BY ROBIN LLOYD-JONES
This is an extract from the chapter I wrote about my own creativity in later life from my book, Autumn Voices: Scottish writers over 70 talk about creativity in later life. I was 80 when I wrote this and am now 84 and very definitely still writing.
Not until I was seventy-three did I take up photography seriously, buying a decent camera and going on a landscape photography course. I am especially drawn to landscape and nature photography. Thinking about what would make a good shot and trying to record visually the beauty encountered has heightened my appreciation of the natural environment and also influenced how I record this in words. I have found that any kind of creative activity stimulates, informs and illuminates my creativity in other areas. My late arrival in photography links with the general slowing down I mentioned previously. I notice more because I go slower, which leads me to take more photographs and, in doing so, to focus more intently on the detail than before; taking photographs slows me down so that I notice more – another benign circle or upward spiral which has taught me the difference between seeing as compared to merely looking, and to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Learning new things keeps the brain active, sharp and flexible. The kind of things I write – both non-fiction and fiction, books with a historical setting, biography – require a lot of research. Just about everything I have written has resulted in tottering piles of reference books filling my study – new learning, fresh viewpoints and perspectives on life. The Sunlit Summit, a biography of W.H. Murray, written in my late seventies, demanded a huge amount of research, as the bibliography at the end will testify.
I was confident that my creativity would not diminish as I aged, but was surprised by the unexpected release of new creative energy. It wasn’t so much that I was no longer permanently stressed and tired from work at the Education Offices, but other things which I was hardly aware of at the time. Only now, when I come to write this chapter do I begin to recognise them. The period when my grandchildren, Chloe and Andre, were of pre-school age coincided with my late sixties and early seventies. They came regularly to our house and I would play with them – games which invariably began ‘Grandad, let’s pretend ….’; games in which the imagination held sway and the boundaries between fantasy and reality were blurred. So much creativity stems from play, from allowing the mind to be playful. Playing with my grandchildren rejuvenated the playfulness in me.
From my mid-sixties onwards I have done a great deal of travelling abroad: as a representative of Scottish PEN at international conferences, as a speaker at literary gatherings, as a cruise lecturer, or on grants for research purposes, or simply going on holiday. Not only has this given me new material to write about, it has counteracted a growing fondness for the familiar and the routine which has been creeping over me. Travel gets me out of my comfort zone and stimulates and challenges my mind with new ideas, with different values and customs, and my senses with new sights, sounds, smells and tastes; and it enables me to meet and talk to a range of people outside my regular group of friends.
Learning to forgive has released huge amounts of creative energy that were imprisoned by anger and resentment. I used to think that forgiveness was some sort of magnanimous favour you bestowed on those who had wronged you. It needed the maturity that comes with age to see that, most of all, it is something you do for yourself, something liberating and healing. In 2007, when I was seventy-three, I attended a weekend course, run by psychotherapist Nick Duffel, entitled ‘Boarding School Survivors’. It was for people like me who were still grappling with the damage caused by being sent to boarding school at age seven or eight, away from home, parents and pets, living in a loveless environment, and hiding behind a protective mask twenty-four hours of the day, seven days of the week. In such a confined society, hatreds and rivalries were intense. I found, aged seventy, that I was still having fantasies of revenge on various boys. Nick Duffel helped me get over this, to let go of it, to understand and forgive. It released so much new creative energy. That I left it so late before doing this is, I think, an age-related thing – the growing compulsion to tidy up loose ends and put one’s house in order.
A fear of death and worrying about when it would happen and what it would be like was constantly in the back of my mind, surfacing whenever I heard or read of the death of someone close to my age or younger. The turning point came when my wife suggested that one way of coming to terms with my fear might be to look it in the face by planning my own funeral in detail. And it worked! Shortly after this I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. My PSA level was so high that the consultant could see no other outcome than death. At the best I had maybe a couple of years left, at the worst, only a few months. It didn’t happen and I am now completely cured. Having planned my funeral and already accepted that one day I would die, none of this seemed so terrible at the time. It banished any lingering worries and fears and set a sizeable corner of my mind free to be creative.