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.

80 thoughts on “The Nonagenarian Novelist

  1. This was a thought-provoking read. I’m in my thirties and still just writing on the side but my long-term goal is to bring in enough to write full time. I suppose I never considered what that would actually mean for me down the line. ‘Granny Writes Porn,’ definitely does not have the same appeal! Certainly food for thought 🤔

    Liked by 3 people

    1. On the contrary, I think “Granny Writes Porn” sounds provocative, like what has Granny learned in all her years of experimenting that others have yet to learn? 🙂 Thanks for stopping by, Strange!

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  2. A brilliant post! While not in my nineties–with those particular sensibilities–I began writing my literary series when I was in my early sixties. After six years of devoting myself to the work, I am enjoying a freedom of expression and appreciation in my elder years–though not so elderly, it appears! This piece gives me hope and perspective. Long may the juices flow!
    renee carrier, The Riven Country Series

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Fabulous post, Priscilla. I remember when I started writing that I’d discovered something I could do until I hit the ripe old age of 90. You just confirmed it! The afternoon slumps also confirms why I’m much more productive in the morning. 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  4. What a wonderful post PB, thanks for sharing the positives points, as I agree with most of them and the cons always accompany… but who cares for the latter! That’s why I prefer a cosy couch or a recliner whenever I write. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Balroop! Lately my writing spot has been determined by the weather. If it’s chilly, I like a warm spot on the couch. If it’s warm, I like to sit at my desk on one of those kneeling chairs. I’m glad you stopped by.:-)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. oooo… title competition! I turned fellow-Horror granny 60 this past year… 🙂

    I have noticed being more relaxed with subject matter — perhaps because we cease to care about other peoples’ opinions after a certain point (including that of editors, as a matter of fact), and getting “lost” in writing is not only easier, but so much like the dream state I almost need an alarm clock to stop work when I have to attend to other matters. The only troubles for me are the constant battles technology can cause (like today I got punted off the internet until I figured out I needed to reconfigure my modem to an update) and the search for a specific word I know I’m looking for and have to stop writing in order to look up by synonym (!) to retrieve.. BUT, it also means I feel more mentally deft and less “cloudy” than I had started to feel before I returned to writing in my early fifties. So yeah. Writing is better when you are older… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t mind other people’s opinions of me as much as I used to either. In fact, I recently posted an erotica story review under my own name! Technology gives me headaches, too, sometimes literally. (I get cybersickness if I move windows around on the screen too much.) And today I was trying to figure out how to make the WP Reader and email notifications look the same as my posts do on my website. They’re different, darn it!

      It’s super cool to read about an author’s own experience returning to writing in her early fifties. I have Herman Wouk’s memoir that he wrote when we was 100 on my TBR. That ought to be interesting!

      Thanks for commenting, KC!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This is certainly encouraging news, Priscilla.
    I’ll bet writing stories and novels beats sudoku or “brain gym” puzzles when it comes to keeping one’s aging brain in shape.
    I wonder if in a century or so, the early 21st century will be known as the age of the Boomer Writers?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How serendipitous that you brought up the sudoku and brain gym puzzles. Levitin talks about them in his book. You are right in that those sorts of puzzles help you get better at . . . those sorts of puzzles. Broader exercise of the mind like writing and face-to-face conversations are a lot more effective at keeping our grey matter in shape.

      “The Age of the Boomer Writers,” I love it! Thanks for commenting, Audrey.:-)

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I always said I would write into my old age, and after reading this post, now I know it can be done. YAY!
    My writing has improved as I’ve aged, so hopefully I can get past the aches and pains, sleepless nights and all that other stuff I have to look forward to and focus on the rosy writing days ahead! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I sort of had a personal view of this, as my mentor John Dalmas was in his final years. We went to workshops together, and people told me afterward that he was meandering and sometimes hard to understand. At some point, his publisher no longer wanted to produce his work. John wrote until he was about 90 and kept it up to the last two years of his life, but you really could see the difference in his work.

    So everyone ages differently. Like many things in writing, we need to give ourselves permission to ride the waves of our own experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I’m sorry to hear about your mentor’s last years. My dad died from Alzheimer’s. He was a serious genius in his younger years, so I can relate. One of the things that I learned from reading this book is that doing things like reading, volunteering, striving to be a congenial and happy person, writing, exercising, meditating, and having face-to-face conversations can greatly reduce one’s risk of developing dementia. Thanks for commenting, Deby.:-)

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Well, that’s extra good news for me. See, I run a Retirement Village in my day job, and I’m so surrounded by older people, sometimes I feel like my own brain has aged. I guess that’s a good thing for my writing though! Not sure if my back agrees…it too has started aging prematurely!
    Bring on Granny Writes Horror: An Anthology 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I thought you might weight in on this one, Jessica, considering your day job. Of course, you wouldn’t necessarily see the healthiest section of the older population. I hear ya about the back. I have to stuff a lumbar support behind my back on the sofa and make sure I’m sitting up tall if I’m at the desk. Oh my goodness, that’s an AWESOME title for an anthology! We’ll have to put one together x-decades from now. Thanks for commenting, Jess.:-)

      Liked by 1 person

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