Too old to write a book? Writer’s block in older writers

6-family-books

Six books by members of my family: they wanted to write a book and so they did. Ages at the time of publication: 12–79

Library shelves are stacked with great books by older writers. “I’ve always wanted to write a book but now it’s too late.” Have you heard that—have you said that? Up to now, whenever someone has said that to me I have automatically said, “It’s never too late.” And so I believed.

Recently I had my own writer’s block experience. At the time I didn’t think of it as writer’s block. I thought I was still deciding which book to write, and whether to write it. Those three years of inertia did seem odd, however. Was I too old to write a book in my late seventies?

Today let me attempt to unpick this puzzle rationally, without emotion. I acknowledge that certain age-related changes have the potential to make writing a book more difficult, in my case. I’m not saying they do. I’m saying they could, so let me look more closely. Many tasks seem to take a bit longer now…

  1. My short term memory is hilariously unreliable. I’ll have a marvellous idea for  at 6.00am — but alas, at 6.02am I can remember that I had an idea, but no idea what it was. In the past these ideas usually returned later in a different form. But now, do they? And how would I know? To be sure, I must write down the idea immediately. (But then again, where did I put that notebook?)
  2. Decision-making is harder. It’s taken me seven months to assemble three contracts for double glazing and transfer them to a spreadsheet so I can genuinely compare them. In my youth those windows would have been installed with a tap of a wand. Pushing 80, I’m still dithering. Apply this age-related change (dithering) to writing a book and here comes trouble. A self help book or a book of poems or both or a combination of the two? Ridiculous redundant questions for the previous Rachel (I nearly said “the old Rachel”), the young decide-and-do Rachel. And do they even matter?
  3. I’m more easily distracted. Monday, Wednesday and Friday are supposed to be writing days. Nothing I love more than a whole day writing and it happens regularly… as long as I take my computer to the National Library for the day. Otherwise I can fritter away a precious day on housework and laundry and emails. Or I’m about to write but first I go to make coffee then I remember the dishwasher is broken so I phone the electrician then I check the bank balance… You too?
  4. Energy is up and down. If I don’t outwit myself, the after-lunch slump can last all afternoon. I’m quite capable of reading or playing games for an hour at a stretch.
  5. I’m slower as an older writer. My last novel took far too long. For me, writing slowly is writing badly. (Write fast and revise three times is a better pattern.) If the process of writing the first draft of a book drags on, it’s only natural to lose control of the structure, to forget details, to repeat yourself or go off on a side track.

I’m surprised at what I’ve just written. Blimey, I’ve found five plausible reasons why writing a complete book my seventies is more difficult, or at the very least different, from writing a book in middle age!

How will I write as an older writer?

  • As a lifelong writer I won’t stop writing. Writing still brings me great delight. I would hate to lose the joy of writing just because I’m older. Moreover the works of older writers have a special richness, so I believe that what I write can be worthwhile beyond my personal satisfaction.
  • I accept that these age-related changes are real. (Age is not all in the mind, though it is certainly in the brain in my case.) I see the upside of slowness and I know how to manage the other issues for now.
  • I would be wise, perhaps, to write small pieces that can be assembled into a whole (poems, anyone?) rather than books that require a rigorous multi-layered structure throughout.

How does this affect you?

Heaps. I have some good advice for you, if you are over 50 and sometimes say (if only to yourself), “I would like to write a book. Maybe I’ll do that when I retire.”

But I’ve overloaded you already. I’ll post my advice next Thursday. First, I need to jump out of my own head and learn from you. My only evidence so far is my own experience. What does your personal experience tell you about writing in old age?


 

Photo of family books, top row: Lesley’s stories for my family by Lesley Evans; Mystery Bob by Celia McAlpine; A Musician’s Life: Recollections of Cellist Benjamin Kennard edited by Prue Kennard from interviews by Lesley Evans; bottom row: Cattlemen’s Union: the first decade; Skimming the Cream: Adventures in Life and Food by Jill Nuthall; and The Big Shift by Deirdre Kent.

18 thoughts on “Too old to write a book? Writer’s block in older writers

  1. Thank you! I can very much relate.

  2. Cathy Cade says:

    Looking forward to that advice.
    I’m pushing 70 and started writing well into retirement (maybe 5 years ago?). Or perhaps I should say I started learning about writing. Before that it was only instruction leaflets for students and annual reports (with a diversion into rhyming clues for the Christmas Treasure hunt).
    I’ve been struggling to find the word I want for years, so I’m not worried that it’s signalling the onset of Alzheimers (thank Microsoft for online thesauruses), but I’m finding it difficult to bypass decades of reactive planning and think outside the desk drawer for storylines.
    I keep a notebook under my pillow for ideas that come in the night (just so I can relax and go back to sleep) but mostly they’re ideas about what to add to the shopping list.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Cathy, learning about writing is an exciting experience and it entails … writing. Every bit of your previous writing can be of benefit when you write that book, but the adjustment from work-writing to fun-writing is extremely difficult for many people, so I’m told. More later.

  3. I’m not in the process of writing a book… or even thinking about it, but I can certainly relate to #3. Who the heck am I kidding – I can relate to them all, but most especially #3. Now, where was I… ?

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      It can make life tricky but hey, we’re old enough to know it doesn’t really matter. I think.

  4. Donna O'Klock says:

    I can completely relate to everything you’ve said… but in my case it’s writing while recovering. Much harder to stay focused, remember things, and maintain my energy. Thank you for confirming what I am wondering about!
    XO Donna

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Dear Donna, that’s very hard for you. I do like asking myself why, and why, and what and how, so as to get a clearer picture of my problems. That helps me manage them. Stay strong.

  5. mpardi2013 says:

    I’ve been told since I was a teen-ager that I should write. Of course, in those years I knew little to write about. In my twenties and thirties I did write three academic books and numerous research papers. But as I move into the late seventies I realize that much of my career, and life, has been composed of events and issues that cannot and should not be shared for both personal and professional reasons.

    Still, needing to speak out I have written over 175 entries onto my blog. Some have said I should assemble these into a book. But, I think publishers look for writers who already have name recognition or have some special status that ensures sales. Having neither of those, I just continue writing in a darkened room.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      “Writing in a darkened room”… now there’s a good book title. Carry on, please! You have no shortage of topics.

  6. mpardi2013 says:

    Thank you. Perhaps it’s only a metaphor. But I will give thoughts (not necessarily dark thoughts) to your suggestion.

  7. Elizabeth says:

    I wonder what incentive you have to write another book. Or is it just that you think you should? That is where I am at least at the moment.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That’s a good point, which I will raise, thank you. (Me, I really want to write my book of poems. The prose one was more of a should 🙂

      1. Elizabeth says:

        That is funny. My poetry is a should and my memoir a want to.

      2. Rachel McAlpine says:

        Crazy shoulds! Let it go.

  8. alison41 says:

    What a relief to read your account of short term memory woes – me too. And there I was, gloomily thinking the Awful A was busily planting plaques in my brain. Phew! Your post cheered me greatly. Thank you.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Good, I’m glad. It’s a bad mistake to automatically assume the worst.

  9. Gallivanta says:

    Lack of stamina and staying power stymie most of my projects and my projects are all smaller than book writing projects. 🙁

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Thank you Gallivanta. This is a timely reminder from one who understands how much stamina is required to write a book… or even to work a full day on a big project after a certain age. I’ll bear that in mind.

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