By: Noelle Sterne
Do you worry that you’ve exhausted all your writing ideas? That you’ll run out of them? That as you get older, your inspiration will dry up? Here’s the good news: whatever your age, however much or little you’ve written, your creativity is unlimited.
The brain, science has now confirmed, does not inevitably wither. In fact, the more we use our brains, the more they strengthen and actually produce new connections (!) See, for example, the work of Dr. Michael Merzenich on the brain’s plasticity.
Ideas bombard us constantly. We have only to recognize them, whatever our age. Herman Wouk, who published three books in his nineties and his memoir at 100, observed in a story by Stephen King, “The ideas don’t stop just because one is old. The body weakens, but the words never do” (“Herman Wouk Is Still Alive,” The Atlantic, May 2011)
Even though these words are King’s (who admired Wouk greatly for his late-life prolificness), they exemplify Wouk’s life and the promise to every writer. As we listen and become attuned, the ideas bubble up, boundless, ceaseless, ever-renewing.
Never Too Late
Michelangelo was 74 when he began painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (and on his back!) and in his eighties when he designed the dome of St. Peter’s. Less than two months before Picasso died at 91, he drew an erotic sketch of a bearded man and a woman. Even then, as art critic Matt Schudel comments, “his hand was quick and sure” (Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, January 28, 2001). Phyllis A. Whitney published her last book at 93. Jessie Foveaux published her first book at 98—a childhood memoir.
Late Bloomers: 75 Remarkable People Who Found Fame, Success, and Joy in the Second Half of Their Lives is one of my favorite and most heartening books. Author Brendan Gill draws portraits of many now-famous people who achieved their milestone accomplishments and fame late in life. You’d be surprised—here are just a few:
- Harry Truman
- Paul Cezanne
- R. Buckminster Fuller
- Julia Child, Ed Sullivan
- Charles Darwin
- Pope John XXIII
- Edward VII
- Mary Baker Eddy
- O. Henry
- Mother Teresa
- Miguel Cervantes
- Jonathan Swift
- Charles Ives
- Edith Wharton
- Sir Alexander Fleming
Gill comments on their “lateness”: They are people who at whatever cost and under whatever circumstances have succeeded in finding themselves. . .If the hour happens to be later than we may have wished, take heart! So much more to be cherished is the bloom. (p. 11)
Late Bloomers are Still Flowering
An equally inspiring follow-up is the book by Rich Karlgaard, publisher of Forbes Magazine.
In Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement, Karlgaard recounts the development and often suffering of ridiculously early bloomers and the skewed values that drive our worship of the early wunderkind. Telling of many later blossomers, he gives hope—with chapters, for example, on “A Kinder Clock for Human Development,” “Worth the Wait: Six Strengths of Late Bloomers,” and “Slow to Grow? Repot Yourself in a Better Garden.”
If you’re concerned about a shortage of ideas, maybe you need a little repotting. You can recognize, nurture, and encourage them in many ways. Here are a few creative nudging exercises I’ve discovered .
1. Pick a guy in the park.
You may know this feeling well—the productive freelance writer I. J. Schecter observes: “You see an average man sitting on a normal bench on a regular day and you suddenly feel compelled to write a story about it” (“Fifteen Ways You Know You Were Born to Write,” Writers’ Journal, May/June 2004).
Maybe on a bus, you can’t help but notice a shy Asian girl with eyes down. Let your mind wander . . . Is she a recent immigrant? A budding actress?
On a coffee line, you admire a dapper older chap with a handlebar mustache. British ex-pat? An affected and disaffected American? What can you imagine about his life, now and before? Start scribbling.
2. Do a voice journal.
James Scott Bell in The Art of War for Writers describes this invention: “The voice journal is simply a character speaking in stream-of-consciousness mode. . . just let your fingers record the words on the page.” And, I would add, envision, and listen to the character first.
You may not yet know where to place your voice journal character. Maybe the shy Asian girl fits into your latest cozy mystery, or you picture the dashing man in an essay about gender differences in fashion. Suppose you don’t have an immediate home for the character, no need to panic. The story may come to you as you’re recording the words. Or you’ll tuck them away for later use. At the exact right moment, later, your unconscious will dangle the portrait in front of you. However and whenever you use your character, the voice journal is excellent practice for loosening your creativity and listening to the dictates of your artistic depths.
3. Plumb your life.
Look at the stages and significant events in your life (take a drink first if you need to). Childhood, adolescence (agghhh!), young adulthood, responsible adulthood, marriage, a failed marriage, glorious marriage, single life, older adulthood . . .
I recall the devastating embarrassment when I couldn’t see the blackboard in fourth grade and had to go to school wearing glasses. Good material. What about the clash you had with your loving parents over colleges to go to, or no colleges at all? Dramatic material. Your first real job in the world of work? Devastating material. A weekend away with your sweetie at the most romantic B&B in the Western hemisphere? Delicious material. An excruciating Thanksgiving dinner with cheek-pinching, relationship-prying, denture-smelling relatives? No comment.
As you prompt, the ideas may bombard you. So you don’t lose them, make notes or files. Or a chart, for example, of your life experiences; head the columns with every life stage. Under each heading, list the experiences you immediately recall. (Leave room because more will occur to you.) To start writing, choose one experience or event that excites or enrages you. You have the makings of a short story, novella, or, especially as related incidents surface, a full-blown novel.
4. Rate your ideas.
One writer developed a rather ingenious and elaborate “scoring” system for the ideas that show up. He created a 5-point scale for the emotional charge of every idea:
1 = So what?
2 = Mildly interesting
3 = Hey, not bad
4 = Pretty exciting
5 = YES! I can’t wait to dive in!
He knows that the 4s and 5s will sustain him, even through dragging middles and terrible drafts. When he feels the need to start a new project, he looks at his self-evaluations. If they’re still in the 4 and 5 ranges, he attacks the keyboard.
“…art is about ideas. And ideas are wilder than memories. They’re like weeds, always finding their way up.”―
So, the next time you fear loss or shriveling of your creative ideas or panic at the “lateness” of reaching your writing goals, remember the late bloomers in so many fields. Experiment with one of the exercises I suggest or devise your own.
Trust your inner richness. Know you’ve lost nothing. Brilliance blooms and increases as you keep writing. You have inexhaustible and integral creative ideas at any age.
Bio: Dr. Noelle Sterne
Dr. Noelle Sterne is an author, editor, writing coach, writing and meditation workshop leader, spiritual counselor, and gentle nag, Noelle has published over 700 writing craft articles, spiritual pieces, essays, short stories, and occasional poems.
Author Magazine: https://www.authormagazine.org/search?q=noelle
Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation, A PowerPoint Teaser: http://trustyourlifenow.com/more-for-dissertation-writers/challenges-in-writing-your-dissertation-a-little-teaser/
Journal of Expressive Writing: https://www.journalofexpressivewriting.com/post/i-don-t-have-to-be-amanda-gorman
Life and Everything After: https://lifeandeverythingafter.com/angel-in-the-mall/
Women on Writing: https://www.wow-womenonwriting.com/55-How2-MatchQuerytoManuscript.html
Publications include: Chicken Soup for the Soul (sixth story forthcoming November 2021) Mused, Romance Writers Report, Ruminate, Sasee, Textbook and Academic Authors Association blog (monthly), Thesis Whisperer, Transformation Coaching (bimonthly), Two Drops of Ink blog, Unity Daily Word, Unity Magazine, WE Magazine for Women, Women in Higher Education, Writing and Wellness, and The Writer.
In July and August 2018, she was one of six webinar presenters for TAA’s “Writing Gym.” Her topic: “Get Started, Continue Your Draft, and Finish”, which continues to be offered. Dr. Sterne is also one of several coaches in TAA’s program of free one-hour academic coaching to members.
She also contributes pieces to other national and international publications on dissertation issues and writing. In July and August 2018, she, was one of six webinar presenters for its “Writing Gym.” Her topic: “Get Started, Continue Your Draft, and Finish”, which continues to be offered.
Taking her own advice (hard as it may be), she is completing her third novel.
Columnist: Textbook and Academic Authors Association
Columnist: Two Drops of Ink
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