Writers Talk About Writing
Why Our Writing Improves As We Age
At age 56, I'm not yet a senior. But I'm starting to become constantly surprised by how young other people are — doctors, CEOs, even heads of government (the president of Kosovo is only 38, the president of Finland is 42 and even Barack Obama, at 52, is younger than me.)
Frankly, it's alarming. Best-case scenario (assuming I live to 90 — which may well be a cheeky assumption) is that my life is already 62 per cent over.
But there's a tiny bit of good news hiding in the weeds. I have become a better writer.
This is not just because of how hard I've worked at it. It's also because of age.
Aging may bring creaky backs, arthritis and blocked arteries but it also improves our brains. And that increases our ability to write. Here's why:
Our brains never stop growing: Experts used to think that our brain cells simply died as they became older. Now they understand that we build new neural pathways throughout our lifetimes. This is because our brains are pliant — scientists call this neuroplasticity — and capable of dealing with many challenging events. For example, I have survived two stroke with no lingering side effects except, perhaps, for a small deficit with my memory and horrible handwriting. More famously, neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor has survived a much more serious stroke and written and lectured about it.
We develop better systems for doing things: I've always been well organized but after the stroke that affected my memory, I became hyper-vigilant. I write everything down. I have a daily to-do list. I don't waste valuable brain space remembering things my computer can track (for example: I use 1password for safely tracking my multitude of passwords). I even have systems for writing that allow me to produce a five-day-per-week blog with no stress. When I was young, I didn't need systems. But I could never have written a book. Well, I finished my first book a few years ago. Now, I'm working on my second.
We gain more experience: With age comes experience. Do you remember how difficult it was to learn to read? Or to count? (I can still clearly remember learning to count at age 4 or so and struggling to nail down the numbers between 14 and 20.) There are all sorts of things you don't have to learn anymore! This frees up time for other tasks, such as learning to play the piano, or writing. My own mother became a visual artist after the age of 65.
We have more knowledge: Even if you've never gone beyond grade 12, you've experienced the school of real life. With every book you've read, movie you've seen, person you've spoken to, you've gained valuable information you can use in your writing. Furthermore you'll have gained the self-knowledge that helps you better manage your own writing time.
We have more sophisticated vocabularies: Inevitably, our vocabularies grow as we age. We can't help it! We see words more often and, with enough exposure, we remember them. Laconic means concise. Flibbertigibbet is a flighty or whimsical person. To evince means to show clearly. Knowing words like these helps make us more precise writers.
Our left and right hemispheres talk better to each other: I didn't know this until I did the research for this column, but, as we age, our logical left-brain — "the editor" — becomes better able to communicate with our more creative right-brain — "the writer." Brain scans show that young people often use only one side for a specific task while middle-aged and older adults are more likely to use both hemispheres at once. (Research by Cheryl Grady from the University of Toronto is particularly interesting on this point.)
- We're better able to manage our own emotions: Writing requires our knowledge and experience and systems but mainly it requires our guts. The hardest thing every writer faces is the certain knowledge that what we're writing is terrible. The sentences are too long-winded. The syntax is screwy. The ideas are weak. And yet, still, we write.
Aging may affect our memories but it doesn't affect our ability to write. If anything it makes it easier.