A New Creative Writing Project

18

December 6, 2017 by Jean

imageSeveral weeks ago, I began work on a new creative writing project, a journal to document my daily experience of living alone and aging alone. I began thinking about this project when I noticed that some members of the Elder Orphans Facebook group I belong to and some recent widows of my acquaintance who had not lived alone earlier in their lives were struggling with the experience of living alone. I thought a view into the daily life of someone who has lived alone for forty years might be helpful. My plan is to keep the journal for a year.

I have long wanted to write a journal for possible publication, since I was in my thirties and fell in love with the journals of May Sarton – especially Journal of a Solitude (W.W. Norton, 1973) and The House By the Sea (W.W. Norton, 1977). Since I’ve decided to keep my own journal during the year of my seventieth birthday, I reread another of May Sarton’s journals, At Seventy (W.W. Norton, 1984), for inspiration. Sarton kept this particular journal for a year, beginning on her seventieth birthday, and in the first entry (May 3rd, 1982), she writes,

What is it like to be seventy? If someone else had lived so long and could remember things sixty years ago with great clarity, she would seem very old to me. But I do not feel old at all, not as much a survivor as a person still on her way. (pp. 9-10)

Words that resonate; the amount of personal growth happening at this stage of my life continually surprises me.

Having made a decision to keep my journal for a year, I puzzled over when to begin. Perhaps on January 1? That idea didn’t appeal to me; I want the journal to be inspiring and upbeat, and I don’t think ending it as we are coming into the depths of winter would do that. Like Sarton, I could begin and end on my birthday (in March), which would make the promise of spring the frame. I wasn’t sure I wanted to wait that long to begin, however, and I wondered if fall (my favorite season) might be a better option. That way, the challenges of winter would come early in the journal, followed by the joys of spring and summer. I still hadn’t made a decision when the power went out in the early morning hours of October 30. As it became clear that the outage would last for days, I realized that documenting how I dealt with this challenge would be a perfect way to begin my account of aging alone.

I have been writing now for almost six weeks. My working title for the journal is “A Year of Living Independently.” I usually write for about an hour after breakfast. I don’t necessarily write daily, but I do try to write five or six days a week. (I think it’s important to capture the dailiness of a life alone.) I’m not worrying about revising as I go. Right now, I am focused on capturing thoughts, feelings and experiences as they happen; I will re-read and revise later.

Of course, reflecting on one’s experience changes that experience. I generally find that being mindful of my life experiences and taking time to reflect on them enhances those experiences. This kind of awareness is an important source of joy in my life. But I’m also finding that journal-keeping is changing my experience in a different way. I am generally a very positive person; I prefer to approach life by emphasizing the positive and minimizing the negative. But I think it’s important not to present an excessively rosy picture of aging alone, so I’ve made a commitment to be honest about the problems as well as the joys. This means that I’ve been spending more time reflecting on the sources of stress and anxiety in my life than I normally would, and I wonder if this is making me a more anxious person – not an outcome I welcome. It’s possible that this period of coming into winter with all its challenges is always a more anxious time of year for me, and that writing is just making me more aware of that fact. As I continue to work on this project in the months to come, I will need to negotiate the tension between an honest portrayal and making sure the impact of this creative project in my own life is a positive one.

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18 thoughts on “A New Creative Writing Project

  1. Jean R. says:

    I love journals, no matter who writes them. And following in May Sarton’s tradition of capturing your seventh year is so cool. Are you writing long-hand or with your computer? Do you plan to add back stories from your life from time to time if it fits?

    In my opinion, journaling isn’t going to make you a more anxious person. Journaling is just uncovering feelings that have been there all along. Exploring them on consciously level through writing is just exposing the process your unconscious mind has been doing. It’s your nature to bounce back to a positive attitude and that will come through in the totality of the book.

    • Jean says:

      Jean, You’re right; writing about what makes me anxious just prevents me from trying to deal with anxiety by avoiding thinking about the problem (which is almost never a successful coping strategy). Thanks for your suggestion about including memories/back story as appropriate. May Sarton did that and it was very effective.

  2. Mary says:

    This is a wonderful idea! I’m a widow and 70 with no children and while I don’t live alone ( my ex SIL lives with me but has her own life as do I) I still have feelings of being alone at a deep level with no family left and seeing my shortened time coming up. I would very much love to read your journal. The key seems to be how to live a full life even when alone. Being in Fla., the winter is not a problem and is why I live here. I suffer from SAD.

    • Jean says:

      Mary, I’m lucky in not suffering from SAD — but I have several friends who do. I do have family (siblings, nieces and nephews), but they are several hours away and I only see them a few times a year. I am rich in friends and rewarding activities. I think you are right about the key being to plumb the depths of richness in the life we have rather than wishing for a different life.

  3. GARY says:

    Good luck Jean. 🙂

  4. Charlie Emmons says:

    I want to read this!

    • Jean says:

      Thanks for the encouragement, Charlie. Going public with this project is a way to keep myself motivated and committed, but all the words of support and encouragement are a nice bonus.

  5. Kelly says:

    This sounds like a great idea. I enjoy your informative, articulate blog and would also like to read the journal

  6. Belany says:

    looking forward to reading this! Good luck

  7. Ellie Leight says:

    I’ve been keeping a quickie journal since 2011, and I love it. I do it on an Excel spreadsheet and have a column for the date, a column for that day’s temperatures, a column for the value of my major index fund and then a long column for comments about the day. I even used to have a column for what I made for dinner that day, but I’ve taken that out. I find that this is a good way to just sum up the day in my mind, and I also find it very useful if I need to go back to remind me of when something happened. Tracking the weather is interesting when comparing year to year as is the stock market quote. It also tracks my moods so I can see if I get into a slump or need to change the way I might be doing things. By keeping it really short, it’s much easier to scroll back to prior entries.

    • Jean says:

      Ellie, Your journal sounds very much in the spirit of the one kept 200 years ago by Maine midwife Martha Ballard. Have you read the historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s award-winning book based on Martha Ballard’s diary? Ballard didn’t track the stock market, but she did note the weather. She also used her diaries to keep a record of births in her Hallowell community, and she noted when she got paid for her midwifery services.
      I use a spreadsheet for my garden records, but this journal is more reflective and expansive. I have been writing about 5000 words per week (which will need to be pared down considerably during the revision process).

  8. Brenda says:

    What a wonderful idea. I have long been fascinated by how writing about our lives influences our lives. It’s an interesting dance. I find it particularly interesting that your writing about sources of
    stress may be making you more anxious rather than less. Hmmm. Lots to think about.

    • Jean says:

      Brenda, In thinking about it more, I think what’s going on with the sources of anxiety is that writing about them means that I can’t bury them and pretend they are not happening. But since what I call the “anxiety-avoidance cycle” increases anxiety in the long run, being forced to face up to problems (like this fall’s invasion of mice) earlier rather than later is a net benefit.

  9. Honey Bee says:

    I would find that kind of memoir fascinating to read. It’s amazing how much others glean from our little “throw away” lines.

    I wish you well in this writing challenge. I am just beginning, at age 68, to learn to play the violin. Two tips I have learned of and will endeavour to keep front of mind.

    1. Endless affirmation.

    2. Always end practice on a playing “high”. It creates an uncontrollable urge to play. Taking a cue from Winston Churchill, I playfully call it “My Finest Hour”.

    And it is the “hard” that makes it great.

    And I am planning to begin the study of German with the Goethe Institut in January.

    I just simply won’t believe that it is harder for adults, especially senior adults, to learn.

    I think we are already equipped with amazing learning strategies and with the ability to motivate ourselves.

    We are capable of intense, focused, deliberate, purposeful practice and we have had enough experience to have gained a perspective that includes the highs and the lows with equanimity.

    Also we do not have the pressure of unrealistic expectations.

    I think the thrills of mastery are available to any age.

    We seniors still love to “go for it”. At our own pace, of course.

    Best of success, Jean. I know you’ll have a ready audience.

    Honey Bee

    • Jean says:

      Honey Bee, I couldn’t agree more about learning and the thrills of mastery at this stage of life. I have recently been reading Gene Cohen’s The Creative Age, about creativity in later life, and he argues that our brains continue to build denser connections between neurons as we age. This fits my experience of the way my brain functions to make more creative connections as I age.

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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