The Importance of Creativity Time

by James Scott Bell

I read a fascinating article the other day on how athletes’ bodies age. Using baseball players as an example, the author explains:

[A]n athlete’s physical decline begins before most of us notice it, and even the 23-year-old body can do things today that it might not be able to do tomorrow. Fastball speed starts going down in a player’s early 20s, and spin rate drops with it. Exit velocity begins to decline at 23 or 24. An average runner slows a little more than 1 inch per second every year, beginning pretty much immediately upon his debut. It takes a little over four seconds for most runners to reach first base, which means with each birthday, it’s as if the bases were pulled 4 inches farther apart. Triples peak in a player’s early 20s, as does batting average on balls put into play. A 23-year-old in the majors is twice as likely to play center field as left field; by 33, the opposite is true.

Feeling tired yet?

Thirty-three feels so far away, but it’s already happening. The 23-year-old’s lean body mass peaked sometime in the preceding five years. His bone-mineral density too. He’s at the age when the body begins producing less testosterone and growth hormone. His body, knowing it won’t need to build any more bone, will produce less energy. Male fertility peaks in the early 20s, the same time as pitch speed and exit velocity. Athleticism is, crudely speaking, about showcasing what a body looks like when it’s ready to propagate a species.

Had kids yet?

And then there’s the brain:

Researchers in British Columbia studied decision-making speeds of thousands of StarCraft 2 players and found that cognitive abilities peak at 24. Other research has found that perceptual speed drops continuously after 25. The brain is changing: the ratios of N-acetylaspartate to choline, the integrity of myelin sheathing, the connectivity of hippocampal neurons — you know, baseball stuff.

So basically, after age 23 or so, we’re all on the treadmill to decline.

Thanks for stopping by TKZ, everyone!

Well, stats be hanged, I’m a Do not go gentle into that good night kind of guy. Might as well put up the good fight as long as you can with all the weapons available to you.

Especially if you’re a writer who wants to write until they find you with your cold, dead fingers poised over the keyboard.

Which means our brains—which house our imagination, tools of language, and craft knowledge—must be worked out just like a body.

I have long taught the discipline of a weekly creativity time, an hour (or more) dedicated to pure creation, mental play, wild imaginings. I like to get away from my office for this. I usually go to a local coffee house or a branch of the Los Angeles Library System. I also like to do this work in longhand. I mute my phone and play various games, like:

The First Line Game. Just come up with the most gripping first line you can, without knowing anything else about what might come after it.

The Dictionary Game. I have a pocket dictionary. I open it to a random page and pick a random noun. Then I write down what thoughts that noun triggers. (This is a good cure for scene block, too.)

Killer Scenes. I do this on index cards, and it’s usually connected to a story I’m developing. I just start writing random scene ideas, not knowing where they’ll go. Later I’ll shuffle the stack and take out two cards at a time, and see what ideas develop from their connection.

The What If Game. The old reliable. I’ll look at a newspaper (if I can find one) and riff off the various stories. What if that politician who was just indicted was really an alien from a distant planet? (Actually, this could explain a lot.)

Mind Mapping. I like to think about my story connections this way. I use a fresh blank page and start jotting.

After my creativity time I find that my brain feels more flexible. Less like a grouchy guy waiting on a bench for a bus and more like an Olympic gymnast doing his floor routine.

Now, I’m going to float you a theory. I haven’t investigated this. It’s just something I’ve noticed. It seems to me that the incidence of Alzheimer’s among certain groups is a lot lower than the general population. The two groups I’m thinking of are comedians and lawyers.

What got me noticing this was watching Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks being interviewed together, riffing off each other. Reiner was 92 at the time, and Brooks a sprightly 88. They were both sharp, fast, funny. Which made me think of George Burns, who was cracking people up right up until he died at 100. (When he was 90, Burns was asked by an interviewer what his doctor thought of his cigar and martini habit. Burns replied, “My doctor died.”)

So why should this be? Obviously because comedians are constantly “on.” They’re calling upon their synapses to look for funny connections, word play, and so on. Bob Hope, Groucho Marx (who was only slowed down by a stroke), and many others fit this profile.

And I’ve known of several lawyers who were going to court in their 80s, still kicking the stuffing out of younger opponents. One of them was the legendary Louis Nizer, whom I got to watch try a case when he was 82. I knew about him because I’d read my dad’s copy of My Life in Court (which is better reading than many a legal thriller). Plus, Mr. Nizer had sent me a personal letter in response to one I sent him, asking him for advice on becoming a trial lawyer.

And there he was, coming to court each day with an assistant and boxes filled with exhibits and documents and other evidence. A trial lawyer has to keep a thousand things in mind—witness testimony, jury response, the Rules of Evidence (which have to be cited in a heartbeat when an objection is made), and so on. Might this explain the mental vitality of octogenarian barristers?

There also seems to be an oral component to my theory. Both comedians and trial lawyers have to be verbal and cogent on the spot. Maybe in addition to creativity time, you ought to get yourself into a good, substantive, face-to-face conversation on occasion. At the very least this will be the opposite of Twitter, which may be reason enough to do it.

So what about you? Do you employ any mental calisthenics?

33 thoughts on “The Importance of Creativity Time

  1. I love crossword puzzles.

    Time spent in nature works for me. There’s something about being on a trail or on a lake or on the ocean that gives my brain room to stretch.

    I discovered by accident (after my laptop died) that I write better longhand. I could always write my columns that way, but anything longer sounds like a business paper. It’s as though when I pick up a pen my brain says “We’re journaling, let’s be honest” or “Yay! Playtime!”

  2. May I add architects to your list of the long lived minds? Maybe not as many famously known, but a few – Frank Lloyd Wright, Phillip Johnson – are “stars.”. I’ve had the privilege of working with several who are still active and engaged and well into their upper 70’s. Thinking in 3-D, building code tap-dances, and verbalizing ideas and concepts to the “spatially challenged” may equate to the comedian’s always on and the lawyer’s always ready with a response.

    Now that THAT’s out of my system, I like to set-up in the library as well – Atlanta/Fulton County has an extensive number of branches, which come in handy when I’m out ‘n’ about on the day job. I also take a walk – at home or downtown, or sit and watch people, playing the “Who is this? What are they doing” game (and trying not to get caught and/or accused of stalking or being an undercover policeman).

  3. Great post. “On the treadmill to decline after age 23” —yet in many other ways as you suggest we continue to rise and rise for many years. And even in the physical aspect, even as we decline a bit during our 20s and 30s we can overcome that with improved training/craft/emotional intelligence, etc… and thus reach peak performance at 30 or 40 or 50 or 60 or 70. A table tennis player I know has been playing since he was 3 years old…he reached his highest USTA rating at age 72. And even at the peak pro level: Jacob DeGrom, a pitcher for the Mets has been fantastic since his rookie year in 2014 at age 26. Now at 30 he’s having his best year yet and leads the league with the lowest ERA. He’s a better pitcher now, understands what he can do better and knows more about the game and how to get runners out. And a couple notable knuckleballers reached their peak well beyond age 35.

  4. Two “career-less” examples:

    My dad, who died 2 days before his 92nd birthday was a self-made businessman. No college. He retired at 50 and joined a UCLA group where members researched and taught “courses” of their choosing each month. He had a phenomenal sense of humor. In his 80s, he suffered from Alzheimers and Dysautonomia. However, his sense of humor stayed with him, and his epitaph (chosen by him) reads “It was fun while it lasted.”

    My mom is still sharp at 92. She was the typical 50’s housewife. She says Jeopardy keeps her mind active. And don’t challenge her to a game of backgammon.

    Me? I started writing well into my 50’s. I had jobs, from teaching to Tupperware, but I didn’t ever have a “real” career because that wasn’t the goal of women when I was growing up. College degrees were considered “fall back” positions.

    I just published my 26th work, and think that playing with my characters keeps my mind busy. The “what if?” game is my favorite. It’s time to start project #27, and I’ll put a lot of JSB’s techniques to work.

    • I’ve also had a selection of jobs and entrepreneurial ventures in my life. I’m 55 and finally took up my life long dream writing 6 mths ago.You have no idea how inspiring it is to read of how much work you’ve produced. Good on you. Made my day. 🙂

  5. This piece made me wonder about writers and Alzheimer’s. Couldn’t make any connections. And shoot! I always wanted to be a comedian, except I’m not funny.

  6. Thought provoking post for many reasons. What I find most interesting is the idea of the oral component of keeping your mind sharp & preventing or delaying mental incapacitation by ‘off the cuff’ verbalizations of information. My first thought was of introverts–who notoriously are very reserved with speaking out except on rare occasions. I know for myself I much prefer processing in writing. If nothing else, maybe that’s a good incentive for writers to do marketing by doing as many live interviews as they can so they can get more exposure to that off-the-cuff thinking/speaking.

    Perhaps that’s yet another reason why Benjamin Franklin’s junto was a good idea and ought to be emulated.

    As to creative exercises, I don’t do that often enough. I have to force myself to carve out time just to “be” without being busy doing something else. But I’m learning that “just be” time is very beneficial to creativity. Like long walks, etc.

  7. A couple of years ago somebody here mentioned, in passing, Jumbles. I was never a big crossword guy or puzzle guy, but I tried a Jumble and got hooked. Now I do at least one a day.

    • Crossword puzzles are great for learning new words and trivia, which can spark all sorts of ideas. Like you, I’m a Jumble addict, and feed that addiction every day. I try to work them out without a pen (which I dub an “immaculate Jumble”) and if I’m successful, will try to work out the final puzzle without looking at the cartoon clue. Great memory workout.

    • I do Jumbles, too. They’re challenging and funny! Have you noticed an increasing skill in just looking at the six letters and having the word pop out?

  8. Fascinating, Jim. Drawing a connection between mental and verbal is a profound observation. A sharp sense of humor is the equivalent of mental gymnastics.

    Walking is my creative time. Physical activity gets the blood circulating and delivers a fresh influx of oxygen to the brain. My synapses start snapping and I can solve a knotty plot problem every time.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  9. I love playing “The What If Game” as well. One of my favorite twists on it it to play it while people watching. I sit in a public place and make up stories for random people who catch my attention. Quite a few of those characters have ended up in my stories.

  10. Every night, after the dishes are done, I do crosswords in front of the tube. I, too, like Jumble. The 5-letter clues rarely stump me. The 6-letter ones more so. The Jumble and crosswords are on the same page in our paper. It’s a really big day (or night) for me when I fill in all the crossword squares (correctly) and solve all parts of the Jumble. Sometimes I have to do the Jumbles backwards by knowing the big answer then figuring out the smaller clues. But, hey. I’ll take my wins where I can. I’ve tried playing Scrabble by myself. Some nights the board isn’t too bad. Other nights I can tell I was just killing time. But every once in a while I come up with a score that makes me want to pat myself on the back.

    I’m also like Debbie. Walking for me is the best way to untie a knot with my story.
    I just hope no one notices me. I look like the crazy lady down the block since I have a tendency to gesture (sometimes wildly) when I’m talking to myself.

  11. I read an article a long time ago about all the things your brain needs to stay healthy. First off, your brain needs a high-fat diet, because everything in it is essentially made of cholesterol. Next it needs the New, which is new experiences, new stories, new things. It also needs love, which is loving relationships with other people, pets, etc. It also needs exercise, like, your body needs to get out and move in order to keep your brain healthy. (They recently discovered that the lymph system runs through the brain, too, and the lymph system only circulates with exercise.) The other things the brain needs are the usual–enough sleep, vitamins, veggies, all that stuff we know we need. But the stuff about the New and needing love were fascinating to me.

    • Fascinating about the fat. I’m one who believes that the low-fat craze of the last 30 or 40 years has not been the way to go. I think we’re finding that out.

  12. Sh*t (first reaction).

    Does talking to a Trump supporter who owes you money and still being civil while confronting his beliefs count as an intellectual workout? (and underneath the civility your brain and heart are screaming, “How can you be so blind?”

    Does not being able to understand that blindness mean I’ve already lost too much in intellectual ability?

    Sorry to get political, but the times require never resting from the fight.

  13. I worked on large complex spreadsheets before I retired. When everything started to run together, I paused to play a couple of games of solitaire on the computer. It was a change of pace and kept my mind active. Sort of like a football player on an exercise bike between possessions. I still do that with my writing. For me, solitaire is not a mindless game, it’s an exercise in risk management and pattern analysis.

    I didn’t start serious writing until I was 65 years old. You might slow down, but you don’t have to quit. I had a lawyer who practiced until he as in his early 90’s. He never retired. Died on a hunting trip. He was used to hard work. Started as a rural school teacher and school bus driver and read the law at night. He was one of the last in Texas to pass the bar exam without going to law school.

    When you get older, self discipline is more important. It is much harder to keep active and not fall into a life of inactivity. Some days you got to just suck it up and do it. Getting started is the hard part. Once I get going, things tend to fall in place.

  14. My favorite mental calisthenic: Reading the police blotter/briefs section of the local newspaper. (Or, online, any local newspaper.) All sorts of delicious triggers. Just the other day, in trying to jump-start myself on revisions for a short story slated for an anthology whose deadline was fast approaching, I went online to read the “Code 911” section from my hometown daily. There I found:

    — Police arrested a woman for domestic violence after she hit her husband with a ceramic bowl following an argument over what breakfast cereal to buy.

    — An intoxicated woman arrested after she called 911 because she accidentally put a bundle of methanohetanine in the deposit slot of an ATM (she had been carrying the meth in a deposit envelope). She wanted help getting her meth back.

    — A man was arrested after he broke into his ex-girlfriend’s apartment while she was away on vacation. He filled her waterbed and curtain rods with shrimp. In a June heatwave. The woman returned ten days later to an uninhabitable apartment.

    None of those items really fit my story, but they did grease the gears of my moribund “What if?” machine, and soon I was off to the races on my story.

    • Back when I was the night editor of my hometown daily, I’d keep a “tickler file” of police-blotter items that struck my fancy as potential material for future stories. As such, I’d often file a public-records request with local police and sheriff’s offices for copies of the original reports from those colorful incidents so I could get more background and detail (most blotter items are just a few column inches in length, and as such tell only the most conventionally newsworthy aspects of an incident, which usually amounts to less than five percent of what’s in the on-scene officer’s report).

      Those reports were pure character-motivational gold, and formed the basis of several short-story submissions.

      • I kept a clipping box, too. Two of my favorite openings (Try Dying & Try Fear) came from news items. The latter was a 6’8″ guy pulled over for drunk driving on Hollywood Boulevard at Christmas time. He was wearing only a G-string and a Santa hat. I said to myself, This has to be Ty Buchanan’s next client.

  15. I love this post!
    I like to play Scrabble on my iPad. I play against the cpu..sometimes I even win a game.
    l also like the weekly TV guide crossword puzzle
    I love to get up in the morning and dream up scenarios for my novels..hunky guys and strong female personalities!

  16. May I add learning a new language or a musical instrument. Also take dance lessons or learn tai chi. All these “new” things stimulate new parts of our brains and bodies. I am teaching myself the language of investments just so I can have an intelligent conversation with my husband, and am very interested in learning soccer.

  17. Useful & motivational post, as always, James. I like the specific strategies that you share–a big reason I’ve purchased your writing craft books. To link the sports analogies with the creativity exercises, for me and many others, going out for a run works, too. More times than I can count, solutions to character/plot dilemmas pop into my head almost magically. Fortunately, I’m able to step out the door and run on isolated dirt roads in the Cascade Mountains. I’ve noticed it’s harder for this country boy to experience these epiphanies when dodging people and traffic in the city, but that’s probably because I didn’t know the right places to run.

  18. It was great to read others are crossword and jumble addicts. I love doing the daily jumble, gets my mind challenged. I’m also a Jeopardy fan. I feel good if I know at least half of the answers.
    This was a great and thought provoking post.

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