Write Until You Die

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?

27 thoughts on “Write Until You Die

  1. Yes! My stubbornness knows no bounds. As you said, with self publishing in the game now, I write with the assurance that it will see the light of day, that my stories will reach more readers than just my immediate circle of friends and family. It’s a very inspiring thought.

  2. Jim, You had warned me ahead of time that I’d like this post, and I certainly do. Having already achieved late autumn and getting perilously close to the depths of winter in my life, I’ve taken a hard look at my writing very recently and decided that I not only want to continue but to diversify a bit. Thanks for the encouragement.

  3. I started young, but only hitting my stride as a story teller after really focusing on my craft, beginning in late 2008. You bet I’m in this thing until the very end. I’m never stopping. I’m going to keep stretching my wings as a writer, keep hitting the gym for my body, and keep learning for my mind. No matter what form my “success” may take in the long run, I’m loving the journey, every single day.

  4. I’ve written through the deaths of two parents, and unless I’m sick in bed, I write. I will write until you yank the pen out of my cold dead hands!

  5. My dad is a good role model for me on this front. After
    retiring from his career as a scientist, he has enjoyed pursuing his interest in photography. In his mid-eighties now,he has won many awards, and stays on top of all the latest technology developments in the field. As you say, Jim, there’s no such thing as “too old.”

  6. Your post made me think of A. S. A. Harrison, who published her first novel, “The Silent Wife” at age 65. It came out in paper last summer, was a sleeper hit and made the NYTimes list. Sadly, Harrison died just before it was published but her perseverance was inspiring. Signing off to work on chapter 7 now before football games start! Have a good Sunday all.

    • This post has special resonance for me, as a 48-year-old who seems to have the attention span of a 6-year-old hyperactive child off his Ritalin. I have eight different novels in various stages — one’s in a fifth draft, one’s in a fourth, and a couple are little more than plot notes and character sketches — and I finally had to develop a “WIP hierarchy.”

      I sorted through each idea for a) its readiness; b) its commercial potential; and c) how much I loved it. So even before this blog post, I picked one to put most of my time and energy into, with two to go to when I needed a break from the first. The rest, I look in on from time to time, maybe gather a little note-string.

      So far, so good. I’d say that my top pick is within four months of being ready for beta readers. This, after nearly eight years of dicking around with it.

      It feels good. And I feel good. Almost as good as I did at age forty, but not quite. I struggle to maintain energy, and so that’s where the rest of this blog resonates.

  7. I began writing upon retirement. The first time one of my short stories was published, I was so excited, I had to be scraped off the kitchen ceiling. I can’t throw my teeth at anyone, but I do hope my creativity never wanes. I loved this article. Thank you. Frances Dunn

  8. In February this year, right after I turn 69, my debut novel comes out. And the publisher has the 2nd one and I’m starting the 3rd one this month. Where else can you start a 2nd career at this age? YAYAY

  9. I am so happy to hear this. I had to take an early retirement due to health reasons, and that is when I decided to finally write a novel. I wondered at first if it was too late for me now. I never finished my degree, and it seemed like biography I read had a degree included. I started reading up on the writing craft, researching for the novel, and all the time I was preparing for it, I wondered if I could really do it. I’m one of those type of learners where I have to write everything down. It helps me remember. I make copious notes on everything I read. I enjoy the process, I have been struggling with plot, so I am currently reading your book on Plot and Structure. I wanted to thank you. It is helping me a lot. I don’t intend to quit. I don’t think I even could now if I tried!

  10. Rebecca: P&S has been a great help to me. I have enjoyed my learn-by-doing writing adventure. Since I retired eleven years ago, I’ve had a lot of time to devote to writing and learning. Still, there’s all the other things we have to do for ourselves (shopping, cleaning…) that take away from writing time. The thing is not to beat yourself up over that (or anything else).

    Fortunately, I did put in over 20 years of writing–albeit as a technical writer in business environments, but it was still writing and with an audience, too. Now that I don’t do that any more, I can get away with making things up in the fiction world and not get taken to task over it. And you can send your first-page submission in to the wonderful folks here at TKZ and receive useful critical comments and not get ripped over it, either.

    So just GO FOR IT!

  11. Good word, Jim. I like the recommendation- write something every day.
    So often the task seems too huge. Reminds me of Hemingway’s pattern in A Moveable Feast, to try and write one simple true sentence every day

  12. Yes, yes, in it for the long haul. This was such an affirming, inspiring post that your blog shouldn’t be called, “The Kill Zone.” It should be called, “The Eternity Zone.”

  13. I’ve always written. I always will. Even if it’s in a journal, or a small poem.

    This post reminds me of my father-in-law, who is 85. He’s been a general contractor in Los Angeles for decades. Now that he’s “retired” he still does odd jobs. He loves the work and it keeps him fit and young. Why stop doing what you love?

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