[The following is a guest post in a series of diverse posts from individuals who participate in the Eric Maisel Community, a place where we share virtual space, work together two Saturdays a month on our individual projects, and cultivate a sense of community. To learn more, please visit here.]
The Elderly Unsuccessful Creative: On My Deathbed, I Will Still Want to Write
by Denise Beck-Clark
I had originally shared my thoughts about being an elderly creative with Eric Maisel, creativity coach and expert on creatives, in the hopes that he would have insights into the problems as I presented them, and possibly that we might co-author a piece on the topic.
But it’s turned out that I’m writing this without Eric’s input, and I can’t help but wonder how I can when I’m the one with the questions and he’s the one with the answers. Maybe he thinks that by writing it I’ll come up with the answers myself. Well, we’ll see. After all, I have an appropriate background: clinical social worker, psychotherapist, creative.
This is not, however, about all elderly creatives. It’s about those of us who have not been successful in our art … the artist without an audience. Since I reached my sixties over a decade ago, I’ve been thinking about this and what it means as I look back and evaluate my life – the expected thing to do according to another psychological theorist named Erik – Erik Erickson.
One question I’d like to address is why, though unsuccessful at this late date, do I continue to write and even enter contests and submit to literary journals? Also, as I assess my life, what is my conclusion vis-a-vis Erickson’s final life stage, the sixty-five and older person facing the developmental task of Integrity vs. Despair.
I’ve been writing and doing other artistic things since childhood. I knew back then I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. As an adolescent, I identified my life’s purpose as helping people through my writing, in the same way that certain books had had a major impact on me.
Though I never actually read it, I remember a book called “Notes to Myself.” In 1971, when it was on the bestseller lists, I was twenty and fully impressed. As a self-help book that impacted the lives of many people trying to find themselves in the “me decade;” it was inspiring. Even without reading it, “Notes” reinforced my life purpose.
One of the enviable things about its author, Hugh Prather, was that he earned his living by writing, unlike most artists who practice their art but must do something else for money. In those days, I wrote every morning and earned my living in the evening doing word processing at law firms. One morning, as I sat in my green velour chair writing away, something occurred to me: what if one day I’d wake up at age sixty and still be receiving only rejection letters? I would not have contributed anything to my fellow humans … so much for my life purpose.
I put down my pen. Realizing I couldn’t depend for my life’s meaning or my living on my writing or other artistic endeavors, I would have to do something else. As Eric Maisel would eventually teach, I had to identify another life purpose … in this case, one that focused on earning money in a meaningful way. I decided to become a psychotherapist.
For the next three decades, I was gratified by my work as a social worker and psychotherapist. In addition, though not part of my original plan, I became a wife and mother. I joined the ranks of creatives who awoke at four in the morning in order to make time for their art.
I retired twelve years ago from the state psychiatric hospital and gave up my private therapy practice. I thought, now I will focus on writing, as if I hadn’t all along. Notwithstanding the occasional publication of an article or flash fiction story, and a couple of self-publishing ventures, I was still an unsuccessful creative.
In pondering the Ericksonian description of the final stage of life – older adulthood and the developmental task of “Integrity vs. Despair” – I’m having an ongoing tug of war between the two. Besides the obvious moods connected with each, I’m plagued by images of the tangible aspect of being an unsuccessful writer: both literal and virtual file cabinets full of writings read by no one.
Ultimately, there’s the question, “Have I lived a meaningful life?” Or, given all the time I spent writing, not to mention learning, thinking, and talking about writing – identifying as a writer – has it all been one big, sad waste of time and effort?
Fortunately, when I was young I did realize that having only one life purpose was impractical and made provisions for a secondary way to make my life meaningful. At the same time, however, given how much writing and other artistic pursuits have meant to me, I’m still not ready either to stop doing them or to conclude they’ve been a waste.
Which leads back to the question of why, if I’m unsuccessful, do I keep doing what I’m doing? This is the heart of the matter. We creatives will obsess over our art forever because we’re driven to. Regardless of success or not, which I’m defining as having an audience, we write or paint or whatever because we have to. Just the act of writing is necessary for me; it’s the lack of an audience that gives rise to the doubt.
In fact, I can imagine the dying me wanting to write about it. In the chasm between Integrity vs. Despair, I’d say “Integrity” wins. I’ve done and continue to do what I’ve had to, including both pursuing my arts as well as contributing to the world. That other people have not judged my art favorably should be irrelevant, yet I still have to work at not caring that friends and family who’ve associated me with writing for a long time know that I haven’t “made it,” and probably believe I just don’t have the talent.
That belief is something I struggle with, too. It hurts to think I wasn’t good enough at something I love and affects my core view of myself. In the end, however, despite moments of despair, I’ve chosen to be proud of my commitment to my callings. As creatives, the lack of success doesn’t make our dedication to our passion any less admirable.
Retired from her career as a clinical social worker and psychotherapist, the author continues her passions of writing, drawing, and taking pictures. She is also the mother of an adult son with Down syndrome, demanding of much love and time. Her website is www.denisebeck-clark.com or contact her at email@example.com