The Nonagenarian Novelist

Image of elderly man

How long will you keep writing? Can you still write when you’re old, I mean really old, like 90 or 100? Some systems in the brain decline with age, and some improve with age, particularly those systems that we use as writers.

I’m reading a fascinating book (linked below) about the elderly brain written by a brilliant, Stanford-educated, neuroscientist dude.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

• We can writer smarter, more sophisticated books as we age because we will instinctively use our lifetime of information to generate more complicated plots. You know the cliché about old people being wise? It’s actually true!

• If you are a literary writer, aging can be of particular benefit because pattern-matching circuits in the brain become better with age. That means we can see how a character’s actions relate to his or her core beliefs. Talk about three-dimensional character development!

• We’ll also have the tools to write more beautiful prose because the aging brain gets better at making analogies for layered meanings, and the aging brain gets better at assessing both visual and auditory inputs at the same time for richer descriptions.

• Writing suits the older brain. Every decade after forty, our thoughts turn increasingly inward, and we become less aware of the environment around us . . . just like a writer lost in the pages of his or her story.:-)

• If you don’t like plotting, you may get to be a pantser in old age. Why? Because older brains are better and actually faster at seeing the big picture. We’ll be internalizing plot structure so we can tell even without an outline whether or not the path a character is on will work out or not.

However, it’s not all roses. I’m going to gray-out the yukky bits:

• Most people can expect aches and pains as we get older, so we’ll have to do stuff like find a more comfortable chair and get up more often to stretch.

• Sleep is necessary for a good working brain, but we’ll have to put more effort into planning a good night’s sleep.

• Also, stress decreases the effectiveness of the aging hippocampus which has a big role in memory and learning, so in order to keep our writing chops in good shape we’ll have to strive for a chill attitude, seek contentment, love on our spouses, walk in the sun and in the cool mist, and stuff like that.

• The older brain isn’t interested in pursuing novelty, but new experiences are beneficial for the brain. We’ll have to push ourselves to make each successive book different than the last. A setting in a totally different country, perhaps, or a brand new genre. (I just broke out laughing imagining myself trying to write romance! But ask me again in 40 years.)

• Post-lunch energy slumps (and afternoon naps) are a thing.

• And finally, older brains don’t handle distractions well. I already turn off email notifications and text pings when I write, but it appears I’ll have to turn them off in order to concentrate.

Back to the rosy (haha!) stuff so we end on a positive note:

• We get better at thinking abstractly as our brains grows older, especially with respect to behavior. Just imagine easily manipulating a character’s behavior to fit the theme of the story. Cool beans.

• The brain’s ability to put into use information it already knows increases each decade after 40. We can apply what we know about novel structure and sensory description. In neuroscience terms, our “fluid intelligence” increases.

• And probably the most relevant for an aging writer: the two hemispheres of the brain communicate with each other better when we’re older, so we can address logic (the plot, the timeline) and emotion (how the characters react and how the reader should feel) at the same time.

I’m middle-aged now, but I’m thinking in a few decades I can change my blog description to Granny Writes Horror.:-)

Here’s the book I’m reading: Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives, by Daniel J. Levitin.

Feature image by Janko Ferlic on Unsplash.

82 thoughts on “The Nonagenarian Novelist

  1. What an interesting post. I can certainly see a change in my approach not only to writing, but also to everything as I get older. I’m not slowing down as such, but my focus is shifting away from the nonsense – and my goodness, there’s a lot of it about – and towards what matters to me. Meanwhile, my Mum was still writing regularly in her late 80s, but the tip over into the next decade has seen a change in her and she has stepped away from her keyboard, which is sad.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You are right; it is sad to see an older loved one become less cognitively active. My brilliant father died from Alzheimer’s way too young. Not all of us age well. Then again, we know more about keeping healthy as we age than we used to, so I suspect there will be a lot more active, healthy elderly people in the next few decades than there has ever been before. I’m so glad you popped by, Julia! I hope you and yours are well.:-)

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  2. What a great post. I’ve been thinking of this very issue as I am late to writing. I have enough books inside me to get me well into my 70’s but what then? Can I still do it? Thanks for this uplifting post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Jacqui. Personally, I think world events and corner grocery store events will give us plenty of seed for decades and decades’ worth of stories.:-) I’m you stopped by!

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  3. Very interesting thoughts and thanks for the tip on the book. Not everybody ages the same, and all we can do is try to keep ourselves as healthy as possible, but some things are difficult to plan. Thanks for the hopeful thoughts, and let’s keep fingers crossed. ♥

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    1. The book intimidated me at first because it’s so dang long. And then I got the 60 percent mark, and it was over. The last 40 percent is endnotes. Levitin did a LOT of research when he wrote the book! I’ll join you in keeping hopeful and crossing my fingers. Thanks for commenting, Olga.:-)

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  4. Great post. I sometimes feel like my brain is doing most of these things – I love writing horror probably will for as long as I can – but I have started to have this desire not to write about zombies and blood and guts and such like I have already done but I want to write more stuff that truly terrifies not just grosses you out. With that said, I am a sucker for a good splatter flick so who knows if I will ever change.

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  5. Thank you, Priscilla, for the inspiring post…
    At 73, I need all the encouragement I can get. I started journaling out of necessity about seven years ago. Because of aging, I thought writing a memoir would come easy…wrong! After spending over two years with a critique group I put the memoir aside and tried to swim the deep ocean by myself. I started writing fiction to take my mind off the memoir from hell! Then…I took on a challenge last year to write 52 fiction short stories in 52 weeks (each 2000 + words). I thought I would never manage to complete the challenge but I did! And…if I can do it and 73 anyone can. I’m a panster because I hate to outline (a waste of time for me). I lose interest quickly (must be the aging) in outlining a story but I do have to think about the prompt I’m using for a day or two before I start writing. Turns out I love the sci-fi and paranormal genre.
    What I’ve found interesting is that some people (family) around me ask, “Why are you writing? What do you have to say?” My answer, ” I write because writing fiction takes me to other worlds. I can solve problems that I can’t solve in the real world. It’s an escape.”
    Again, thanks so much for the post!
    Sherry Kesling, Cave Creek, AZ

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh Sherry, what a wonderful story! I’m cheering you on. I’m super impressed with your 52 in 52! Did you submit any of them to publishers? Because out of 52 there’s gotta be a few gems. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.:-)

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    1. I’m getting kinda excited to see what the oldest baby boomers will produce in the next two decades! I’ve now finished the book. We certainly weren’t mean to be sedentary, solitary, or sleepless! Thanks for commenting, Jina.:-)

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  6. OMG this post is THE BOMB! I love how you presented the info, and also…it explains a few things I’ve already noticed. (I’ve never done well with distractions, but the older I’ve gotten the more I’m derailed when they happen.) Turning off the pings and pongs is a MUST! Also, I’ve always told my husband as he’s dreaming of retirement that just because he is, don’t plan on me joining him in endless days of nothing but fun. I don’t plan on stepping away from the keyboard when I hit a certain age. Only when I physically or mentally can’t clack away anymore.

    But this was absolutely PHENOMENALLY presented! Loved the color boxes and the “good/bad” flip flop! SO clever!!!!

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  7. I like that you mentioned the positives at the beginning and the end! And I agree with a lot of these. I think there is value in writing for children and YA closer to the age as an earlier writer, and then branching into literary when older. I don’t think it’s a hard and fast rule – I know elderly authors who write children books amazingly well, and young adults who write so maturely! But it is interesting to see the natural positives and negatives too. Ooh, and I always remember Toni Morrison started writing late in her life, so that I remember there is no rush!

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    1. Thanks for the kind words, Olivia-Savannah.:-) Just from reading your blog and watching your YT channel, I think you are one of the younger people who will turn out mature prose. I’m already looking forward to reading your novels! I’m glad you stopped by.:-)

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  8. Thanks for a wonderful exposition of the pluses and minuses of writing when you are 90 plus. By coincidence i have just edited and published an ebook based on the blog of a 99 year old, the wonderful Doris Carnevali. Her topic? Everyday life as a nonagenarian. Her main activity? Writing!

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      1. Priscilla, thank you for your intelligent review. You are the first, of course! I would like to post you a tiny gift as gesture of thanks. Can you please email me a postal address? (I understand why you might not want to do this.)

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  9. I don’t think I’d have had the experiences and emotional perspective to write when I was younger. I thought I could, but embarrassment at revealing too much would have halted me. Having said that, I wish I’d written more diaries as they would be a goldmine!

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    1. I can relate. I wrote the sappiest stuff in high school and college, and my world view has changed 180 degrees since I was a 20-something. But I guess that’s true for most people. I hope you’re having a good week, Nicola!

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  10. Greetings! Having gotten through Daniel Levitin’s wonderful book on aging–at your recommendation! I reviewed your blog related to it and must thank you again for your brilliant analysis re writing as an elder. (No “senior” for me.) And I concur with all your well considered points. Thanks, Priscilla.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Renee. Coincidentally, today my journal prompt was related to aging; it was: “Face-to-face socializing reduces the risk of dementia by 60 percent.” (So I brainstormed more ways to be social.) I’m glad you found the book interesting. I certainly learned a lot from it and was encouraged by it. I hope you’re having a good week!

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