Write Into Life

Too old to write another book?

Writer’s block, Part 1

I wrote the first draft of the first chapter of my next book. Unconcerned as always about the quality or even the topic, because a first draft is just that. (Significantly, the chapter was called I didn’t want to write this book.)

Months have passed since I wrote that first chapter. I’d never stopped “working on it”, and my office is overflowing with books, links, and notebooks real and virtual. I kept writing on my blog now and then— and yet curiously, I hadn’t written another word of the book.

Is old age the cause of my writer’s block?

This nasty question is a variation on a mantra that rings and rings, like an automated fraud call from India: “Your current problem is an inevitable, insoluble, bloody awful consequence of advancing age. Get used to it.” Too often that thought springs to mind automatically.

Resist, refine, reframe! Make a list—that might help.

  1. First let’s clean out the pejoratives and make it a genuine question: Is this non-typical (of me) procrastination at least partly a consequence of old age? (Now we’re in business.)
  2. If so, what can I do about it?
  3. If not, what else might be causing the problem?
  4. OK, how can I solve the problem?

Because I’m 78 I have to take this question seriously: is it a sign of old age, that I, who have loved the act of writing all my life, cannot get started on this particular book?

True, my short-term memory does seem to be changing. It’s mobile, it feels like layers of misty muslin, shimmering and distorting with digressions and flourishes. But I believe it was ever thus.

Is my ageing short-term memory to blame?

Half asleep one morning, I constructed half a chapter in my mind, just the way I used to do for every book I’ve ever written. But at my desk later, I couldn’t remember the gist. That delicious creative hypnogogic creative flash was gone, puff, into the void. Like we all do, one day.

So what does it mean, that I forgot two pages of “thought”? As I learned recently[1], our memories are dynamically recreated with each recall. Our brains do not store complete memories but dedicate perhaps a single neuron to remembering something highly specific, freeing most of our brain resources to work on constructing meaning. Remembering and perceiving use the same mental process. When we try to remember something, we’re not just fishing in a pool of complete memories, a pool that grows bigger and bigger as we age, we’re working to make sense of something.

So if I can’t remember what I was going to write, too bad. Why waste time reconstructing a reconstruction when I could use the same resources to construct meaning from scratch, to start from the same point (namely forgetting what I’d decided to write) and think a new thought? The old thoughts were not wasted just because they got forgotten.

Instant write-up trumps instant recall

Fortunately I remembered something else: After thinking a scene or a chapter, I used to write it down immediately, without delay. Interrupting the flow is wasteful, damaging, an insult to the muse. To re-establish contact, I would need to tweak my morning routine—again.

Writing a book requires a functioning brain and a functioning body: all of these eventually degrade—but right now mine are functioning, and that’s all I ask.

Writing a book requires energy and stamina

It also requires intense, sustained, consistent bursts of energy. For us old people, loss of energy can be a problem. I commiserate with my friends but I tend not to admit to it personally. However, at this moment, as I type, nobody’s reading these words, so I will admit that torpor features in most of my days. Catch me after lunch. Sometimes, happily reading, sometimes doing pointless Sudoku. Never dozing! It’s just that I often wake from not-dozing with quite a jolt. Sometimes I debate whether to have a little lie down, but by then it’s too late.

Nevertheless, for many hours of the day I have a familiar level of energy, and my days are my own, I’m in charge of the way I spend my time. No job, no business, and an almost manageable set of commitments. In the last two years I’ve kicked two major stressors out of the way: first my business, then the thankless role of body corporate chair. I am free to reshape my days.

Rejected: old age as a barrier to writing

And so, here and now, I forbid myself to blame the physiology of old age as a legitimate cause of my mysterious procrastination.

Surely now I’ll be able to unpick the true cause or causes of an unfortunate case of writer’s block.

[1] Rodrigo Quian Quiroga. The Forgetting Machine: Memory, Perception, and the “Jennifer Aniston Neuron.” Interview with Ginger Campbell, MD. Brain Science Episode 141

Illustration from Old Book Illustrations, public domain, by Peter Newell in Hunting of the Snark