The Irish Times view on the creative process: No (age) limits

Edna O’Brien, Margaret Atwood show artistic imagination does not abide by aging

Edna O’Brien:  has just published Girl, a book she set out to write four years ago,  when she was 84. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Edna O’Brien: has just published Girl, a book she set out to write four years ago, when she was 84. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

 

The artistic imagination does not abide by any set rules of age, either for beginning or finishing its work.

The schedule can be a mystery and creative vigour is certainly not the prerogative of youth, as Beethoven, Verdi, Georgia O’Keeffe and others including Yeats – despite his lament that “an aged man is but a paltry thing” – proved with their late works. Just before his death, Sophocles wrote one of the masterpieces of Greek tragedy, Oedipus at Colonus, at 89.

Some writers and artists come to a stop in their creativity relatively early. Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, is one example. Having produced a classic of modern American literature in her early thirties, she published nothing else during her long life.

In contrast, two authors who have demonstrated a more enduring relationship with their muses are currently celebrating the fruits of their longevity with recent and already acclaimed new novels.

Like Rembrandt and Monet, the painter Paul Cézanne, produced some of his greatest works in his final period

Age has not diminished the creative powers of Edna O’Brien who has just published Girl, a book she set out to write four years ago when she was 84. In an interview with Kathy Sheridan in this newspaper, O’Brien spoke of how she even took on an arduous and hazardous journey to Nigeria in her researches into stories about the abductions of young women.

And then, of course, after her “exhausting, sometimes fearsome journeys”, she faced – as she has been doing since her novice years as a writer – the solitary encounter with the blank page.

Margaret Atwood, who is 80 in November, was this week announced as one of the six authors on the Booker shortlist for her novel, The Testaments, her follow-up to A Handmaid’s Tale. She too is testament to the regenerative process that many writers and artists can bring to their work late in the day.

Like Rembrandt and Monet, the painter Paul Cézanne, produced some of his greatest works in his final period. He was perhaps close to a truth when he said that “the knowledge of the means of expressing our emotion . . . is only to be acquired through very long experience”.

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