Art, Journaling, My point of view, Tips, Writer's life

Level Thinking – What Older Creatives Need

The late Dr. Gene Cohen is one of my heroes because he was part of a movement that’s redefining aging in a positive light.

A year before he died, I had the pleasure of watching a video feed of Dr. Cohen, then Director of the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University speak at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. His talk was part of the cathedral’s Sunday Forum series. These talks are archived, so you’re interested learning more about Dr. Cohen or in seeing this feed yourself, given below are two links.

Dr. Cohen proposed that, from about our forties to the end of our lives, four things happen to make us view the world differently.  During his talk, I had one of those wonderful ah-ha moments when the world suddenly made more sense.

Mid-Live Reevaluation

The first phase he described was mid-life reevaluation, which starts in our forties and lasts, more or less until our mid-sixties. And boy, has this time of life gotten a bad rap, under the header mid-life crisis. Think of all the jokes about men with red sports cars and hair transplants, or women with plastic surgery and toy-boys. Sisters, that ain’t what it’s about at all.

As creative people, we’re familiar with the right-brain, left-brain idea, the notion that most of us have a dominant hemisphere. When younger people do activities that stimulate whichever side of their brain is dominant, they feel more in their comfort zone. But, according to recent neurological research, what begins in our forties is that both hemispheres begin to, literally, think together.

New brain cells are created. Existing brain cells develop more synapses—imagine all those people milling about independently in Times Square on New Years Eve suddenly holding hands. And those synapses, in large numbers, begin to connect the right and left sides of our brain. We are on our way to becoming whole-brain thinkers.

This is where I had my ah-ha moment.

How many times have you heard someone say, “The older I get, the more time it takes me to do something?” This statement, inevitably, has a negative connotation. Getting older. Slowing down. Decreasing mental and physical faculties. The inevitable winding down of the car engine or the clock, to use two physical objects used as metaphors for aging.

Yes, there is a physical component to aging and, as a society, we have thankfully crossed beyond that mental barrier that once said all older people will inevitably grow physically weaker until they can no longer manage even simple tasks. So we’re out there pounding the pavement, or taking aerobics classes, or doing Pilates and yoga, etc. And still it takes us longer to do things as we get older.

It takes us longer to do things because, beginning in our forties and lasting the rest of our lives, our brains come to tasks working in a way that is more holistic, more whole-brain, more multi-focused. And, like baking multi-grain bread, which takes longer to bake than white bread, that way is healthier, more artistic, and more satisfying. In a world where nano-seconds are considered a reasonable measure of time, taking longer has a bad, bad reputation.


The second phase that Dr. Cohen described was liberation. It begins in the mid-fifties and goes to somewhere in the mid-seventies, though for all of these phases, there is no hard and fast end point.

Liberation is a change in consciousness: “If not now, when?” “What can they do to me?” Raise your hands, all of you who—like me—took up serious something sometime after you qualified for the “Over 55” menu at Denny’s. For me it was serious writing and art.

Summing Up

The third phase was summing up, and it comes to the forefront in the mid-sixties to mid-seventies. People become more interested in philanthropy, in volunteerism, and in conflict resolution. This is the time many of us think about writing memoirs, or taking that special trip back to a place that marks a significant event in our lives.


The final phase is éncore, in the French sense, so let’s use the French spelling, as in pas éncore (not yet), or éncore un peu (just a little more, just a little longer), or Quoi éncore? (What else?) It’s the grown-up equivalent of “Can’t I play just a few minutes more?”

Dr. Cohen finished by saying that for most of our lives, we were nudged along. Parents expected children to do better. Peers influenced teen-agers in ways that parents and teachers could only dream of. We nagged our spouses, “It’s for your own good, dear.”

The older we get, the less people nudge us. Too old, they think. Slowing down. Takes them longer to do things. Not interested in new things. Not really keeping up. Living in a shrinking world. So sad, so why remind them of their frailties. Stop trying to nudge them along.

I think that you and I, as writers, as creative people, and as friends, have this absolutely sacred task not only to develop our own creativity, but to continue to nudge one another along in all creative areas. Forever. Éncore un peu.

“I attended a major retrospective exhibit of fifty years of folk art. Of the 20 artists featured in the catalogue, 12 of them, 60%, did their first piece of folk art over the age of sixty-five; and 6 of them, 30%, did their first piece of folk art over the age of eighty-five.” ~Dr. Gene Cohen (1944-2009), gerontologist, teacher, author

Writer's life

Level Thinking: Slow News Packs a Wallop

Count to eight slowly.

Turn on television and watch some news footage, not the perfectly-coifed talking-head newscasters talking about a crate of suddenly freed chickens escaping their pursuers , but footage of a dramatic event, an event which changed the life of the people involved. While we’re watching, count to eight slowly again.

A cut in television parlance is moving from one visual to another. How many cuts were there in the eight-second segment we watched? Was there a line-feed of other breaking headlines scrolling across the bottom of the screen while we watched? Did sports’ scores or the weather or anything else popup on a part of the screen during those eight seconds? Was our set displaying a second program in a mini-window, so that we were essentially watching two programs at once?

Back in the day, when I got my news from the Huntley-Brinkley Report—I know this tells my age—cameras would lingered for a full eight seconds, possibly longer, on one image. There would be a voice-over talking about the hundred elderly residents evacuated from the burning nursing home in sub-zero weather, but the visual would have been the flames jutting out of the upper windows and, perhaps, a slow pan to icicles forming on the fire ladders. One picture truly was worth a thousand words.

According to research done about five years ago by the Brain and Creativity Institute at University of Southern California, slow news, like slow dancing and slow food, packs a more powerful wallop.

Research subjects took six to eight seconds to emotionally connect with and develop empathy for another human being in distress. The original report  and a blog comment by a man named Brandon Keim were both fascinating.

If six to eight seconds of news coverage include lot of cuts and/or extraneous material, people watching don’t develop empathy. A hundred elderly people who have lost everything in a fire. Yawn. A mother who saw her toddler crushed by a cement truck. Wonder if I can find a rerun of Friends?

The ability to feel empathy is about as basic a human quality as we have. It’s not unique to our species, of course. We know that many animals, probably more than we think, feel, and express empathy. For all we know, the same could be said about insects, fish, and even plants, but it’s us, as human beings, who are most capable of turning empathy into helping. It’s vital that we keep that skill.

First, as human beings, and second, as writers, we have a responsibility to nurture empathy, in ourselves and in our children. Of only slightly less importance than empathy in our real lives is the question that if we become numb to experiencing empathy, how are we going to create and sustain empathetic characters?

Does this research mean that news programs will go back to the Huntley-Brinkley format? Of course not, but there is at least a simple starting point. The next time you encounter an emotionally-charged news item, close your eyes. Listen to it without the distracting visuals. Think about the people involved. Depending on your spiritual orientation, offer up a prayer or even just a thought for those people. Cultivate not just being in touch with current events, but being touched by events.

I, for one, would prefer not to sacrifice a part of my humanity for the sake of quick-cuts visuals and flashing hockey scores.


Quote for the week:

If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people’s psychological states and that would have implications for your morality.

~ Immordino-Yang, former teacher and researcher on learning and the brain

See you on Tuesday, July 8, for the first part of the six-part mini-series on techniques to improve our first drafts. We’re starting with how to use body language in place of adverbs.


Writer's life

Level Thinking: Time Travel

Come with me for a short foray into time travel. Forty-four years ago today I climbed on a plane to go to Vietnam. I was a lot younger then.

Friday, May 15, 1970/Travis Air Force Base, California

Waiting is so hard.

The terminal building is a large grey warehouse of corrugated iron; combat boots make hollow sounds on the concrete floor. Inside men in fatigues or summer uniforms wait everywhere, sleep on grey wooden benches, read paperback books with the cover folded back, or wander and smoke cigarettes. I’ve been down here three times only to be told I’m not yet manifested on a plane.

Sue and I are afraid. We have heard stories that the Viet Cong rape women prisoners, that they never take women prisoners alive, that in Tet of ’68 nurses were issued a suicide capsule. Since no U.S. service women has ever been captured, our imaginations, fed by boredom and anxiety, are overworked. We are afraid of being captured, raped, tortured. We are afraid of our plane crashing and never getting there. Most of all, we are afraid of somehow not measuring up.

A lot of the Army is like this, proving you are as tough or tougher than the guys. It is the kind of thing that worried us about going to basic. We had seen movies and heard stories about being awakened at 0430 and having to run 5 miles and do physical calisthenics for any infractions of rules. In the end it wasn’t like that at all. It was “Yes, Ma’am” and “No, Ma’am” from the enlisted men and the sergeants. Sometimes we were a little disappointed, as if they didn’t think we could pass the rigorous tests, so they never gave them to us. We wanted to be tested. We still want to be tested.

After supper, we take a walk along the fence that protects the airstrip. The sun is going down. A med-evac plane has just landed and casualties are being loaded from the plane onto a bus. We stand with our fingers interlocked with the mesh fence, our faces pressed up against the metal links. I wonder where the casualties have been, who they are, if I know the nurses are who cared for them. I am so tired of waiting, so keyed up that I want to jump the fence and do something—adjust I.V.s, check dressings, take vital signs—anything to be a part of what is happening. I look at Sue’s face and know she feels the same way. We have been preparing for this for a long time. We want to be a part of this war.

About 9 P.M. I make one more visit to the manifest desk. The rather bored Specialist verifies my name and serial number on a clipboard. “Two A.M. Saturday morning.” My mouth goes dry. I’m really going to Viet Nam! I go back to the Officers’ Quarters and say goodbye to Sue. I wish we could travel together, but she still isn’t manifested on a plane. We know we will probably never see each other again.

I try to sleep, but am too excited. Finally I get up, dress and fuel myself with several cans of Coke. I call a military taxi to take me and my duffel bag over to the terminal about midnight. My duffel bag contains everything I can cram into one long green cloth tube; what’s in there has to last me a year. Six sets of fatigues, two pairs of combat boots, a couple of summer dresses, underclothes, tennis shoes, a robe, extra shampoo and toothpaste, my diary, a small camera, a tape recorder, my address book and some stationery. The bag has my name stenciled on the side and it’s locked with a padlock. I wear the key around my neck beside my dog tags.

The night is dark and warm. A hot breeze blows across the runways and large orange lights illuminate the terminal. I hear a ghetto blaster from the barracks down the road from the terminal; the building is just too far away to make out the song. Inside the terminal, I’m the only woman in the building except for a black specialist checking names at the embarkation desk and a woman in a Red Cross uniform on the far side of the terminal who’s serving coffee, juice and cookies.

When it comes down to this hot California night, when my duffel bag disappears along the sterile aluminum chute, when I have a ticket in my hand and my name on a manifest list, I am terrified. I should be working in a hospital in New Orleans or Atlanta, surrounded by civilians and peace. Why have I gotten myself into this twilight zone of barn-like terminals, blaring intercoms, people with drawn and scared faces? I don’t belong here.

Yes, I do. When I saw those men carried off the plane yesterday, I knew I had to be here, to do what I am about to do. I can’t let them go to this war alone. It wouldn’t be honourable. When I was in high school I read Starship Trooper by Robert Heinlein. In that world people who had done a tour of voluntary service could vote and people who hadn’t, couldn’t. I think that’s the way it should be. We have to do something to earn the right to be citizens.

It’s more than that, a lot more personal. Viet Nam has been so much with me for the past five years. I saw the fear of this war on the faces of the boys in university every time an exam paper was handed back, felt it on the Halloween night when I was at a party and Johnson announced the mining of Haiphong harbor. This war had run through the past decade of our lives. My brother Ward can be drafted. I don’t want him to be here in this terminal. I can’t let those boys from university, from that Halloween party do this alone. And yet, it is only discipline that brings me to the ramp of the plane where a black sergeant looks over his clipboard.

“Name, rank and serial number?”

I rattle them off. I have memorized my serial number so I can rattle it off in short bursts: three numbers, two numbers, four numbers.

He salutes and I board the plane.

Sharon helicopter

©Sharon Wildwind, Dreams That Blister Sleep: A Nurse in Vietnam, River Books, 1999.

Writer's life

Level Thinking: Listening to Stories

Once, in a short story, I read about a man who could not tell stories. Embarrassed at this lack of social skill, he practiced. Standing in front of a mirror, he rehearsed how to hold his head, his facial expressions, how to use his hands to illustrate the story’s climax, and when to raise or lower his voice. He became a hit at parties, but in the end he rehearsed one story too many. That was the story of witnessing his brother’s accidental death. When it came time to talk to the police, he had the details down too pat.

I’ve always like my stories more spontaneous. My friend Edward’s tale of hitchhiking from South America to the U.S./Mexican border, crossing through several countries, without a passport. What happened when my music teacher literally bumped into Queen Elizabeth while she was emptying used tea leaves into her flower bed at Balmoral Castle. How an acquaintance’s father was killed by cannibals in New Guinea.

We all know what makes a good story. Intrigue. Suspense. A breaking down of barriers. A touch of the exotic. Of course, timing is everything. Some stories should only be told in a cheap diner, over a plate of sizzling French fries, at two in the morning, after a night of partying. Others work better under a big pecan tree, in a circle of aunts, where clicking of knitting needles and ice tinkling in large tea glasses punctuate the details.

I suspect that writers—even young proto-writers—have natural antennae for stories. One of the first lessons we learn is not to interrupt. We might miss something if we did, or worse, the storyteller might be distracted and never come back to finish the tale. Another thing we become good at is listening to the same story more than once, because we’ve figured out that the same story is never really the same.

There’s always once nuisance, whether it be a small detail or the change in tone of voice, that suddenly reveals more about the story behind the story.

When I was about four years old, my father’s job kept him away from home for several days at a time. My mother didn’t like being at home alone with two small children, and she had a cousin, who also travelled in his work. She was quite glad for her cousin to stay in our spare bedroom when he came through town. One day, in the grocery store, my mother was talking about her cousin to a neighbor. I was having a hard time remembering who the cousin was and my mother reminded me he had an alarm clock that made a noise I found funny. “Oh,” I said loudly in the middle of the store, “You mean the man who comes to stay every time Daddy’s out of town.”

That was when I learned that some stories were sacred, or at least private.

“Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.” ~Eudora Welty, southern writer

2014/03/20 Update

This was our view from our balcony door as we greeted spring this morning.

Welcome Spring 2014

At least something in our apartment looks springlike.

At least something in our apartment looks springlike.

Welcome Spring 2014
Writer's life

Level Thinking: The Convention Agenda

Start with several hundred people, each of whom has a separate agenda. Subject many of them to security checks, crowded airplanes, bad food, and crossing through customs. Know as a certainty that some of them have come to the convention even though they are not feeling well, have had to have a pet put down, their car is in the shop after an accident, a family member was just diagnosed with a serious illness, or their agent told them on Friday that their publisher is dropping them.

Combine them in unfamiliar surroundings for three days, with more activities going on than they could do in three weeks. Add alcohol, hotel food, and freezing air conditioning. Tell them to have a good time.

Strangely enough, most people do.

Welcome to the world of writing conventions

Writing conventions come in two varieties

  • A fan convention is a mix of the people who do (writers, actors, producers, agents, book sellers), people who want to do (aspiring writers, actors, etc.) and people who enjoy (fans). Some of the program is about writing, and there are lots of other events.
  • A writing convention (often called a workshop) is a serious writing week/weekend. The focus is writing, writing, and more writing.

One kind is not better than the other, only different. It’s a good idea to check out which kind you’re going to ahead of time. Conventions have web sites and a quick stroll through there will give us what kinds of activities are scheduled.

Metabolism and Personality

I am a morning person? 7 AM breakfast meeting? Fine with me. Back-to-back morning workshops. I’m up for it. But by 3 PM, I start to fade and by 5 PM, that’s it. I’ve had it for the day. As much as I’d love to, I’m not going to the radio drama that starts at 10 PM.

Can you go for long stretches at top speed and collapse afterwards, or do you need some quiet, down time every hour or so? Does meeting new people give you an energy rush or absolutely terrify you? It’s important to answer questions like this before we arrive at the convention.

Whatever we’re like at home, we’ll be doubly so at a convention. Plus, at a convention, there is always the temptation to cram in as much as we can. After all, we’ve spent a lot of money to get here. We need to make it worthwhile. Right?

Wrong. The best way to enjoy a convention, and profit from it, is to stay as close to our normal rhythms as possible.

Try to get two real meals (not sandwiches and chips) every day and five hours of sleep a night. Reversing these don’t work; that is, trying for five meals and two hours of sleep will not keep us going.

Eat as though we’re in training, because we are. Sure, treat ourselves, whether it be a sticky dessert or a bit of alcohol, but also keep doing that vegetable-fruit-whole grain thing.

Hotels and convention centers are notoriously dry. Drink water. So have some coffee, tea, juice, etc., but remember water, water, water.

When we get our convention program, sit down and divide the program into three lists: absolutely must do, would really like to do, and everything else. Work our eating and sleeping schedule around the absolutely must do things, with a few really like to do things thrown in. Let everything else go. If we get to something else, fine; if we don’t, fine.

Aim for a few up-close and personal contacts. We might talk to someone sitting in an alcove or to the other six people at our banquet table. We don’t have to force ourselves to be gregarious when you aren’t.

Look for opportunities to spend time with individuals and small groups. Smile at someone eating alone and ask if we can join them. Check our the hospitality rooms. Be a volunteer. Volunteering gives us a chance to see and be seen behind the scenes.

We’re there to network, to get our names out for future reference. Give out business cards; collect all the business cards we can. When we get home, send everyone e-cards or e-mails, saying we enjoyed meeting them.

Bathrooms and hero worship

Give the gal (or guy) a break. Just because I’ve spotted my absolutely favorite author of all times, or the agent I would die, just die, to have as my very own, I will not accost them in the bathroom, or the elevator, or break into the dinner conversation they are having with a publisher, or invite myself along to the private dinner they are having with friends.

But I will take note of  what they’re wearing, so I can spot them later on. When they’re not otherwise engaged, I’ll go up and introduce myself. Really. To anyone. If it’s done politely, it’s okay.

I once introduced myself to a writer who had just been given a major award. I totally blanked on the name of her latest book, which I admitted that to her. She winked and said, “I can’t remember the names of my books, either.” Then we had a lovely conversation.

Strut our stuff

We are on display. Yes, us, whether we’re pre-published, or have one book out, or are working on book twenty. People will remember us.

A few conventions have a dress code. Most don’t. Wear nice casual or nice dressy, depending on the tone of the convention. Jeans and sweatshirts are out, but also dress to be comfortable. It’s part of that being in training thing. If we are great-looking, but uncomfortable, by the end of the day, we’ll be in a terrible mood.

Smile. A few hours of volunteering to help at the convention will not only endear you to the convention organizers, but you’ll also have a great time. Smile. Say nice things about other writers. Smile. Well, you should have the idea by now.

Dealing with rejection: The free world does not hang in the balance. You are only writing a book. ~Sue Grafton, mystery writer.

My paraphrase about conventions on what Ms. Grafton said is, “It’s only one convention.” If this turns out to be the worst convention you’ve ever attended in your entire life, take a deep breath, cry if it helps, and keep going. There will be another convention soon. If it’s been the best convention you’ve ever attended, celebrate, and don’t forget to write an e-mail to the organizers telling them that when you get home.

For mystery writers or fans, here’s a list of the conventions coming up in 2014. Same after the location means it’s held in the same place each year; moves means the convention location changes each year. Some conventions remain in the same state, but change cities in that state.

This isn’t a mystery convention, but it has an extra-special place in my heart. Story Circle Network’s Stories From the Heart Convention, Austin, Texas (same, happens every two years), will be held April 11 to 13. This gathering is devoted to women’s journaling, memoirs, family histories, life writing, and so on. SCN is  for Women with Stories to Tell.

At this same spot, next Tuesday, March 4, I begin a series of four Writing the Novel blogs on character development. Hope to see you here.