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A Creative Lifetime
by Phil Geusz
©2005 Phil Geusz -- all rights reserved

I guess it was about 1980 when I first began to really notice it. I'd been a big Beatles fan during my misspent adolescence, and was now a young adult. The Beatles had broken up when I was maybe eleven, but their music remained dominant in popular culture for a full decade after. Paul McCartney went on to found Wings, which had a couple good hits. John Lennon had put out a single decent album, as well. Yet the rest of the Fab Four were producing nothing but crap. Even McCartney and Lennon were clearly slowing down to a creative crawl; their whole last decade of work put together, while not totally negligible, didn't add up to even a fraction of the genius revealed in Sergeant Pepper's or Abbey Road.

What was happening to my heroes?

It wasn't just the Beatles, either. As the years rolled by, the rest of my most-beloved bands began to go silent as well. Led Zeppelin broke up, the members never again to produce anything more than poor imitations of their once-stellar brilliance. The Who continued to produce albums, but at ever-longer intervals and with less and less evidence of the rebellious ingenuity that was the mainspring of their fame. The Rolling Stones held out longer and showed more class than the rest; even today I'd not be surprised to see them record a new album filled with innovation and taste. Yet, chart the number of Stones hits on a graph with time as the bottom axis, and see what is revealed. Even Richards and Jagger are feeling their years, their creativity slowly ebbing away.

I hated this as a young adult, and raged against it. Why shouldn't Pete Townshend compose unlimited volumes of new stuff, I demanded of myself and others. Why shouldn't McCartney write new songs to enlighten all the rest of my days? Why couldn't the members of Led Zeppelin, instead of turning into mockeries of their former selves, instead empower and share their obviously gifted souls with new groups, wresting the stuff of brilliance from the unyielding universe forevermore, and producing truly hellacious rock all the way into senility?

But none of this happened. Instead, the greatness of my musical heroes simply, inexorably... faded away. It happened more slowly in some cases than in others, true enough. But in each and every case, their muses dried up and slowly died.

It was a truly terrible moment when I realized that the creative lifetime of a human being has very definite limits, almost as bad as recognizing my own mortality. It was even worse when I read that Jim Morrison, creative engine of The Doors and another musical hero, had composed the heart of each and every hit that this amazing group ever produced in a period of six incredibly creative and intense months, and was never able to create anything of much significance again.

The concept of a creative lifespan didn't matter so much to me at first. I gave up on the idea of becoming a writer soon after leaving college, and did not reconsider until I was almost forty. By then I'd almost forgotten about the creative lifetime thing, and I poured out books and stories at a speed which rivaled and sometimes even exceeded that of Stephen King, who did not have the additional burden of a forty-hour workweek to contend with. I wrote a novel per year for six years, plus roughly seventy-five shorts and numerous columns like this one. It was an incredible literary output for a working man, and I remain convinced that parts of this flow will be the best work that I'll ever do. Yet, even as the stories poured from my keyboard I remembered the decline of McCartney and Townshend, and shuddered. Each time that I hit a dry spell, I fretted that my best days were behind me. Yet, somehow, every time that I thought it was all over, a new idea came and hit me between the eyes like a thunderbolt, so powerful and pure and true that it demanded to be written, and right now! Then I'd be back at my word processor, happily typing away. For writing times, truly, are the happiest times I've ever known. I'd remind myself that most of the writers I'd always enjoyed most had managed to write quite well into their old age, and indeed in most cases had produced their best-selling work in their fifties and sixties. It wasn't their best work, not by a long shot. But I tried to convince myself regardless that writers were somehow different than musicians, that an author's muse never had to shrivel up and die.

And yet, I am beginning to seriously believe, mine finally has.

It all started in the fall of 2003, when I became terribly, terribly ill. I lost all my energy, became severely depressed, and took to sleeping sixteen hours a day whenever possible. My doctor found severe abnormalities in my blood chemistry, yet every single test intended to find the cause came back normal. I felt myself physically changing, aging at a markedly accelerated rate. The worst symptom, however, was that I lost my ability to write.

It was awful! I still had ideas that demanded to be put on paper, and even now I still feel that I possess all the necessary technical skills that it took me so long to develop. But, no matter what I did, everything I tried to write came out looking to me like a total piece of crap. I'd always been repulsed by my own writing during the composition process, but even so had been able to see that my stuff wasn't quite as bad as it might be and therefore generally found the strength to finish anyway. Once I grew ill, however, it became virtually impossible for me to finish anything. Every word disgusted me, and there was no joy left at all in the typing.

This scared the living hell out of me. As I stated earlier, writing is the greatest joy I've ever known. My greatest fear, even greater than the fear of death, was to lose my muse. And, it seemed, I'd gone and done exactly that.

Eventually my body ceased making war upon itself for no apparent reason, and I got better without the medics ever having a clue as to why. I still feel much older now than I did before this episode, however. And, I still cannot seem to put out much in the way of fiction. Sure, I've penned a story or two. One of them, I even rather enjoyed writing. However, my total output for the last two years is something like four short stories, one of which well and truly sucked by any standards, and no novels at all. This is, maybe, a typical month's output during my fertile period.

And it took me two years.

Maybe I should be grateful for the joy I've known. Jim Morrison, after all, only had six months of creative bliss, where I had six years. Or, maybe I'm too worried. Some writers take a couple years off repeatedly during their careers, and return to work all the better for the vacation. Perhaps I should simply be grateful for the technical skills I've maintained and try to put them to use in editing and polishing the ideas of other, younger writers, whose muses are still virile and strong. Or perhaps I should try to move gracefully into the status of 'author emeritus', someone who openly admits he's an ex-writer and limits his literary activities to advising others and talking about the glories of the old days.

Perhaps I should. But I'm much too big a bastard to ever retire gracefully, and I'm sadist enough to apply a cattle prod again and again and again to my muse, if that's what it takes to coax out at least one more novel. It might suck, it might not. But anything is better than nothing, when you've been dry as long as I've been. My god, it feels like it's been forever!

And yet, despite the cattle prod and the best of intentions, the story ideas simply won't come. How can even the finest author who ever lived write a good book with no ideas at all? Without even the faintest reflection of a flash of inspiration to guide him along and provide meaning to his work?


Either an idea will come along, or it won't. I've tried all the usual cures for writer's block; nothing works. The uncertainty is perhaps the worst thing of all. I suppose I'll have to find a way to live with either outcome.

Though I don't know if I could ever resolve myself to becoming Paul McCartney, mouthing the brilliant works of his genius youth over and over again to ever-shrinking crowds, all the while slowly forgetting what it was like to reach out and steal the music of the gods themselves.

The poor, poor bastard.

[Editor's note: It would appear that this essay was a bit of a catharsis for Mr. Geusz. In the month or so immediately after he wrote it, he finished one good short story and had gotten well into a second... and, even better, he's picking up the (literary) pace! QGL]

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