Unexpected writing gifts: keeping brain working

Thanks brainyquote.com and quozio.com.

Keeping the brain working

If there is one thing universally feared almost more than death, it is developing dementia, and losing control of our minds – and the ability to be a grownup and make our own decisions.

The prospect of being taken care of is a grim one. Companies like Lumosity (which I tried) sell the concept of doing specific exercises to keep the mind ‘tuned up’ in areas such as memory, and keeping up the mind-body connection as fast as possible by practicing until you get very fast at games.

I have no idea how this affects writers in general, but writing is a complex mix of research, puzzle solving, paying attention, and synthesis (once you decide what happens, you also have to come up with words that make it INTERESTING).

IOW, if you’re a writer, and you keep writing, and you don’t write the same book over and over, you’re going to have to LEARN new things, and keep using your memory to recall the OLD things.

Technology is in an exponential expansion mode

In our day this comes with an additional burden: mastering technology.

There are a lot of parts to the actual writing, each of which has its own secret handshake: how to make your characters seem like real people; how to create story events which, though seemingly random, coalesce into an actual story that people want to read; how to be subtle in proposing themes; how to satisfy the conventions of a genre (I’ll include ‘mainstream’ and ‘literary’ as ‘genres’ here for convenience) but still have something fresh to say.

And now people have the option to learn a whole slew of technological parts which used to be left to ‘publishers’: covers, formatting, interior layout, editing, proofreading, word processing, even bookbinding. Each of these technological parts has equipment – computers, cameras, scanners and printers and copiers – and associated software. The software is getting more complex every minute.

Brain games touted as ‘the answer’

If, instead of fearing change and all the things that are necessary ‘just to publish a book,’ the writer embraces the learning experiences, and struggles with each one until it is mastered enough to decide whether paid help would make the end product ‘better’ – at an acceptable price – Lumosity and all those other companies (the ones who create crosswords and word searches and scrambled letter puzzles) are not necessary: except possibly for things requiring closer hand-to-eye coordination and speed than touch typing, all the areas of the brain are going to be continually challenged by merely choosing to BE a self-publishing writer in the digital age.

P. D. James, the British doyenne of mysteries, died recently – in harness – at, IIRC, 94.

LEARNING is what stretches a brain

I KNOW for a fact that me writing, which has been an extraordinary struggle these past many years, and which is (I hope) going to be producing that first published book much sooner rather than later, has stretched my mind in ways I never imagined.

Now I’m happily learning Pixelmator on my Mac – so I have a reasonably priced way to create my own graphics (thought, sadly, it doesn’t CREATE the graphics ability it serves). I mastered Scrivener – even wrote a few blog posts about the matter, and still get requests for my Scrivener template (nothing much – don’t get excited). I tackled the 2011 (newest) Word/Excel/PowerPoint version for the Mac. I just upgraded to Yosemite (still questioning that one, but we’re learning to get along). I do research online in obscure topics (California child custody for celebrities, anyone?).

I communicate with all kinds of indie authors (they have been most kind) and venerable institutions ranging from Oxford U. Press (which manages the British crown’s copyright in perpetuity on the King James Version of the Bible) to Trinity College in Dublin to an academic involved in the maintenance of the online version of the Montcrieff translation of The Song of Roland.

Every single one of these activities costs me days of my life – too bad. They keep my mind working, focusing on a PRODUCT, working to understand the digital advances the young take for granted (and acquire at a dizzying rate).

I am about to try my hand at the marketing side of things: I have read so much my head is full of plans to research everything from book reviewers to POD to velocity in Amazon rankings.

Implied promises?

I don’t know if DOING these things will maintain the ability to do NEW things, or merely keep me involved in trying. But every time I experience the discomfort of not knowing what I’m doing, or the horrible state behavioralist and animal trainer Karen Pryor calls a ‘pre-learning tantrum’ (where the old ways don’t work, you can’t figure out the new ways, and the pressure gets unbearable), I find a way to learn. And go right back to finding the next thing that needs to be tackled. So far, so good.

I hope it means I will be USING the old noggin longer and harder and to some useful effect.

What else is there in the world of retirees that comes with so much payback? (I can’t walk, so don’t tell me to go do the traveling I was looking forward years ago.) Every aging person who can should take up writing – and the DIY philosophy – just for the benefits to the brain.

How are you planning to keep your brain serving you?


4 thoughts on “Unexpected writing gifts: keeping brain working

  1. J.M. Ney-Grimm

    …the horrible state behavioralist and animal trainer Karen Pryor calls a ‘pre-learning tantrum’ (where the old ways don’t work, you can’t figure out the new ways, and the pressure gets unbearable)…

    Hah! I find myself in that state of “pre-learning tantrum” far more often than I like. I hate, hate, HATE not knowing how to do something that I must do.

    Thing is, I get bored when I’m doing only familiar things, and I hate that even more. At this point, my personality is shaped so that I seek out new challenges almost without realizing it. I don’t think: “Oh, I need to try something new.” No. I’ll be going through life, and I’ll encounter something new or something that sparks a new idea and think: “Ooooo! That looks super interesting and fascinating. I’ve got to check it out!” And next thing you know, I’ve started a new project.

    Aside from this personality quirk of mine…writing fiction and rearing children seem designed to create continuous learning.

    With my kids, no sooner do I master (or semi-master) parenting them at a certain stage than they move onto the next stage and I’m all at sea again. Maybe other parents are quicker on the uptake than I am. But I’m always learning something new, usually about 6 weeks behind when I needed it. Oh, well. 😉

    And with my writing…each new story seems to demand writing skills that the last one didn’t. So I’m learning, there on the edge as I try to express the new story in words. Learning curve city!

    I can’t say I like stress. I don’t. But sticking with the familiar doesn’t work for me. The challenge, therefore, is to learn to relax into the discomfort, like in a yoga pose. And I am learning it. But it seems the steepest learning curve of all. 😀


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Parenting doesn’t stop until they won’t tolerate it any more. After that point, parents should mostly give up, and reserve their authority for the big occasions. But it was a continuous learning process (still have one not quite finished launching) – and homeschooling was only part of it. I loved it, was bad at it (from and energy standpoint) but good at it because I was THERE – and that counts a lot in parenting. Enjoy!

      The discomfort is usually relieved once you pitch in and do what you need to do. Some. But there is so much to do, and so much to learn. I’m convinced it is never easier on the old publishing way – there you have so little control – but that doesn’t mean it’s easy on the indie side. Just possible.

      I find writing down the steps, and figuring out the discomfort deliberately – using it as an indicator that stuff needs attention – helps. It won’t go away on its own, but I no longer fear it as much as before. I’ll figure out a way. Eventually and slowly.

      With me it hasn’t been boredom – just ability and having a brain which only works for a few hours daily in its best mode, IF I do everything right.

      But if this all hadn’t happened, I would have spent my life on fusion – and that part would be over by now. At least I have a head start on ‘writing in retirement.’


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I meant it for old fogies, like me – but yeah. And note all the people advertising Lumosity lately on my TV have been young perky people who have no need of artificial stimulation: play video games, young Skywalker – and read – and go whitewater rafting. Not following little froggies on lily pads.

      The cognitive dissonance of learning how masks work in digital imaging layers – and the subsequent boinging of bungee cords all over my brain when I figured it out – priceless!



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