Writing and Aging

One of my writing heroes in “The Contemporaries” (which is what I’m calling this era) is Craig Robotham creator of Weird World Studios. A tireless writer, educator, and innovator every time he makes a post on writing I take note. Here’s another great one on the subject of writing while aging. Take notes yourself!

You know how a random thought occasionally strikes you, and then grows over a few weeks until you find yourself giving it quite a bit of attention? Well, that’s happened to me just recently on the topic of ageing. These are just some things I’ve been thinking about that others may find interesting or helpful (but if you’re young and fit and healthy, well, there’s a chance you won’t relate too much to this)…

I’m getting older. You’d think I wouldn’t be so careless with my life as to keep letting it drain away at the rate of twenty four hours per day, but still, it keeps happening. I keep ageing. And time continues to run out.

Jokes aside, I’m beginning to notice my age. As I get older I feel my mind and body are increasingly at war. I’ve never really gotten along well with physical activity (I was the last kid picked by the captains of every sporting event ever held in my primary school and I got to watch them fight over which team would get stuck with me on numerous occasions). But it never bothered me particularly. I’ve always had a pretty sharp mind and so figured my uncooperative and uncoordinated body could go take a flying leap… so to speak. These days however, my mind is struggling a lot more to stay sharp. Where once I was able to work late into the night, and from early in the morning, on my writing, these days I just don’t have the energy for it. I actually feel my brain getting foggy and losing its edge. I start recycling stale ideas where once creative ideas just seemed to flow. I get tired. My command of language starts to dip. Fatigue sets in. And I get VERY frustrated by it. After all, there’s still SO MUCH I want to accomplish. My best hours in each day are devoted to earning a living as a teacher and trying to be a good parent. Having only the next best hours left to devote to my writing has always been a frustration, but never more so than since I’ve started struggling with fatigue at the end of a long day.

Suddenly, the needs of my body have become significant (in a way they never were when I was younger) for keeping my mind in condition to write. These comments may be “old-hat” to those of you who have always taken physical health seriously and haven’t, like me, taken that physical health for granted, but I’m going to put them here anyway.

Diet, exercise, and sleep are as important to the brain as they are to the body… especially as we age. There’s no reason a human being can’t function, mentally, at an increasingly high level throughout their lives (alzheimers and dementia etc. not withstandng). The brain continues to develop as we age and our learning and wisdom continue to increase. But our ability to function efficiently and quickly can certainly deteriorate. When I eat well, exercise, and rest appropriately my ability to write is far superior to those times when I eat poorly, fail to exercise, or burn the candle at both ends. This is far more noticeable now than it has ever been. Even five years ago, my general health and fitness (in terms of diet, exercise, and rest) had almost no impact on my writing. Now, it does. I have to eat well to write well (plenty of greens, low carbs, moderate amounts of protein). When I eat too much fat or sugar (or binge on take-away) my writing suffers measurably. I need to exercise for the sake of energy. And I need to rest to stay sharp. The late night I give myself when caught in the grip of inspiration just isn’t worth it anymore – especially if the result is two weeks of inefficiency because I let myself get run down. The price tag for indulging myself (with regard to poor lifestyle choices) is now noticeably high. I just can’t afford it.

But it isn’t just physical exercise I need. I also need mental exercise. I need to read, and soak around in, well crafted prose. I’m a huge fan of pulp-era writing. The creativity expressed in these old tales is great – but the expression? Well, lets just say there are reasons that very few of these writers ever won a literary award. That’s not to belittle them particularly, but they aren’t, necessarily, great examples of style. A writer who wants to improve, can’t get by on a diet of poorly written material, however fun it may be. I have to read widely and deeply if I want to learn. So, I try to fit regular reading from a wide variety of genre’s into my schedule (classic literature, literary fiction, best sellers, and pulps). My preferred genre for writing is radio fiction, so naturally I read as many plays as I can get my hands on. I read screenplays, stage plays, and, though they are harder to come across, radio plays. I never pass up an opportunity to read the plays of my peers either (there’s just too much good stuff to learn from with regard to what my peers are writing).

As an aside, it’s interesting to me, and a little sad, that there is a good deal of contempt shown by younger audio dramatists for the radio dramas of the past (particularly the drama of the golden age of radio). I get it. Lots of the drama of those days was churned out on a grueling schedule that resulted in large amounts of cheesy serial writing produced at high volume and without a lot of craft – a kind of fast food entertainment. But to only see that is to miss the point. The sheer volume of material produced resulted in the development of a large body of technique, method, skill, and style, when it came to writing. The better shows, in particular, are a treasure trove of inspiration and education. Gunsmoke stands out as a towering testament to brilliant writing (regardless of how you feel about Westerns as a genre).

As well as the need to maintain a steady diet of high quality reading (from a variety of sources and genres) I also need to practice generating creative ideas. Exercises like brainstorming (generating as many ideas around a particular theme as possible in as short a time as possible – e.g. how many settings could MacBeth be staged in? – a kitchen, a school, feudal japan, a galaxy spanning empire, etc.), part changing (what if, instead of a scottish lord, Macbeth was an alien invader), adding to existing ideas (what if the events of MacBeth were interrupted by an alien invasion), Three Reasons Why (come up with three new reasons that motivate a character’s action and change the trajectory of the story – e.g. MacBeth plans to murder his wife and so, kills Duncan to appease her and keep her off guard, or MacBeth is actually on the payroll of the King of Norway, or MacBeth is having an affair with Duncan’s queen), Genre switching (How would MacBeth look as a Fantasy, Science Fiction, Romance, Family Drama etc.?) and many more form an important part of my writing practice.

And of course it is important to keep practiced at writing itself. I make it my aim to write every single day (but I don’t beat yourself up when life intervenes to prevent it). I write letters. I write stories. I write plays. I write non-fiction articles. I write lessons. I write blog posts. And, of course, I write radio drama.

Probably, the most important thing that I do is I try to keep taking risks. I don’t want to stagnate as a writer. And I know I will if I am not getting feedback, learning new things, and trying out new ideas and changing things up. The minute I start to feel comfortable – as I have started to do a little just lately – I know I am at risk. When I get comfortable I start to fear what making changes to my work might mean. Fear is the thing that guarantees my ability as a writer will plateau. The moment I become afraid to modify what I am doing (in case the result is worse than what I have already accomplished) is the moment that I stop learning and stop improving. I may never publish my crazy experiments, but they are essential to my development as a writer. Attempting creative new ways to write (whether by attempting stream of consciousness, playing with the chronology or reversing the order in which the story is told, swapping characters around, stripping out dialog or adding it, attempting to tell a story completely with sound effects and zero dialog, etc., lets me add new tools to my writing tool-box (regardless of how happy I am with the result).

The best way to improve at creativity is, like everything else in life that I want to improve at, hard work, persistence, and regular practice.

Lastly, I need to rest, even in my writing. I need the distance that rest allows. Part of the reason I regularly switch between types of writing is that it gives me a chance to get that distance and to engage in effective critique of my own work. I may not be the writer, yet, that I want to be, but I know what good writing is and I have a far greater capacity to analyze my own work and move it incrementally closer to what I want it to be when I deliberately put completed work away in a drawer for a few days before coming back to it to analyze and revise.

If I want to continue to work creatively at my writing until my body, at last, fails me entirely and my heart stops beating (and I can’t think of a better way to go) then I need to maintain a proper diet, exercise, and rest (both physically and intellectually).

*edited to fix typos and a title that was just bugging me.

-Craig Robotham, 2017

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