By Mary Gillgannon
In recent months I have read about several studies showing that people who use their brains in their jobs and in their pastimes age better and retain more mental acuity. Many of articles quote the old cliché “use it or lose it”. Certainly dementia, Alzheimer's and declining mental capacity are serious concerns as we get older. A lot of our risk factors we can’t do anything about, like genetic predispositions and our previous exposure to toxins in the environment (which I personally believe is a causative factor in the high levels of dementia these days). But there are lifestyle changes we can make to slow down the process, and one of these is keeping active mentally and challenging our brains with new tasks and experiences.
I figure as writers, we’re way ahead of the game on that. Writing itself is a complex mental process and the demands of the current market often push us to explore new genres and techniques. We’re always learning and trying new ways of doing things. If we don’t, we’ll be left behind and see our writing careers stagnate.
That was really brought home to me in the last few weeks. I’m having my website redesigned, and my web designer is pushing me to have a newsletter and oh, am I on Pinterest yet? I figure I was doing good to get my blog going again! I opt out of a lot of the new marketing techniques, figuring I don’t have enough time to do everything. But I am gradually adding things as well. I figure I have to, or there is no way I can keep up. And everything I add means learning new systems and techniques to utilize those systems.
And there is the writing process itself. I’m working on my second reincarnation/time travel story, which is mostly set in the present, and once again I’m finding it very different than writing historical novels. There is research. But not the kind you can find in books, like I did in the old days, or even on the internet. To make my twenty-something heroine realistic, I have to figure out how she would talk, what slang she would use, and how she views the world. It helps that I have a daughter that age. But it helps even more that I work with the public in my job and get to observe people of all ages and backgrounds. And that I travel and spend significant time in airports, hotels and other public places.
Still, it’s a difficult kind of research for someone like me, who tends to get caught up in my current task or be occupied with my own thoughts. I have to learn to pay attention to people in my environment. To immerse myself in the modern world. It’s not something I would probably do if I was a normal person and didn’t write books. For that matter, I suspect I probably wouldn’t even be writing a book that demands this kind of research if the writing market hadn’t become so difficult. I would probably still be writing historical novels and not branching out with contemporary ones.
A part of me longs for the old days, when writers got to hide away in their offices or writing nooks and write the books that came to them easily. When they didn’t have to learn more and more technology and keep up with everything new. When they didn’t necessarily have to grow and change and stretch and take risks to have any hope of keeping their career going. But it’s probably a lot better for me this way. I’ll not only (hopefully) keep selling books, but I’ll age better, too. All of us writers will.