I love writers who never stop, who keep on pounding the keys no matter what decade of life they’re in. Writers like Herman Wouk, one of America’s greatest storytellers, who had a new book come out at the age of 97.
Don’t you love the way he looks in this photo? (Captured by Stephanie Diani for The New York Times. Used by permission.) “I’m not going anywhere,” he seems to be saying. “Not with all the stories I have yet to tell.”
That’s what I want to be like when the deep winter of life rolls around. Still writing. Still dreaming. Still publishing. Thus, I was intrigued by a story with the provocative title Is Creativity Destined To Fade With Age? It begins:
Doris Lessing, the freewheeling Nobel Prize-winning writer on racism, colonialism, feminism and communism who died recently at age 94, was prolific for most of her life. But five years ago, she said the writing had dried up.
“Don’t imagine you’ll have it forever,” she said, according to one obituary. “Use it while you’ve got it because it’ll go; it’s sliding away like water down a plug hole.”
Uh-oh. Does that mean older writers are destined to have a dry well? One researcher cited in the article says No:
“What’s really interesting from the neuroscience point of view is that we are hard-wired for creativity for as long as we stay at it, as long as nothing bad happens to our brain,” Walton said. (Lessing had a stroke in the 1990s, which may have contributed to her outlook.)
Another researcher, however, added a caveat:
But repeating the same sort of creative pursuit over the decades without advancing your art can be like doing no exercise other than sit-ups your whole life, said Michael Merzenich, professor emeritus of neuroscience at the University of California at San Francisco and the author of Soft-Wired, a book about optimizing brain health.
One-trick artists “become automatized, they become very habit-borne,” Merzenich said. “They’re not continually challenging themselves to look at life from a new angle.”
This is one reason I love our self-publishing options. We can play. We can go where we want to go without being tied to one brand or type of book. We can write short stories, novelettes, novellas, novels and series. When I’m not working on suspense, I like to challenge myself with a different voice for my boxing stories, my kick-butt nun novelettes, my zombie legal thrillers. I’m currently planning a collection of short stories that will be of the weird Fredric Brown variety. Why? Because I can, and because it keeps my writing chops sharp.
Which appears to be the key to this whole longevity business:
Older artists can also be galvanized by their own sense of mortality. Valerie Trueblood, 69, a Seattle writer who did not publish her novel, Seven Loves, and two short story collections until her 60s, said age can bring greater urgency to the creative process.
“I think for many older people there’s a time of great energy,” Trueblood said. “You see the end of it, you just see the brevity of life more acutely when you’re older, and I think it makes you work harder and be interested in making something exact and completing it.”
People with regular jobs usually can’t wait to retire. A writer should never retire. Fight to be creative as long as you live. Do it this way:
1. Always have at least three projects going
I wrote about this before (“The Asimov“). I think all writers should, at a minimum, have three projects on the burner: their Work-in-Progress; a secondary project that will become the WIP when the first is completed; and one or more projects “in development” (notes, concepts, ideas, character profiles, etc.). This way your mind is not stuck in one place.
2. Take care of your body
The writer’s mind is housed in the body, so do what you have to do to keep the house in shape. Start small if you have to. Eat an apple every day. Drink more water. Walk with a small notebook and pen, ready to jot notes and ideas.
3. Stay positive and productive
Write something every day. Even if it’s just journaling. Know that what you write to completion will see publication, guaranteed. It may be via a contract, like Herman Wouk. Or it may be digitally self-published. Heck, it could be a limited printing of a memoir, just for your family. Writers write with more joy when they know they will be read, and joy is the key to memorable prose.
4. Do not go gentle into that good night
Write, write against the dying of the light! (apologies to Dylan Thomas). Refuse to believe you have diminished powers or have in any way lost the spark that compelled you to write in the first place. If they tell you that you just don’t have it anymore, throw your teeth at them. Who gets to decide if you can write? You do. And your answer is, I’ve still got it, baby, and I’m going to show you with this next story of mine!
So just keep writing and never decompose.
What about you? Are you in this thing to the end?