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Grand master for a lifetime: Henri Matisse, photographed by Man Ray

The nautre of art making over the lifetime has been a recurring theme for me these last few months. Spurred in many ways by the publication of Lastingness: The Art of Old Age, by Nicholas Delbanco (which wasn’t as satisfying as I had hoped), my curiosity about what makes an artist able to continue working has only deepened. Answers are few as to why some continue on and others do not, but the question is a potent one.

Here are a few highlights from Delbanco’s book:

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Why should it seem so difficult to substitute endurance for enthusiasm, to temper ambition with artistry;what are, in Cyril Connolly’s fine phrase, the “enemies of promise” that keep us from achieving the best work at the end?

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To know, I mean truly know—as might a basketball player or ballerina—that the best is behind you is to turn to drink or diterhing or to an oven or gun. A few modest and decorous authors—think of E. M. Forster and Eudora Welty—withdraw into silence and declare at a certain point in their career, Enough’s enough. But most of us go on and on, unable or unwilling to break a lifetime’s habit of wrangling with language, and happy to be allowed, even encouraged, to do so. Most of us, when asked which book has been our favorite, will answer (hopefully, wishfully, truthfully), “The next.”

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For a group of ceaseless strivers (often miserable, always doubt-hounded as they search) the motto is Cezanne’s: “I seek in painting.” Whereas Picasso announced, “I don’t seek; I find.”

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Of the aging artists, Donald Hall has this to say: When I saw Moore the year he turned eighty, I asked him, in a jocular manner I hope, to tell me the secret of life. Without jocularity he answered that the secret was to devote yourself entirely to one end, to one goal, and to work every day toward this goal, to put all your energy and imagination into the one endeavor. The only necessity was that this goal by unattainable.”

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As Anthony Storr observes, in “Solitude: A Return to Self”:

One of the most interesting features of any creative person’s work is how it changes over time. No highly creative person is ever satisfied with what he has done. Often indeed, after completing a project, he experiences a period of depression from which he is only relieved by embarking on the next piece of work. It seems to me that the capacity to create provides an irreplaceable opportunity for personal development in isolation. Most of us develop and mature primarily through interaction with others. Our passage through life is defined by our roles relative to others; as child, adolescent, spouse, parent, and grandparent. The artist or philosopher is able to mature primarily on his own. His passage through life is defined by the changing nature and increasing maturity of his work, rather than his relationships with others.

The last quote, from Storr’s book, is a rich one. It is also right in keeping with my personal predilection for hermitizing, for being defined more by my work than anything else. And it was provocative enough to get me to read Storr’s book next.

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It’s inevitable. You just can’t ignore the fact that you used to run more effortlessly. That you used to acquire new information rapidly. That new data went into a file that was always open (as opposed to the vague middle-age hope that you can get “same day service” on a search for something you know you once knew.) We are all living with the fact that our bodies, and our brains, are slowly moving away from those heady days in our 20s when everything worked perfectly. Or so it seemed.

But an article in the Boston Globe helped me put this perception of the entropic drift towards “less than” into a fresh perspective. Self serving, perhaps, since I am well over 40. But it has a ring of truth. And a definite ring of hopefulness!

Interviewing Barbara Strauch (former deputy science editor at The New York Times and author of The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind), Elizabeth Cooney elicits a number of valuable insights about the middle-aged brain. Strauch starts by articulating what most of us have already noticed: As you age, your brain slows down. You get more easily distracted and your short term memory just isn’t as crisp. This actually starts in your 20s, so that decline is happening for most of your life. “I think we’re all kind of quietly worried. And many of us have watched parents suffer from dementia and we think maybe we’re losing our minds,” says Strauch.

But here’s the good news:

On balance what we have is a trade-off. There are some things we don’t do as well. If you have to learn new information — a new computer system at work — brand new information can take a little longer on average as our brains age. [But] our brains in modern middle age have enormous capacity and are formidable in their powers to get the gist of an argument, to see the big picture. Someone I know who teaches at Columbia says the kids are smart, but they don’t seem to connect the dots. What we have in the middle-age brain is that ability to connect the dots. I’ve had many people tell me, ‘I can’t remember what I had for breakfast, but solutions pop into my head.’ It’s that confidence to navigate the world.

But, asks Cooney, is it better or just different?

Long-term studies of the same people over 40 years [showed that] in many areas, including reasoning, our brains actually function better. The same people in their 40s and 50s and beyond actually did better than in their 20s. I think that’s pretty shocking.

No kidding. And just about the best thing I’ve heard in a long time.

A special message for all my younguns friends out there: Beware of contempt about growing old. It may be harmful to your health later on.

As reported by Kay Lazar in the Boston Globe, what you think about aging while you are still young can impact how it happens to you when it does:

When you think about aging, what words and images come to mind? Wrinkled, forgetful, maybe feeble?

You might want to rethink those, and try spry, wise, and distinguished, because our negative perceptions of our elders may have adverse effects on our own long-term health, according to a growing body of research.

Scientists are increasingly linking negative stereotypes about older adults to a number of health problems, from memory impairments to increased risk of heart disease and even a shortened life span. With elders often portrayed as the dentures, wrinkle cream, and incontinence segment of our youth-obsessed society, negative messages about aging can be pernicious and long-lasting, specialists say.

So I have to ask: Is there a way to retrofit these more positive attitudes? I too was once a 20 year old who was so breezily dismissive of older people, contemptuous and ignorant of what it means . So as a preventative, repeat after me: Spry! Wise! Distinguished! Again…