Wednesday, August 07, 2019

The most amazing personal computer of all

Food for thought. I had been wondering what to post on my blog today, when a couple of coincidences fell into my lap. First of all, this week's posts have been about old computers, freezing screens, and corrupted files – all terrifying experiences for a writer. Not being millionaires, most of us try to coax more life out of our moribund computers than they are really capable of.

Secondly, my daughter posted a photo of my wedding day to the family What's App group. It would have been our fiftieth wedding anniversary today, and I realized looking at the photo that everyone in the photo was dead except me. How did that happen? I still feel the same as that young, mini-skirted bride in that photo.

Well, almost.

It got me to thinking about old writers, brain freezes, and information overload. Can an old brain truly keep writing at the same level as its younger self? Philip Roth stopped writing novels in his late seventies because he felt he no longer had the stamina or verbal fluency needed, and he did not want to write a mediocre work. Other writers have kept going but, reading their later work, you can see a decline. A subtle lack of sparkle, creativity, and complexity. That's a scary thought. We all strive to be better with each book. No writer wants people to shake their heads and say, "She should have quit a year or two ago".

And yet other writers carry on well into their eighties, and in the case of PD James, into their nineties. My own mother wrote a book (a non-fiction social history, not a novel) at the age of 86. How will we know when our best work is behind us? Mysteries are among the complex of the genres. We have to keep track of many threads and not only worry about plot, characters, and setting, but also build suspense, create clues and red herrings, and weave it all together into an exciting, coherent whole at the end. It's a lot of balls to keep in the air and a BIG picture to keep track of. No simple slice of life or rambling free association story here!

The curse of being a psychologist is that I know more about the brain than I'd like. Some of its functions, like memory, processing speeds and reaction times, begin their decline in the twenties. Working memory and fluid reasoning – the ability to juggle and recombine elements to create novel solutions – are not far behind. In women particularly, menopause hits verbal memory hard. We all laugh about our trouble remembering names and finding the right word, but the effect is unsettling. Often I stare at the page, trying to capture that elusive word or phrase that I know is lurking somewhere in my brain, out of reach. I use the thesaurus as a memory trigger, or I write a poor alternative in the hope that the perfect one will pop up at some later time (like the middle of the night). And often I find myself asking my children "Have I told you this before?"

Still, there is much to value about older brains. There is greater experience and wisdom. There is an empathy, breadth, and patience that comes across in our stories. I think as long as the latter outweigh the problems in memory and verbal fluency, it is worth carrying on. I hope I know when the scales tip. It doesn't mean a writer has to stop writing. I plan to write short stories when I can no longer keep track of whole novels, and I also hope to do a memoir of my father's life and maybe some journaling of my own. Writing itself helps to keep the brain sharp.

Meanwhile, exercise, diet, stress reduction, new experiences, and other lifestyle activities can all help keep us young at heart. Check out some thoughts on this page about the care and maintenance of the best personal computer of them all.

Here's to continuing the adventure of our lives!


Donis Casey said...

A beautiful picture, Barbara, happy memories indeed.

Unknown said...

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