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AGE SHOULDN'T FADE DISTANT DREAMS

"I had a great river thrusting for release inside of me and had to find a channel into which its floodlike power could pour. I had to find it or be destroyed in the flood of my own creation."

- Thomas Wolfe

At 73, Harriet Doerr finished her first novel. It won the National Book Award.

At 65, George Ryder enrolled in music school. He became a successful entertainer.

Beatrice Wood began crafting ceramics in her 40s. She is still molding masterpieces at 101.

They are among a growing number of older creators - talented amateurs and successful professionals alike - who have discovered and nurtured deep pools of creative energy in the second semester of their lives.

In addition to contributing to the nation's artistic heritage and serving as role models, these older painters, poets, singers and sculptors are challenging and strengthening their own minds.

Dr. Gene Cohen, director of the Center on Aging in Washington, D.C., and author of "The Brain in Human Aging," cites two key forces behind this new vanguard of old creators.

For the first time, vast numbers of healthy "retirees" have time to chase distant dreams that seemed unrealistic when they were working and raising families, he said, and many possess the wisdom and confidence to take risks.

"They know who they are," said Cohen. "They aren't afraid of trying something that might seem foolish."

But can 60-year-olds keep pace with youth, the traditional incubator for creative talent?

Brain researchers note that normal aging does not diminish the intuitive and cognitive skills usually associated with creativity.

A decrease in the mathematical or logic skills may come with passing years, but the brain often compensates with heightened visual and spacial skills.

"The brain is like any organ," Cohen said. "It has a tremendous reserve."

And like any organ, the brain deteriorates with lack of stimulation, adding emphasis to the refrain "use it or lose it." Creative efforts tend to fire up the brain by spurring the growth of dendrites - branchlike cell extensions that spur communication between the billions of brain cells.

Art historian Joan Hart has not peered into the cellular make-up of brain matter but has witnessed the impact of creativity as director of Museum One, an outreach program that conducts workshops for nursing home patients on everyone from Mozart to Michelangelo.

Hart was touched by a former artist who suffered a stroke and gave up drawing. After attending a workshop he picked up his sketch book and began drawing again.

Hart also remembers a blind man who attended the lectures to "hear" the paintings.

And she will never forget a frail, elderly woman from Washington, D.C., who fell in love with Matisse. She spent the last day of her life admiring his paintings at the National Gallery of Art.

"Art expands your mind, opens a whole new world, makes you look at things a new way," Hart said. "Art frees people up."

Most research into creativity has occurred since the 1950s, conducted in the shadow of studies of human intelligence that led to the IQ test.

Howard Gardner of the Harvard School of Education, author of "Creating Minds," has scoured the research for common traits among highly creative people.

Gardner notes that many creators maintain a link to childhood experiences and values, which explains Einstein's statement "I ask the questions only a child would ask."

Many creators have a "crystallizing experience" that sets them on an irresistible quest, such as when a young T.S. Eliot felt a burning desire to describe the engulfing silence of the streets of Boston.

A few single-mindedly pursue their interest without regard for others, which helps explain why Picasso's first wife went crazy, a mistress suffered a nervous breakdown and another mistress hanged herself.

Researchers also note that many highly intelligent people are not creative and many creative people are not highly intelligent. Everyone from business executives to athletes can nurture and harness creativity.

Perhaps no one better personifies coming into great creative powers late than novelist Harriet Doerr. Becoming a widow in her 60s, she took a dare by her children to finish her degree at Stanford. At 67, she got her B.A. in European history. At 73, she published her first work, the acclaimed novel "Stones for Ibarra," which won the National Book Award.

Her road to success was long, interesting and full of surprises.

After nearly three years of college, Doerr dropped out to get married in the 1930s.

"I didn't think anything of it at the time," the 84-year-old writer said from her home in Pasadena, Calif.

Among the many rewards of her marriage were some 15 years spent in Mexico with her husband, an American born there. She began to draw on that experience when she went back to school, first to Scripps College in Claremont, then to Stanford.

At both schools she received what she calls "startling encouragement" in her writing. "Without that," she says, "I would have foundered and remained mute, I'm sure. I didn't have any particular faith in myself."

So little faith that after graduating in 1977, she moved out of the tiny rented house near Stanford with no thought of returning. But after being encouraged to join the graduate program, she came back a few months later.

She had written some short stories, which, she says, "weren't good enough to publish." But a group of linked stories about an American couple in a Mexican mountain town was accepted by Viking with a suggestion that she turn them into a novel.

Doerr's second novel, "Consider This, Senora," dealing with American expatriates living in a small Mexican village, came out in 1993. Now she's working on a series of autobiographical essays.

But to Doerr, this success, though remarkable, seems a continuum of her life-long love of words.

"I read all my life," she says. "Luckily there was no TV when I was a child.

"You read a book that's beautiful," she contends, "and you say, `Wouldn't it be wonderful to do this?' You put yourself in that person's consciousness."

The love of words makes her hate euphemisms. "I don't like saying `pass away' or `older,' " she contends. "When you're young, you're young, and when you're old, you're old."

Being able to capture "the way Spanish people talk and render it into English" may account for her acuity in capturing some essence of Latin culture.

But she also believes that two powerful tools of writing, memory and imagination, come together forcefully in old age.

"In old people, imagination and memory are practically interchangeable," she believes. "If my brothers and sisters were here and I were describing something that happened when I was 6, not one of them would agree with my description. But I don't think it makes any difference."

For George Ryder, creative fulfillment was a question of finally doing what he wanted to do. By the time he finished law school in 1940 to please his mother, he had also passed auditions at the Metropolitan Opera. But he didn't actually start singing until he was 65.

"In 1940 the Army decided what I should do," he notes wryly. After his military discharge, married with a child, he needed "to make a buck."

Ryder put his creative energy to work selling ideas. His first success was with little garbage cans to fit in small houses. Other ideas also sold well and he made some "very big bucks." He flew planes, drove motorcycles and ice skated.

But, he says, "It dawned on me I was doing everything to kill myself."

So at 65 he traded in his Cadillac for a van, returned to Philadelphia's Curtis School to study singing again, and decided to do Broadway songs instead of opera. Starting at Chautauqua, N.Y., he discovered his audience: elderly women. They loved his renditions of Paul Robeson, Rex Harrison, George M. Cohan, Maurice Chevalier.

Ryder took his show on the road, singing his way across the country, often at churches and synagogues. Eight years ago, he landed in San Francisco, where he now performs at a senior theater and on bay cruises.

He's also finishing a book on musical therapy for reducing stress. "Singing takes both sides of the mind, right and left," he says.

Ryder notes some surprising continuity between his two careers. "In business," he remarks, "you have to be nice to people - sing and dance, communicate. It's the same in the theater."

Then he adds, "I feel at home now. I'm 78, and it isn't over. I'm achieving some kind of happiness."

Perhaps no one is a better example of the creative long view than Beatrice Wood. As a teenaged rebel, she ran off to Paris to study theater, then, with the outbreak of World War I, returned to New York to act. She became involved there with an avant-garde group of artists known as Dada, winning the sobriquet, "the Mama of Dada."

But it wasn't until her 40s, in Los Angeles, that she found her true calling - ceramics. She eventually developed a style with a beautiful, lustrous glaze, and her fame spread. Wood's pieces can command $50,000, and critics say her best work was done in her 90s - so far.

Last year, a play was produced based on her and her favorite vices, titled "Young Men and Chocolates." Going on 102, Wood is still working, still laughing, still creating.