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Book Reviews, Fiction, Publishing, The Writer's Life

Why It’s Harder for Older Writers to be Creative

I envy the younger writer.

True, I’ve been writing in one genre or another for more than 30 years[1], and all that experience helps, at least in terms of confidence, but when I read published work by younger writers I’m often impressed by their unbridled imaginations, and the creative freedom they exhibit.

I mention this because I’ve been teaching classes in fiction for an arts organization here in Michigan for a while. Most of my students are middle-aged or older. At our last class we got into a discussion about how writers can get their characters to step outside their comfort zones in order to develop more interesting story climaxes and resolutions.

It struck me that perhaps one of the reasons it’s more difficult for people who turn to writing when they’re older to let their imaginations run free is simply because they are older and have lived under various sets of rules for most of their lives. At every job they’ve held, there have been regulations, and to disregard them carries consequences. We learn to play it safe.

Staying safe in essence becomes both a learned behavior and a survival technique. Unfortunately I believe this carries over when people test their creativity, and in writing, wearing such a literary straightjacket doesn’t help get one published.[2]

I believe it’s a burden we older writers must unload if we’re to be successful. Personally, I’ve spent much of the last six years—during which I’ve focused almost exclusively on fiction—trying to unlearn the creative restrictions imposed by the journalism, marketing and other traditional writing positions I’ve held. It’s been a long process, but I do believe I’m making progress. My stories are far more imaginative, and I’m becoming fairly regular at being published.[3]

But I’ve become more eccentric as a result of working hard to write creatively. This all perplexes my wife, who would prefer I remain the straight-laced guy she married. Sorry dear, but it’s a package deal.

BTW: Now that I’ve admitted I’m older, take a crack at how old. As Book Review Editor for Los Angeles Review, I receive lots of books. First person to guess correctly, I’ll send you one.

[1] Although some of those genres, like political speechwriting, don’t count.

[2] Especially in these days of steampunk teenage vampires.

[3] Regularity, when you’re older, becomes increasingly important.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


26 thoughts on “Why It’s Harder for Older Writers to be Creative

  1. Interesting thoughts! To play devil’s advocate, I would argue that for some of us, with age comes a “what the hell” kind of freedom that may not have existed in our twenties or thirties. As I’ve gotten older, my concern for what others may think of me (or my writing) has diminished, leading to a much better flow creatively, rules be damned!

    Posted by Alicia Hendley (@AliciaHendley) | April 21, 2012, 2:08 PM
    • I do agree about the feeling of not caring that age sometimes allows us to have, but I don’t know if that’s the same thing as an imagination that’s been freed from decades of on-the-job type restrictions. But it’s certainly the first step towards that goal! Thanks for your comment, Alicia.

      Posted by jpon | April 21, 2012, 2:35 PM
      • I’m with Alicia on this. For me–and this may be a chick thing–it was necessary to reach a point of disregard for what I should be saying, to get to what I could be saying. Women have the greater burden of social expectation, and for me it took decades to get past that and start looking at things from a different angle.

        Freedom of thought has everything to do with creativity.

        Posted by Averil Dean | April 22, 2012, 2:23 PM
      • Naturally, being a guy, I didn’t consider how much tougher it is for women to break free of the restrictions society places on them, whether as authors or women.

        And I don’t think we’re all that far apart on the creativity spectrum. Freeing ourselves from the expectations of others is certainly a huge part of the path to becoming more imaginative as writers.

        Posted by jpon | April 23, 2012, 1:01 AM
  2. I do care less about being criticized as I get older, too. Still, I often find an inverse correlation between real life responsibilty and creative inspiration. In Bob Dylan’s autobiography, he talked about how being in motion unlocked his creativity. Has anyone out there tried getting on a train or a bus just to write?
    I’d be interested in hearing what works for others.

    Posted by michellemorouse | April 21, 2012, 2:27 PM
    • Great point about writing in motion. Some of my most creative times are on aircraft. Once the 20 minutes of announcements are over, I find the white noise of the engines and the lack of other distractions really help me focus.

      Posted by jpon | April 21, 2012, 2:30 PM
  3. Thought- provoking. Thanks Jo. My guess is 54 years old. k.

    Posted by klwow | April 21, 2012, 2:50 PM
  4. Morning Joe,
    my guess is 56 since I’m supposing you were just a cub reporter on the old Lemon Yellow. But if it’ll win me an extra book I’ll adjust that guess to 39.

    Posted by socalsoxman | April 21, 2012, 3:14 PM
    • Not a fair guess since you’ve known me for far too long. Oh, and you sure you want to be known as socalsoxman (as in Bosox, folks) after that debacle yesterday?

      Posted by jpon | April 22, 2012, 12:12 PM
  5. I agree with what you said, Jo, about the restrictions that one must unlearn. However, with age, comes a wealth of possibilities and experiences which can be mined for endless stories.

    Posted by Nadia Ibrashi | April 21, 2012, 4:49 PM
    • Very true, Nadia. Experience does give us the perspective to recognize a real story (as opposed to the navel gazing younger writers are sometimes prone to). And if we can free our imaginations, what wonderful writing we can produce.

      Posted by jpon | April 22, 2012, 12:14 PM
  6. Hey Joe, glad to see you’re writing your blog again—you must be feeling better :-)
    Takes a little longer to fight off those viruses when you’re past 50, like maybe 52?

    Posted by miriamagosto | April 22, 2012, 4:27 AM
    • Thanks for the good wishes, Miriam. Yes, getting over a virus takes a lot longer these days. Even though I’m better and back at work, I’m still coughing like a smoker.

      Posted by jpon | April 23, 2012, 1:03 AM
  7. Lovely post. Thanks so much. I have an idea of old you are so I won’t guess, but I will say this: you look and write much younger than your calendar age, and that’s great. I agree that we have to learn how to take risks, play, and be silly – that’s what creativity is all about. Thanks for showing us how.

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | April 22, 2012, 5:34 AM
    • Now that’s the way to talk about my age! Just the kind of comment I was looking for, Stephanie. And for those of you who don’t know her, Stephanie is in our general age group, and is one of the most imaginative writers I know. Check out some of her work at http://stephaniebarbehammer.net.

      For your good thoughts, a book shall be winging its way to you soon.

      Posted by jpon | April 22, 2012, 12:20 PM
  8. Yessir,
    I’m about ready to give following those Red Sox in favor of spending my free time reading steampunk vampire novels!

    Posted by socalsoxman | April 22, 2012, 1:55 PM
  9. I get my most creative ideas 1. in the car (only when I’m driving) and 2. in the middle of the night. Maybe it happens when my brain is not running its usual ruts. They have done studies (which of course I’d like to reference more specifically, which of course I cannot) on the teenager’s mind– those teen years are supposed to be our most creative in terms of innovation and non-conformity. Probably because they don’t have those ruts yet. But I wouldn’t go back for the world. And of course, my old brain is probably oversimplifying the issue. In any case, most of my favorite writers are older.

    Posted by girl in the hat | April 23, 2012, 10:51 PM
    • I think part of creativity comes from recognizing when we are falling into those ruts, shutting the door on new ideas and methods. I know so many people who have the attitude that they have achieved all they ever planned to do, and have no need to try harder. Me? I’ll never be that complacent.

      Posted by jpon | April 24, 2012, 2:05 AM
  10. I’ll try to avoid my soap-box about creative vs. original here. As someone who is starting to feel old–and experiencing that as a new thing–your post interested me. I tend to think that, if they are the least bit reflective, older writers may understand a lot more about character than younger writers. But they’re also more familiar with what’s been done before–which could impose a sense of limits.

    As far as stimulating originality is concerned, I like Julia Cameron’s idea of doing a weekly (or otherwise regular) “artist’s date” — get out of your normal zone and do/see/explore something you find inspiring or novel for at least a couple hours. The brain thrives on new experiences and serendipity. An artist’s date could be as simple as antiquing, a walk in the woods, visiting an art museum, or attending a concert. Extra points for going out of your comfort zone — someone like me could go to a tractor pull for inspiration.

    If I may indulge in a personal case, my recent vacation in England kickstarted some new ideas and helped get my writing out of a rut. (Or my thinking about my writing, at the very least.) My wife and I are kind of museum and history people, but I didn’t expect that the museum of Victorian surgery would be such a creativity-provoking highlight.

    Another plus of regularly taking in new experiences is it keeps your mind young.

    Posted by arichaley | April 24, 2012, 4:44 PM
    • Aric, you make a great point about making sure one connects to creative experiences like museums and performances. There’s nothing more inspirational to me than seeing or reading other artists’ work done well. And just getting out of the ordinary grind, whether it’s getting away from your job, or your writing, creates the time and space a writer needs to think, evaluate, or just drift into new imaginings. Thanks for your comment.

      Posted by jpon | April 25, 2012, 12:45 PM
  11. I hear exactly what you’re saying. When I was in grad school (after age 40) we had an interesting mix of ages and the older folks like me had more issues with leaving the rules behind than anything. After you’ve played by the rules for so long it’s hard to turn that off.

    That said, the young folks had their issues, too. Fiction was the bomb. Any nonfiction they wrote was soft, or centered around getting drunk or getting laid. Nonfiction was “too close” and they weren’t ready for any big reveals. We even had a 28 yr old who had been a child during the Serbia/Croatian war and had to escape — yet, she was not about to write about it. Maybe something like that needs longer to germinate, more distance.

    Posted by Teri | April 25, 2012, 8:44 PM
    • And speaking of issues, I was discussing Zadie Smith’s “Fail Better” last night with my students. One of her main points is that writers can almost never create the kind of perfect fiction they originally envision because we all have internal, psychological issues that bar us from detaching enough from our stories to speak universally. Older writers become set in their ways and sometimes don’t see the need to change or experiment. Younger writers–like the 28-year-old Serbian you mentioned–are often especially affected by the events of their lives, and as you pointed out, often lack the experience and time needed to put them in perspective. And if we do manage to unload the personal baggage we all carry, what then? Maybe we can write the kind of fiction Smith refers to, but what happens to the person?

      This writing thing ain’t easy, is it?

      Posted by jpon | April 26, 2012, 12:12 PM

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