A Ripe Old Age

Compos[t] Mentis

Recently a friend of mine, a landscape gardener, introduced me to his composting theory of creativity, which, he claimed, provides a rationale for the delayed artistic flowering that some among us experience.   According to the theory, we have been laying it down, layer upon layer of life experience over the years and decades so that now, when we lift the compost out, it is rich and fertile and makes things grow. It is also nigh-on inexhaustible (so long as we remain alive and compos[t] mentis). We only need to keep topping it up and feeding the mixture – with more life experience, conviviality, reading & thinking, interaction with others, engagement with the world, frequent trips and travel, parties, outings and the like.

picture of multi-coloured vegetable matter that will decay to compost

I was put in mind of the composting theory when I read of the death of Hotel du Lac author Anita Brookner at the age of 87, because Dr Brookner’s first novel was published when she was 53 years old and it was her third that bagged her that prize of prizes, the Booker.   And, despite starting late with the novel-writing, she managed to produce twenty in all. By her own admission, her prolific output was partly due to novel-writing having replaced a life which was sad and miserable and coloured by unsatisfactory love affairs with unsuitable men, so the topping up theory might seem not to apply.  But then top-ups do not have to be either grandiose or happy in order to enrich the compost.  They can be small and comfortable like trips to the theatre, reading the newspaper and a cup of earl grey tea drunk from a bone china cup.  They can be big and painful.  A bit of  heartache, as long as it’s mulched down, improves the growing mixture .

There are all sorts of reasons that might prevent a person from getting on with their artistic endeavour until they have reached a certain age. There might be a need to earn a living, pay the mortgage, bring up the children.  There may be a level of stress that does not allow the spacious quality necessary for creativity. There might too be a failure to grasp that it is a perfectly legitimate use of one’s time. It doesn’t always occur to a person that, say, writing a novel is a thing a grownup, the particular sort of grownup that they are, is genuinely allowed to do.   Women more than men I think struggle to recognise themselves thus.

It is also sometimes the case that the late blooming flower was only ever capable of unfurling its petals once all the layers of compost had been laid down.

Some years ago David Galenson, an economist at the University of Chicago, decided to examine the assumption that genius necessarily equates with precocity.  He wrote a study Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity in which he defines the key difference between ‘prodigies’ and ‘late bloomers’ as being their creative approach. Basically, according to his theory of artistic creativity, artists are divided into these two broad groups: conceptualists, who make radical innovations in their field at a very early age; and experimentalists, whose innovations develop slowly over a long period of experimentation and refinement.

The imprecision of the experimentalists means that they proceed in a 'tentative and incremental' way. Compost!