How to be old—we're all learning

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

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?

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.