20 years into the career, at about age 40 or 45, and then enters a slow, age-related decline. 

There’s even a chart accompanying the article, titled “Productivity of People With High Creative Potential,” and although I’ll make you click through to The Atlantic to see the chart (’cause that’s the right thing to do), I’ll note that according to this research, as a thirty-seven-year-old highly creative and productive person, my next project might in fact be MY BEST WORK.

Simply because of how brains work.

This feels so unfair, like I barely got a chance to start doing my best creative work, and taking a couple years out of my prime creative time to work on this experimental thing that might turn out to be just another derivative fantasy story because I haven’t written enough fantasy to get past the derivative phase yet might be a bad idea because the CLOCK IS TICKING, like, this is not what I wanted out of this project AT ALL.

I mean, obviously, you just have to keep working and doing the best you can with what you have, the way we all do, and then if you want to look back and say “well, I guess my brain started to lose some plasticity right about here,” well, that was going to happen anyway.

Also, the whole “am I at the phase of my life where the world will start leaving me behind” thing was one of the emotional motivators for creating this story in the first place, STUCKNESS vs. POSSIBILITY, so might as well take this feeling and give it to my characters.

We’ll continue this discussion tomorrow. ❤️

*How does one know that they’re doing their best work? Or, more specifically: how does one know that they’re creating the systems/structure in which they can do their best work? Sounds like something I’ll have to explore in another blog post, because I’m not sure I have the answer.

**Yes, I’ll do a separate blog post about that too. For now, keep in mind that playing is a gift you give yourself and performing is a gift you give an audience.

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