“Why do I write?” friends ask. Let me count the motives for journaling: to express myself freely, to find words to capture feelings and longings, to ride imagination beyond, to review my life, to find my true self, to find my place in the world, and to seek my calling for post-retirement life. Not to mention the joys of writing together in a group and of making a social contribution with the fruits of daily writing.
Later adulthood is a time for life review. As we write about the events of our lives and the heritage upon which they are built, we experience gratitude, uncover lessons learned, and achieve a sense of wholeness.
With fast writing exercises, I draw again and again on my life history. I practice describing the sights, sounds, feel, smells and tastes of growing up in a close bilingual family with nurturing grandparents across the street. I write about my parents’ postwar focus on education: Dad finishing high school and attending college on veterans’ benefits while working long hours, Mom plotting for our university while left long days on her own to raise three children. My writing touches on building our own two-professor family, moving mid-career to Canada, and now connecting with grandchildren separated by an ocean. Over time, I retrieve more specific memories and reinterpret events from a broader perspective.
Writing together in a group offers mutual support. We encourage each other to focus on concrete details and to write past our excuses. The various exercises discovered and invented stretch our writing muscles and inspire us to write for others. The experience of reading aloud for an attentive, non-judgmental audience affirms us; it builds confidence to take imaginative leaps as we seek our individual voices.
Supported by three writing groups, I have been writing poetry for 12 years. Writing and sharing poems has been my major late life learning challenge. The process has been both difficult and rewarding. My logical mind originally resisted creating metaphor and attending to the sound patterns of words. But breaking through this resistance has expanded my sense of self. Each of my poems comes to me as a blessing – from mystery. With this new modality, I can portray Dad’s devoted vigil during Mom’s last illness, the unexpected appearance of two November roses on the day he died, and the thrill of our first grandchild born in the other True North (Sweden). Musings on the meaning of retirement stir my metaphor mind, while mindfulness exercises feed my imagination with sensory data from everyday settings.
Through reflective writing, we often see how to make use of our lived experience to contribute to our community. For many, writing is part of our post-retirement calling. For my legacy, I aim to teach about aging and spirit. Preparing my regular blog on writing, aging and spirit maintains my focus on this theme. I have edited a series of anthologies, composed of stories and poems written by older adults. I will persevere with poetry – especially poems highlighting late life resilience and the continuing personhood of individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease. Writing exercises for audience members have become a frequent part of my lecturing – I wish I had understood their power when I was teaching full time.
I am intrigued with the value and the difficulty of writing effectively. Together with writing a few good poems, I intend to cultivate the skill to write clear, compelling prose. I can practice, contribute, and grow with these artful intentions.