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.