Age-related changes in writing practice

drawing of the aging writer standing in front of her computer. Thought bubble: "I'm writing about ... something. GO!"
The aging writer notices some changes in her writing practice

At 81, I notice changes in my writing practice. Various cognitive and physical changes play a part. They’re not problems. They’re just changes, and they’re not distinct—they’re tangled up together.

  1. control of writing schedule
  2. short-term memory
  3. forgetting words
  4. slowness
  5. loss of focus
  6. executive function

Writing schedule is less controlled

Typically over the years I’ve done some big loose thinking early in the morning, starting when I’m barely awake. After breakfast I’d throw those thoughts straight on to the computer or (pre-1986) the typewriter. If writing a book, I’d review what I’d written the previous day. That would prime the brain and off I’d go on a writing spree of several hours.

If I had relevant thoughts away from the computer I would scribble them in a notebook or on a scrap of paper. Then I’d never look at the notes again. Or if I did, I could never make sense of them. Didn’t bother me. Didn’t matter!

The note-scribbling continues and so does the don’t-care attitude. But the bulkier part of the writing process, the early morning thinking, has changed a bit with age.

Short-term memory decline: interesting

I still am likely to have a rush of ideas early in the morning. (I do love this. I enjoy believing, if only for half an hour, that I’m frightfully clever!)

But nowadays, by the time I get to the computer a couple of hours have flown by—and so have those thoughts. Sometimes I write them down, trying to write neatly and coherently. That’s cool but uncommon. If I draw a cartoon, I’m more likely to remember the core of the idea.

Short-term memory decline (for me) is far more obvious in conversation than when writing. Nowadays, I daren’t start expressing myself with a subordinate clause—how would I ever remember how I intended to end the sentence?

When writing, no such problem. Because the words didn’t fly out the window—they’re there in black and white in front of me. That’s terrific. Another reason to carry on writing.

Forgetting words: a reality but not a problem

You know how it goes: a word’s on the tip of your tongue but you can’t pull it out of your brain. So you appeal to your friends, who can’t think of the word either. Or you fudge an approximation of the word. You find “another word that would do.” Many hilarious conversations happen as a result, and I’m as bad as anyone at retrieving a noun or a name.

And yet, emphatically, this is not a problem when I’m writing. For one thing, obviously we have Dr Google and our choice of dictionaries and thesauruses at our fingertips.

Even better, I’ll produce a word that is not the “right” word or the conventional word. It says the same thing but it’s more interesting, more fun. Sometimes my writing reminds me of the poetry my Japanese college students wrote. English wasn’t their mother tongue, so it was often enchantingly fresh.

Slowness: lower production

In everything I’m slower. I’m a beat behind the other dancers in my group. I’m more mindful going up and down stairs, fixing the cat’s business, making breakfast.

Like I say in my poem, Slow, “We are the prisoners of slow.” So there’s more time spent thinking about other things and more time spent doing them.

You can easily spot this slowness when you’re with me. Hesitation in speaking is an obvious clue. I pause where once I leapt ahead. I’m not concerned. You might find my presence less alarming now!

Loss of focus? When I’m writing, no problem

Most of us suffer from loss of focus in the social media era—not just old people. Over breakfast I’ll read your comments on my blog and skim a newspaper. And I check Facebook, trying to keep that short. So many distractions! I’m as bad as anyone, my eyes skating and darting over the iPad screen, picking and mixing from a jumble, a torrent of incongruous, unsolicited information. It feels unhealthy even as I do it.

But as soon as I start writing, I sure can focus! Interestingly, the article or poem that results may be miles away from my original inspiration. But that’s always been so, and now the freely wandering morphing of topics is extreme, it’s beautiful. It’s one of the reasons that I adore writing.

As Apirana Taylor famously announced at a writers’ festival in Wellington last century,

“I set out to write a story about Napoleon but it turned into a poem about a sea-gull.”

Apirana Taylor

Executive function: thriving on long experience

In old age, one aspect of my cognitive function is (so far) positively flourishing. How to describe it? The joy of writing is still there, as I’ve just said. That’s largely related to the sense of adventure and discovery and surprise that I feel as I write. A dotty phrase, a frivolous mangling of the language—I enjoy this and I follow my own star.

But I’m also satisfied with the way I can write something coherent, with a central idea that develops or expands in a satisfactory logical way. Chalk it up to experience! The experience of a lifetime with writing for all sorts of purposes and audiences, including 30-odd books.

It’s also down to the experience of a long life as a human being, not just as a writer.

At our age, we know stuff! We’ve seen a lot. As I’m thinking my thoughts, my grown-up brain has truckloads of past thoughts and knowledge to draw on. It has the grunt to help me sift quickly through them, finding old paths and forging new ones to a conclusion—or another world.

So—while I’m slow in some ways, I’m super-fast in others.

Key mental abilities can actually improve with aging

Next blog post: changing formats, topics, style and purpose

This is already a long blog post by my standards. Tomorrow I’ll write about changes in the substance of my writing rather than the process. In old age, that’s changed noticeably.

By the way, I’ve just had my own Napoleon-to-seagull segue. I intended to write about wisdom in old age. Not that I consider myself wise—I’m just interested. Maybe another day.

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28 thoughts on “Age-related changes in writing practice

  1. As always, Rachel, so much to think about when I read your blog. You’ve given me a nice nudge to be honest, as I’ve become lazy about my writing and then here you are, with yet another stimulating blog and ideas.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      But Maggie, maybe the changes in my writing practice are the result of… Laziness!

  2. “Whatever” may have been an annoying response when I heard it the first 250 times but I am finding that it can be a useful tool at times!

  3. Prue says:

    I so love this Rachel! Especially being reminded of Apirana Taylor’s wonderful quote!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Wasn’t that perfect?

  4. srbottch says:

    Not being a professional writer, just one who does it for fun, I can identify with some of those issues. And I’m only 75. You nailed them the way you described them.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That’s interesting. Nothing to worry about,though

  5. I think it’s a good thing because the older you get, the wiser you get at writing, the smarter you get at viewing things, mainly because of experience. I always enjoy posts from older people cause they’re so full of wisdom.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I have some ideas about that. I will explain them in a later blog.

  6. Gallivanta says:

    I enjoyed your observations. I have always been slow. Will I come to a standstill in my 80s? That’s an intriguing possibility.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      You may have a short pause and then go into reverse. I hope you’ve got eyes in the back of your head?

      1. Gallivanta says:

        I will start preparing the eyes in the back of my head from now.

      2. Rachel McAlpine says:

        Yes, because according to Maori way of thinking, the future lies behind us. I’ve oversimplified, but there is wisdom there for the finding

      3. Gallivanta says:

        That seems very wise.

  7. Cathy Cade says:

    I didn’t start writing until I retired (unless you count instruction leaflets and annual reports – a different kind of fiction). And your point abaout forgetting words was one of the reasons I started.
    It didn’t solve that problem – I still can’t find the word I want (although sometimes I get the initial letter right…). But I’m getting really good at manipulating online thesauruses (thesauri?)
    And sometimes the word I’m looking for doesn’t seem to exist after all. I’m even getting brave enough to make one up occasionally.

  8. judithhb says:

    Oh, what a wonderful find on WordPress. As an 83-year-old I too find using words when speaking more difficult than when writing. Often when writing I leave a space and quite suddenly the word I want springs to mind and so I can fill the space that has been quietly sitting waiting. Other times, I have to find another word, but this is all part of the adventure of growing older.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That’s very interesting — and I like your attitude

  9. And a hello from a sunny but windy Wellington Sunday

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Judith, I was just visiting your blog right now and realised to my astonishment that you’re a Wellingtonian like me. Now that’s rare!

  10. It is very rare as most of my followers are on the other side of the world.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Same here. But my book is in Unity: next time you’re there, you might take a peek. Hope to meet you one day, Judith.

  11. I have done my shopping in unity for this year. But certainly after the holiday I will pop in to have a look at your book. Have a happy Christmas and hopefully the weather may have improved by then.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      No bets on the weather! One more book to buy for a grandchild and then it’s happy Christmas to all.

    2. Rachel McAlpine says:

      PS Don’t you love our bookshops? They’re multiplying 🙂

  12. judithhb says:

    And Rachel, we must support the small independent bookshops that we have around us. My favourite is now Marsden books in Karori. There was a new owner this year and she has been particularly helpful in finding special books for special people. And yes, maybe in the New Year we could meet for a coffee. We Wellingtonians must stick together.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      So glad to hear the wonderful Marsden Books continues to shine. Let’s do that! I’m away 3-11 January.

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