Writing and Aging

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, June 12, 2017

Most skills are best learned young. Few people find initial success late in life. I started this blog a few years before I retired and it has been an enriching educational experience. I consider blogging public piano practice for writing. I hope I’ve gotten better, but I’m not sure. Regular practice should make me better, but aging is traditionally a time of decline. I know there are programs that analyze written texts to give readability ratings, but I wonder if there are programs that rates writing ability that could measure cognitive decline?


We all know our last years are ones in decline, we just don’t know what it feels like until we get there. And even then, it’s subtle. It’s like that frog in boiling water analogy.

You’d think because writing requires little physical effort I could write for hours and hours, but I can’t. The amount of time I can stay at the computer is dwindling. And I assume that’s a symptom of getting older. However, I’m considering other assumptions. I follow a plant-based diet which helps my heart, but it’s a low-protein, low-fat diet. I’ve wondered if that’s contributing to my declining writing energy. The gurus of plant-based eating argue passionately that their diet restores energy in old age. I hope they are right.

I’m also wondering if I might have something else wrong with me, like diabetes. I get lethargic after every meal and need a nap. But I get blood work done 2-3 times a year because of my cholesterol and my doctor says my sugar levels are always perfect.

I do my best writing first thing in the morning and delay breakfast until after 10 am. Unfortunately, I have to spend some of that morning time on showering and exercising. I have to exercise faithfully to keep my spinal stenosis symptoms at bay. I tend to skip my back exercises if I don’t do them in the morning. I’m wondering if it’s possible to retrain myself to follow a new rut?

In fact, I’m thinking about totally changing up my routines just to optimize my energy for writing. I get several ideas a day for writing projects, so inspiration isn’t a problem. I wish I could write eight solid hours a day. Just two or three years ago I could write 3-4 hours routinely and had occasional bursts of 5-6 hours. Now I’m lucky to have 1-2 hours of writing before my mind fogs. A side-effect of this is I start many more unfinished essays. I could plot the number of unfinished essays. That might give concrete data.

I’d really like to know if this decline is due to aging, a health problem, a mental problem, or something else. I feel like I’m trying harder than ever. I’m sticking to my healthy diet, plus I do physical therapy exercises, Bow-Flex, bike riding, and recently restarted my Miranda Esmonde-White classical stretch exercises too. All activities their proponents claim will give me more energy. But to be honest, I felt more energetic eating junk food and avoiding exercise. However, that led to a clogged arteries, a heart stent, and spinal stenosis. Because of eating well and exercise, my heart has stopped nagging me, and even though I have limited mobility because of my spinal stenosis, I don’t have to take pain meds anymore.

I am managing all my medical problems by doing all this stuff that’s supposedly good for me, which leaves me believing aging is the thief stealing my writing energy. HBO has a new documentary “If You’re Not in the Obit, Have Breakfast” about several high-energy geezers. Man do I envy their energy! The show features Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Norman Lear, Dick Van Dyke, Betty White, and others, extolling the excitement of 90+ living! Watching those hyperactive oldsters is inspiring. Why can’t I be like them? Is it genetics? If I’m honest, I have to admit I’ve always been on the low-energy side of the activity spectrum, so I can’t expect to suddenly be a different kind of person.

If my mental energy problem is aging, how do I cope with it? I don’t plan on giving up and becoming a TV addict. This seems to be a Destination Moon problem, a 1950 science fiction film about the first trip to the Moon featuring a problem that I often use as an analogy for many problems in life. The astronauts in this movie used too much fuel when landing on the Moon, so they don’t have enough fuel to get back to Earth. The solution is to jettison all the mass they could from their spaceship. We are often stopped from taking off for our goals because of we’re carrying too much crap that weighs us down.

I’ve come to this same conclusion over and over again. Our desires and possessions weigh us down. I want to write about too many topics. I want to read too many books. I want to watch too many movies and television shows. I want to buy too much stuff. All this saps my mental energy.

Getting old is like being a rocket that has a little less fuel every day for taking off. Exercise and diet have given my rocket a bit more efficiency to use with a dwindling fuel allotment, but I’ve about squeezed as much efficiency as I can out of the process. Now I’m down to throwing stuff out the hatch to lower the ship’s mass for the take-off.

Here’s one concrete example. Susan and I have collected hundreds of DVDs over the years. I have a growing collecting of westerns, science fiction, and classic movies that I love. My mind craves more. Should I spend my time searching out new old favorite films to add to my collection, or spend that time on watching the ones I’ve already collected, or spend that time watching new films I haven’t seen that could be just as great or greater than my old favorites, or should I give up some of that movie time to writing?

My days are divided up between active pursuits of writing and body maintenance, and mostly passive activities of socializing, reading, music, movies, television, emailing, book clubs, web surfing, news reading, crosswords, and other fun pursuits. I have to push myself for the active activities, but find it easy to pleasantly wallow in the passive pursuits. I wonder if less wallowing would translate into more active energy?

What I’ve noticed in these past few retired years is a slow mental erosion. I don’t like that. I know it’s inevitable because I keep an eye on folks older than myself. I know each decade means less energy. I’m sure high-energy dudes like Carl Reiner and Dick Van Dyke notice it too. Charles Dickens used to have so much manic energy that he’d briskly stomp miles and miles all over London when not writing, but even Dickens ran down in the end.

We all know that one day our rocket will not have enough fuel to take off. As we age, fuel management becomes critical, even an art. I believe I reached a stage in life where fuel management demands a whole new level of creativity.


p.s. – now that I’ve written this I can collapse for the rest of the day into a wallow of pleasant passive pursuits.





6 thoughts on “Writing and Aging”

  1. Jim,

    I always enjoy your work. I liked your last article, too, about climate deniers. I have been doing my own climate investigation for over three years (https://3danim8.wordpress.com/climate-change-quantified/). I just gave a talk on this topic last week in Las Vegas and had an excellent response from the audience.

    I’m 54 and maintain two households (1 in TN, 1 in GA), have 3 kids (23, 21, and 5!), and I drive about 600 miles a week from home to work. I understand the need to optimize energy burn.

    I’ve been learning a lot about nutrition through the Rich Roll podcast series over the past 4+ years. I’ve been a plant-based eater for 5 years and I definitely am healthier and more fit than when I ate a lot of meat. Here are my favorite Rich Roll podcasts in this regard: https://3danim8.wordpress.com/2016/05/12/possibly-the-most-important-rich-roll-richroll-podcast-so-far/

    Stick with the plant-based diet and it will help keep your mind clear. Be sure to get up and move around at least every hour to get the blood flowing. I tend to sit too long and I really feel the effects of that throughout the day.

    Keep up the great blog!


      1. The first presentation I did last month is easier to follow because it has a voice-over. The second one I did last week, doesn’t have me saying anything (yet). I haven’t had time to do the voice-over, but a lot of people were asking me to make it available to them.

        Here is a link to the first presentation: https://videopress.com/v/J2Ck2n9z. You can find it in this article: https://3danim8.wordpress.com/2017/05/18/how-i-use-alteryx-and-tableau-to-comprehend-climate-change/.



  2. There’s nothing wrong with a plant-based diet, but the low-protein part of it is most likely what’s depleting your energy. The body can’t rebuild itself without sufficient protein. And not everyone has the same needs. You may have a higher need for protein than what the diet says is optimal. Don’t let yourself be trapped in what may be nothing more than a fad diet that isn’t sufficiently based on current nutritional knowledge. Just the fact that you’ve always been a low-energy person says that you may not be meeting your nutritional needs, especially considering the amount of physical activity you’re doing.

    As for the cognitive decline — that’s been pretty much debunked. It isn’t inevitable, especially if you’re the kind of person who keeps their mind active. But nutritional deficiencies will contribute to mental decline as well as physical decline. I’d guess that your diet did a lot to improve your health, originally, but it may have reached the limits of what you need *now* and as you get older. If you’re protein deficient, the effects would build up gradually, and eventually negate the positive effects of the diet. Sounds to me like you need to pay more attention to your body, start experimenting with your diet, and learn more about nutrition.

  3. As we age, we have to make compromises. As you point out, the amount of time you spend writing is in decline. Perhaps the answer is quality vs. quantity. You might write less, but write better. Some writers have “retired” from writing: Saul Bellow, Bill Pronzini, and Harlan Ellison come to mind.

  4. Hi James

    I understand your DVD dilemma I posted recently about the temptation to buy books rather than read what I have. I am trying although I have already fallen off the wagon twice. That said I have also read more, and I am really thinking about what I do read. and one book I bought was the first three Foundation Books with an intro by my favourite critic Michael Dirda so I am sure you can agree that was a must have.

    At 60 I have been retired almost two years and I have to admit I am still tore in a lot of directions as to what I want to concentrate on. The only thing I can think of is to keep trying and hope for the best. My mother-in-law is 82 paints, pots, has a huge garden and is renovating an old one room storage shed the size of a garage mainly by herself. Still not sure how she does it but some mornings she is in the garden at 4:00 and goes for hours. I suspect I will never have that much energy.

    All the best

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