Writing as a Treasure: Elders Recount Tales From Every Age and Stage of Their Lives
By Susan Willerman
For almost 10 years, I have facilitated an Elders Share the Arts (ESTA) writing workshop at Morning side Gardens Retirement and Health Services in Manhattan. Sitting in the meeting room on Wednesday afternoons, the members of this group have shared stories from every aspect of their experience – and the topics are still broadening and deepening after all this time. The elders have recounted tales from every age and stage of life: family, travels, friendships, abortion in the 1950’s, the heartbreak of losing spouses and children, experiences with people of different backgrounds and trials with landlords.
The Morningside Gardens writing group is one of the many ESTA programs running throughout New York City. ESTA is a Brooklyn-based arts organization, now under the umbrella of the National Center for Creative Aging; its mission is to offer older adults the experience of find and telling their stories and of shaping them into art.
The writing group holds 20 meetings from October to May each year; the session are officially one-and-a-half hours long, though often we tear ourselves away only after well over two hours of shared writing, discussion and good fellowship. We hold a public reading each May to celebrate the year’s work, and have produced two publications of the elders’ writing.
Recently, I engaged the Morningside Gardens writing group in a conversation about the value of this workshop. Why and how do the members feel they learn and grow by shaping their memories through writing? Participants talked about how much they have gained from the group both personally and interpersonally.
Writing group member Rebecca said, “There’s something special about this group-it’s the community. Generally when people talk, it’s nice on a surface level, but writing gets down to a deeper level. I only get to know you here through your writing. Besides the insights I get in my own writing which surprise me, I usually want to share something with this group.”
Another member, Lydia, stated, “This group has opened me up to other people tremendously. To hear people’s personal stories meant more I a group sharing than it would just reading someone’s story. I have a deeper understanding of people, of why they have done the things they have done, of why they have taken a certain path.
“This writing has helped me connect with my two grandchildren, the children of my daughter. We were never particularly close, and one afternoon I read them my writing about my father and me going fishing. My granddaughter brought down some of her poetry, and my grandson brought a story, and I felt like it was a magical time. Writing brought us together where nothing else had.”
Group members also talked about the intellectual and cognitive benefits of writing. “I am aware that I have memory loss,” said Shirley, “and writing helps so much. Things come back when you write them. I had been trying to think of the name of the old stove we had and when I began to write it came back to me. It helps jog the memory and it’s wonderful that whatever you write is going to be given a positive spin. “ When someone remembers something in the group, the energy is contagious!
Yet another member, Edith, reflected “It just happened very recently writing about my family and details of my family came back to me. I would have forgotten them. I didn’t even know [those memories] existed anymore. It’s a treasure. Sometimes, I go back and reread something about my family particularly because it keeps the memories going.”
In Rebecca’s words, “There’s no question that it’s a muscle. Writing. It’s an exercise. Thinking, examining, wondering, those are things that you might not do if you weren’t writing. I work in writing and painting. I think in images rather than in words, but I can not give up the writing.” Group member Jud picked up on this thought: Writing is “physiologically keeping the brain alive. A lot of writers, those that didn’t drink themselves to heath, lived quite long lives. Victor Hugo, Arthur Miller. It may be that writing is good for your health.”
Herbert added, “Writing makes you work to become educated. A person may talk well, but if they write it down they may feel obligated to work at it, on the form, the memory, the thinking. And so it’s not just a piece of prose, it’s a piece of art. You may not be doing it to publish, most of us here aren’t, but like Emily Dickinson, she was self-educated, she worked, she succeeded. She became the Michelangelo of words.” Herbert chose a great poet to illustrate his thoughts about his work because poetry is his vehicle for writing.
Group members also mentioned that writing is a way to review life experiences and engaged in a compassionate relationship with oneself. Frances- a former psychoanalyst and current visual artist, poet and prose writing- said, “Writing is about deepening our relationship with ourselves. It’s almost as if a part of the brain comes into play and more and more things because intertwined. I think the hormones come into play-isn’t serotonin the pleasure hormone? And you develop a really loving quality toward yourself. It’s the happiest time in my day.”
Tonia, who joined the group initially “to honor those who perished” during World War II, has writing movingly about her experiences in Poland before being sent to Auschwitz, as well as about her life afterwards. She has indeed honored lost friends through her writing. She observed that coming to the writing group “is like therapy. I make every effort not to miss a class, especially when I am depressed or down. It’s a great feeling of belonging and being accepted in what I write, that it’s not idiotic, that people like what I write.”
The Morningside Gardens writing group’s senior member, 98-year-old Albert Lu, said, “You know why we come to this group? To show off what we can do. What else can we do except write? We can’t walk up a hill anymore. This group has taught me new angles, new techniques. The reason I still come even with weak sight and hearing is because I believe firmly in ‘aging creatively’. This is exactly what it means to age creatively; once a week I can do something either good or bad. I can write. Another reason I write is that my experiences have been so different because I have been alive through almost the whole last century!”
Over the eyras, we have created a community in the ESTA writing workshop at Morningside Gardens-a community that everyone feels is unique in their lives. The program offers elders a place to share work that encompasses deep emotion, humor, tenderness, and personal stories of loss and tragedy, as well as a safe environment to work on writing as an art form.
In addition to all of the personal benefits they gain from writing, I believe that every person who has ever participated in our workshop has written something of value to pass along if they wish; has demonstrated the power to move a reader; has grown in his or her use of imagery, character, place and evoking a time; and, most important, has found her or his unmistakable style and voice.
Susan Willerman has been a teaching artist for ESTA for 14 years, in addition to running theater workshops for other arts organization in New York City.
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