Too old to write another book?

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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

Keeping up with selected blogs your way: follow and fix WordPress settings

Screenshot of WordPress with Settings for notifications
When you follow a blog, set your email preferences at the same time.

Once there were RSS feeds, and I had one on my blog. For months it shuffled people to the wrong URL—my fault, and what a waste.

Some people still prefer RSS feeds, and who am I to suggest a change? Changing online habits is such a pain, and I myself resist it with a little question: how does this improve my own life or others’?

Nevertheless I can’t resist whispering a word of unsolicited advice. O ye bloggers and readers, one tiny new habit can save you rather a lot of time, in the long run.

Follow other blogs without pain or penalty

The immense size, the richness of the WordPress blogging community is both thrilling and overwhelming. After a certain point you need a strategy or you will go crazy!

  • Never miss a post from your favourite bloggers.
  • Never feel overwhelmed by blogs you like but want to read only occasionally.

Each time you follow a new blog by hitting the Follow button (top right of the screenshot above), pause for a second. By activating the Settings icon immediately below, you get some options. First, do you want to be told by WordPress when a new post appears on the blog you’ve decided to follow? It’s not mandatory, it’s a choice. Second, do you want an email with that information? If so, would you like instant updates? Daily updates? Weekly updates?

  • Maybe you spend a lot of time in the blogosphere and don’t want to miss a thing: then you’ll opt for instant updates by email as well as notices in your personalised WordPress Reader.
  • Maybe you have only got about 15 minutes per week to read blogs: then you’ll want updates from just a few key people, and catch up on others on vacation.
  • Maybe you follow 1,000 blogs, but only need to read posts on specific topics. Then you might get weekly updates on specialist blogs, and skim the others with Reader: Search.

 Skim in Reader to select before you read

Using email notifications is a great way to follow your hot favourites, and never miss a post. But you’re sure to follow other blogs as well, blogs that delight you now and then. You’ll want to see a headline before you open that blog. What is this post about? You need a signpost and a summary.

You get that on WordPress Reader facility. For skimming in advance, it is a beauty, on a screen of any size.

So you see, you can probably do everything you need as a reader without exiting the WordPress system. Which saves time.

Still want me to add an RSS Feed? I might. I might not.

Walking back home: joy of serendipitous pavement art

It’s not a long walk home from aerobic dance class, just five small blocks, and I’ve walked that route hundreds of times. But it’s still full of beautiful surprises. Walk home with me now and I’ll show you what I saw tonight.

  1. Small bunch of grapes, elegantly squashed.
Small bunch of green grapes squashed on the footpath
Squashed grapes: a sweet bouquet with a juicy shadow

2. A question mark on the footpath.

Question mark on footpath
Huh? Just what I was wondering…

3. A gloriously decorated parking spot.

Number 23 on footpath with yellow and white squiggles
Carpark no. 23 comes with mysterious runes

4. A tree with a splendid pair of antennae

Tree with street lamps apparently growing from its crown
Is it a tree or a very large insect?

5. Ngaio tree growing in the gutter: good luck, darling.

Miniature ngaio tree trying to grow in a dry gutter
Miniature ngaio tree trying to grow in a dry gutter. So far so good.

6. Road cones are a beautiful sight if you’re waiting for fibre-optic cable to reach your property.

Road cones in Queen Street
Road cones in Queen Street: progress

7. Before installing cable, workers put squiggles everywhere. But I don’t like the look of this one.

Workers' notes painted in purple on pavement: Dunk
Purple prose: but what are they going to dunk?

8. Nearly home, and it’s crab-apples and lichen: cute, ay?

Crab-apples and lichen on Queen Street footpath
Crab-apples and lichen on Queen Street footpath

As my friend Dale says, ain’t life grand? If we are lucky enough to be able to walk, such visual delights are just around the corner. If our luck stretches to a smartphone, there’s a bonus.

I tend to notice very small things, and take pleasure in them. And I’ve got a theory about why this is so. I believe that’s an echo of a Japanese aesthetic, and I thank my time in Kyoto for this extra layer of delight.

Are you a search engine or a filing cabinet?

Spectacles on a small filing cabinet that reveals untidy files.
A folder for everything: nice idea, shame about the execution thereof

On first encountering the web in 1996, like most people I was fascinated by two key questions: how can I find information online and how can I enable my own web pages to get found? Like any poet trying to get her head around a problem I constructed real-life analogies—analogies that failed promptly, because a digital world is not a physical world.

By the time I got involved around 1995, Yahoo! and WebCrawler and Lycos were doing their thing, then came LookSmart, Excite, Altavista, Inktomi and Ask Jeeves. Their processes were mystifying, their Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) even more so.

Two filing cabinets for the World Wide Web

But Yahoo! stood out. Why? Because in its early years, it didn’t rely on spiders (robots that crawl the web and index and catalogue every page). You could submit your website to Yahoo! for inclusion. Yahoo! used real live human beings to evaluate each site—is it worth listing? is it correctly categorised?—before listing it in a ginormous directory.

(You realise that I’m over-simplifying, of course. This is a little blog post, not a PhD thesis.)

Such a pedestrian system of indexing is unimaginable now, with over 1,860,000,000 websites—oh, seconds later, that figure is way out of date. But it was doable, and kind of comprehensible. You could imagine Yahoo!’s sub-contractors as working librarians in a monstrous ethereal library. You could send them your “book” and they would decide whether it was worthy of inclusion, and which Dewey number would apply. In other words, they were filing websites. There was a “place” for every website, a folder, or a sub-folder, and if every website was filed correctly, they could be quickly discovered.

DMOZ, or the Open Directory Project, was even more noble in concept. Their conceptual filing was performed entirely by volunteer editors. I don’t think they ever developed other layers of search technology, such as web crawlers. And DMOZ closed down in 2015.

Who are you?

search engines vs. filing

  1. Extreme filing cabinet types have a place for everything, and everything in its place.
  2. Extreme search engine types wander around searching plaintively for their car keys every day.  On a good day, they say “Keys!”, and five sets of keys leap into their arms.
  3. Most of us fall in the middle, doing our best to file things correctly and failing quite often.

All search facilities are cross-breeds using multiple methods

In the digital sphere, today most search engines combine a raft of criteria into a jealously guarded algorithm that changes frequently. If you were there in the early days, I’m sure you’ve noticed that results have improved exponentially as searchers, publishers, bloggers, developers and search engines refine their techniques.

On WordPress, for example…

  • Bloggers can give each blog post a Category (that’s rather like putting the post in a kind of folder dedicated to one type or topic of information).
  • Bloggers can list an unlimited number of Tags (other words or phrases that tell people and search engines what the page is about).
  • We can also write an SEO Description (a summary of what a particular post is about or for), a “slug” that gives us control over the URL, and an Excerpt.
  • WordPress makes it easy to provide titles, captions, alt-text and descriptions for every image we use.
  • WordPress gives bloggers advice about how to use all these fields. Not that bloggers follow guidelines as a rule: most of us do our own thing.
  • WordPress performs other magic Search Engine Optimisation tricks in the background, buried in code that most of us never see.

All these titbits of information about the topic or function of one particular blog post provide more guidance for search engines, more information for readers as they search, and a higher probability that search results are relevant and listed in order of value to the reader.

In other words, the Filing Cabinet is incorporated into every search engine, and a Search Engine into every Filing Cabinet. This is inevitable, given that digital information does not suffer from the intrinsic limitations of a physical folder.

  • To cross-reference information, we had to pack at least two folders with identical information, for example one filed according to topic, one according to date. And we tagged items with coloured labels.
  • To file the entire contents of the world wide web, you’d need an outrageous number of categories, making the whole process almost pointless. Take DMOZ: On October 31, 2015, there were 3,996,412 sites listed in 1,026,706 categories. (Source: Wikipedia) One category for every four websites? Imagine a library organised like that, with four books per category.
  • To categorise sites perfectly, you would need to see the future.

Search engine technology permeates all our work

all-apps-use-search

Search engines are everywhere, and their success is always connected to a vigorous effort at imposing order on the materials.

Every application that purports to organise our virtual office provides choices between Folders (they might be called Notebooks or Categories or any one of 40 other names) and Tags (again, every developer thinks up a new name for the same thing).

Can you think of any application you use that does not incorporate search? I can’t.

Filing cabinet habits are invaluable for real stuff

Putting everything in its place doesn’t come naturally to most of us. Instead we learn from painful experience that it does save time.

I’ve just appointed myself life coach to my 18-year-old grandson, who is suddenly in sole charge of organising his own studies, apartment, meals, money and his time. All alone. He’s doing great, but it’s an overwhelming task. You can picture it, I think? So he’s begun three tiny habits, each with a trigger, and action, and a reward. One is to put away every garment that he takes off. Reward: clear floor space and satisfaction—Nice work! he says. Yes: ideally, every garment will be put in its place, whether a chest of drawers or the washing machine. With such tiny gestures will order emerge from chaos.

I’m a fraud as a life coach, because I badly need to cultivate my own tiny habits. Organising my computer files is a work in progress and always will be. Folders feature strongly and I too drop stray files on the floor (desktop) every day. They all have a place—mainly in the trash.

What of our minds as we shift to instantaneous information feeds?

It’s easy to get sloppy about controlling our own information, now that search engines are brilliant. Yes, yes, excuse me but they are brilliant at what they do. Maybe you hate them but just think back 20 years and count your blessings! Maybe you fear them for their invasion and stealth, but it’s a tradeoff we make while fully informed of the risks.

So has the extreme efficiency of Google changed the way you work and read and think? I believe I’m more scatty. I flick across websites. I taste and taste and taste, half-hoping there’s something more appealing only one click away.

I don’t like this. I yearn for limits, constraints to my information guzzling. I dream of the old days when you had to know where to look.

I’ve recently deleted news apps and Facebook from my iPhone, disturbed by the constant updating on news sites and the random news items on Facebook. For my news I now rely on the radio, the odd newspaper in a cafe, and a couple of long reads per week. It’s a start.

I can’t blame search engines alone for this. But they play a part. I’ll use them forever, but  … mindfully? Bring on the tiny habits.

 

Exotic fabric finally finds its function: a TV cosy

Friends know that I’m a fabricaholic. A few years back they gave me this luscious blue, gold and purple fabric from Bangladesh.

It’s stiff when ironed, and crumples shortly afterwards. It’s semi-transparent and yet firm. Elegant, yet camp. Symmetrical, yet erratic.

Now, what to do with this cloth? For us fabricaholics, that’s never an issue. You keep it, doh! You store it in a cupboard and every now and then you take it out and experience it. Finger it. Touch it to your face. Lap up the colours, stroke the textures. Place it in the sitting room as an artefact on view. Meditate on it. Tuck it away again.

A beautiful fabric does not need to DO anything. It simply has to BE.

Nevertheless, this fabric has now been put to work. It has lost its privileged existence and does two jobs.

How are the mighty fallen!

One half of this glamorous cloth is now thrown over food on the dining table, to keep flies (and Ursula the cat) at bay.

The other half, with two seams, now tucks over my TV screen to soften its intrusive glare. I hate the way my TV used to dominate the room, a large black announcement that TV was the very purpose of this space, even the purpose of my day, of my very existence. Now the TV is disguised and robbed of its power by a strange garment. This showy, exotic fabric, once a magnet of attention, is now an invisibility cloak.

Friends have named my invention a TV-nightie (more accurately, it’s a dayie), or a TV cosy. What would you call it?

Daily prompt: Fabric

 

The way of the walker: walking mindfully

archysomerville-1856
Children walk wonderfully. We ancients tend to get stuck. (Image Archie Somerville 1856)

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Post written in 2015, in which I offer more sage advice to myself about the simple pleasures of walking

Walking is one peg in the exercise programme that was part of my boot camp for old age, my year of looking intently at darn near every aspect of my life.  And there’s more to walking than mindless locomotion.

For example, do you generally amble, dawdle, glide, limp, lurch, march, meander, mince, pace, perambulate, plod, prance, prowl, ramble, saunter, shuffle, skulk, stagger, stalk, stride, strut, stumble, swagger, toddle, totter, tramp, trudge or waddle?

And how would you know?

Oops, is that the walking dead?

Have you caught your reflection in a shop window lately? Did it take you by surprise? Was that a reflection of the real you, a recognisable you, moving a familiar body along the footpath? Or did you catch a glimpse of someone much older than you feel?

Any way of walking is better than not walking, and your way is your way, unique and beautiful. Our walking style is an expression of who we are. If we can walk at all, we are blessed.

Yet we can tinker with our walking style. We are not doomed to continue with any habits we dislike. At least some of them can be modified, if we choose.

A comparatively new aim for me is to be mindful as I walk, to be aware that I’m walking. Trust me, I’m no model: my level of awareness varies hugely. And that’s fine: if mindfulness becomes a guilt trip, what’s the point? Do it your way, whenever, however. It’s not a competition and there’s no exam. Meditating as you walk or hurry on an errand or stride out in company or hike up a mountain or wander lonely through a host of golden daffodils? It’s all good. The thing is to be conscious of what you’re doing, at least some of the time: which is both simple and unusual.

Four ways of walking mindfully

1. Do a formal “walking meditation”: this practice formalises mindful walking to the nth degree. It usually involves walking slowly along a short path, totally focused on just one thing: walking. The subtle movements of muscles and joints from the soles of your feet to your neck, the quality of every sensation, the way your head balances on your neck, the touch of your clothing, the air you breathe, the way your spine moves, the sun or wind on your skin…

I’m no expert on walking meditation, so let’s move on.

2. Notice just one thing about your body. Go easy on yourself. You don’t need to plunge into a full monastic meditation: just check off one body part as you move along. You could focus on your thighs or shoulders or feet for a few steps, or just track the movement of air over your skin. You might be surprised at what you discover. Often, I consciously relax my jaw, because that’s a problem for me. I don’t need my jaw to walk, so relax, dammit!

3. Just look softly, and notice what you see. Sometimes I focus on something straight ahead, sometimes on the peripheral vision. The more you look around, the more there is to notice. Children to admire, cats to be acknowledged, paint squiggles on the pavement, fuschia buds begging to be popped…

4. Tread lightly on your thoughts. Mindfulness does not exclude thinking: rather, it means becoming aware of your thinking. Generally I try not to work earnestly on problems while walking—but again and again I’ll go for a walk and mysteriously, a problem will solve itself. A new thought pops up out of the blue, and quite unexpectedly you see that problem from a different angle. Such moments are common with writers: that’s why so many writers have a dog or live by the sea!

Do you already practise some of these habits?

Want to extend your repertoire a little? Take it softly, softly. This is not a duty. It will not make you rich or famous, but it may be rather enjoyable.

9 more tips for walking young, safe, and happy.

 

How do people in their 50s, 60s and 70s use technology?

Infographic from AARP report on older Americans and technology.
Infographic from AARP report on older Americans and technology.

How do people in their 50s, 60s and 70s use technology? How do we differ from younger people in our use of communication devices and social media? A report by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) examines the current situation in the United States. Interesting!

Middle-aged and older people are no longer a bunch of reluctant beginners. We do use technology a lot, and we use it differently at different ages.

The infographic just scratches the surface: the report has different findings for subjects in their 50s, 60s and 70s. A few random facts:

  • Over half of people in their 70s use their computer for playing games
  • Most 50+ tend not to trust privacy protection on the internet, yet only a minority take steps to protect their privacy (I guess we’re not alone there)
  • Only 17% of those in their 70s use the internet to take webinars or classes, or watch how-to tutorials, a drop from 27% for those in their 60s
  • Among those under 70, text messaging has overtaken email as the tool most used to stay in touch

50+ use tech to communicate

How does your use of technology match the norms revealed in the AARP survey?

Of course, individuals won’t match the stats: you and I use tech and social media in our own sweet way.

At a glance, I’m more active on social media than most 70+ users, a keen learner, half-hearted about password protection and other privacy measures, a heavy user of the smartphone, and typically, lacking wearables. Maybe my birth certificate is at fault.

How about you?

Read more about the AARP report on Tech and older adults

Read the full report: Technology use and attitudes among mid-life and older Americans

Read Ronni Bennett’s take on this report: Time Goes By is always a great read.
Technology alert: Time Goes By is a Typepad blog, and opens in a new window