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Monday, July 28, 2014

Living Purposefully, Living Creatively

So there are three aspects of this four-minute NPR piece that I find interesting. 

First, the quite obvious notion that having a sense of purpose in one’s life—no matter when we finally stumble on it—is a good and beneficial thing, can maybe even keep us healthier and living longer.

The second is that being creative is one important way to live a purposeful and, hence, longer life:

"Of course, purpose means different things to different people. [Professor] Hill says it could be as simple as making sure one's family is happy. It could be bigger, like contributing to social change. It could be more self-focused, like doing well on the job. Or it could be about creativity.

"‘Often this is individuals who want to produce something that is appreciated by others in written or artistic form, whether it's music, dance or visual arts,’ Hill says."

The third has to do with the apparently stressful prospect of riding public transportation “through the diverse neighborhoods of Chicago,” something I’ve been doing quite regularly since I sold my last car in 1987.

Listen to the piece first—it’s short—then consider my response:

So, as for the study conducted to determine how having a purpose might reduce stress, I’d like to suggest that if students in the experimental group had been asked to do more creative writing while on the train, e.g., describe one of the passengers in some detail or tell an imagined story about one of them—perhaps the effect on stress, and therefore on health, might have even been greater. 

In other words, make the writing less self-centered--less about me, me, me--and more about the world in which we find ourselves.  

That kind of writing could even be “appreciated by others," and while helping us live longer.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Composing a Day

In the early 1990s, I bought a copy of Composing a Life by Mary Catherine Bateson, daughter of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson.  It might have been one of those books that just leapt off the shelf at me as I browsed my local bookseller.  “Read me!” it cried out, “Your life is a little too much of the ‘crazy ‘in crazy quilt.”

Here’s a nice summary of the book:

Not long after finishing it, maybe even while still reading it—and shortly before I left adjunct teaching at the University of Illinois/Chicago—I designed a journal writing workshop called Composing a Life.  And while I didn’t use Bateson’s book per se when designing the writing exercises, I myself imagined life as some improvisational, essentially creative act, though one that likely could benefit from some conscious attention and reflection now and again.  

Yes, I would say that, if pressed.

So there was the book, and then there was my life, which, up to that point, had been clearly improvisational, while too often lacking attention and reflection.  

And so if we teach what we need to learn, I started offering my journal writing workshop in and around Chicago, sometimes even nationally.  Of the several writing exercises I assigned people, one of my favorites was asking them to “compose” a day—just one day that they thought would best represent a life designed more to their liking.  Starting with waking up—including the preferred hour—I told them to write their way through the day as if they were in charge of it.  Who did they see?  Where did they go?  What did they do?

And while people never read directly from what they wrote—journal writing is, after all, private writing—our discussions about the exercise were always enlightening, in some cases revealing how little correspondence there was between a life lived and one imagined.

And so what followed were then more writing exercises, ones designed to help people bridge that gap, move toward that life, if slowly, though deliberately.

I think of all this now because I’ve recently retrofitted the workshop to focus on people over 50, many of whom are in major “reinvention” mode, a favorite buzzword of the aging experts, whoever they are. 

It would seem more than ever--at this second or third stage in one’s life--that the Compose a Day writing exercise would come in handy.

For more information about upcoming workshops, contact me at

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Summer Stories, Origin Stories

This past week, several students in my essay writing workshop submitted drafts for review by the rest of us.  We do this every week—it is a critique workshop—but this time the drafts were very specific:  each was to be entered in a writing contest co-sponsored by Paste and Biographile, with the theme “That Summer!”

Draft topics included a youthful romance rekindled in mid-age; hitting puberty with attitude; and a city kid discovering the wonders of wild nature.

A good number of my writing students—whether in memoir classes, personal essay, or family stories—are Boomers, others a bit pre- or post-.  No matter where they fall along that continuum, I’m always impressed by the range of personal stories they want to tell, especially those I call “origin stories”—as some of the summer essays turned out to be—stories that reveal how certain experiences from long ago helped shape our sense of who we are and have become.

In my next book—the title of which keeps changing—I devote the first chapter to Origin Stories—those focused on growing up through and into our late teens/early twenties.  Many of these stories occur within our families, schools, and neighborhoods, but not exclusively.

The ones I’ve written about include my parents “mixed” marriage and drinking; going to an all-girls Catholic high school; and what it was like to live nearly 1000 miles away from all my relatives—cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents.

Even more than shaping identity, however, origin stories are endless sources of inspiration for writers and other artists.  As I frequently misquote Flannery O’Connor: anyone who survives childhood has enough to write about for the rest of their lives.

Here’s what she actually said:

“Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

Origin Stories: information and inspiration to last a lifetime.

Contact me for more information about my upcoming writing workshops, both online 
and at Chicago's renowned Newberry Library

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

On Amazon, Authors, & Books

Thoughts while reading yet another article on Amazon in the business section of last Sunday's New York Times:

            Last October, I sat down to write a “letter” to Jeff Bezos, inspired by a memo he’d recently sent his company executives—a list of 24  “cool” and “not cool” company practices and attitudes that Bezos felt explained why Amazon was loved by its customers.  
            One of the 24 entries was  “young is cool.” There followed no corresponding “old is cool.”  That cried out for a response—especially from an old person.
            As a writer, I find “old” a compelling topic; it’s an interesting transition—startling in how unexpected it is once it arrives.  I’d written other pieces about aging, even started this blog.
            I submitted the letter-as-essay to about 12 publications, both print and online.  It was accepted by one,, and went live on December 3.  Four hours later, it appeared on, Next Avenue’s media partner, after which it showed up on 50+ other sites, then was tweeted and posted on Facebook and personal blogs.
            I’d like to think it was the writing that accounted for all that traffic.  Maybe.  But it’s more likely it was the title: “Memo to Amazon's Jeff Bezos: Old Is Cool, Too.” 

            Long before Amazon put most bookstores out of business, I worked part-time in a small, independent in Chicago.  I thought it the best job I’d ever had:  all those books to unpack and shelve, to put in the hands of customers, to buy and read myself.  I believe this job helped launch me as a writer, and eventually as an author, one listed on Amazon, in both Kindle and print formats.
            As a reader, I hate that so many bookstores have been put out of business by Amazon.  In the olden days, I would wander almost weekly into one, moving from section to section, discovering in all that leisure browsing some unknown treasure of a book I had to have.
            Yet I am also grateful to Amazon for what it does for authors, especially first-time, and especially for those of us published by small presses.  In its breathtaking dominance, Amazon gives us visibility, the required platform our publishers will or cannot give us, driving customers to our books, maybe even driving editors to contact us once they read customer reviews.
            This ambivalence toward Amazon, especially among authors, is well reflected in the following New York Times article.  I welcome comments to this post, from both authors and readers. 
            But, first, full disclosure:  I’ve never ordered anything from Amazon.  My royalty payment for the Stories book is $.89 cents/copy.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

On the Geezer Beat: What's in a Name?

“What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

OK—and with apologies to William Shakespeare—but if old people are variously called seniors, elders, oldsters, fogies, or coots, would we still be old?

Here’s the thing.  I’ve spent a long time thinking about what label best fits my idea and experience of old age.  I’m a writer; words matter. 

I’m also a teacher, and when designing a version of my journaling workshop, Composing a Life, for the plus 50 crowd, I was stumped when coming up with the subtitle.  The first part was easy: “A Journaling Workshop for Boomers and…” 

And that’s were I got stuck. 

Everyone who pays attention to these things pretty much knows what age group Boomers represent: those born between 1946 and 1964.  But as for those of us born just before 1946—as I was—what are we called? 

A couple years ago, I read that AARP divided us oldsters into the young-old (55-74) and the old-old (75+).   But those aren’t terms you go around calling yourself.

Before I myself became one of the young-old, I referred to my father and step-mother as the Geezers, as in “I’m going out to lunch with the Geezers.”  And though that word rankles many, I used it tongue-in-cheek, even with a certain affection when describing my obviously old parents.

As I’ve moved along the young-old continuum, I also refer to myself as a geezer, asking for the “geezer” discount at the movies, on public transportation, or wherever else it applies.

I’m not sure why, but “senior” has always grated on me, maybe because in most cases it’s used in a patronizing way: “our” seniors, as if we were so many aging pet hamsters kept mostly out of sight in senior centers and at senior villages.

I’m gratified to learn that this old-people-naming thing has not just me ruffled, but many of my peers. Here’s an excerpt from a recent NPR report

There's not much of a vocabulary that reflects the many older adults live now. I mean, who thinks of Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger as enjoying their golden years? I mean, I realize that most older people aren't rock stars, but still, they're living longer and staying healthier longer and working longer….The point is we're getting rid of a lot of these traditional terms for aging, but we haven't come up with anything to replace them that reflects what life is like now.

Read more at:

p.s.  As for what I came up with for the second part of the workshop subtitle.  The best I could do was “Beyonders.”   I’m open to any suggestions that would describe those of us pre-Boomers who do not yet see ourselves as Elders, a title and tribe I look very forward to joining someday.

AND PLEASE NOTE:  The next online writing workshop begins August 20 and runs six weeks.  For more information, and to register, please email me at

Monday, July 7, 2014

Old Bones, New Pleasures: The Dog

I’ve written poems, letters, journal entries, and essays about my dog, Rollie, the last attempt provisionally titled “Living the Life of Rollie.”

In the notes I have for that particular piece—handwritten, with lists headed “Stuff of Legends,” “Our Shared World,” and “His Idiosyncrasies”—I scribbled near the bottom, “Dare I end by voicing that most trite of all phrases, 'This dog is irreplaceable.'?

Those notes were written after he died, after I had him “put down,” as they say, because of the liver damage that was ending his long and well-lived life.  That was 25 years ago—well nigh past the time when I should have replaced that irreplaceable pup.

But I’m pretty sure I’m ready now, ready to have my heart cracked open and then broken for love of a dog.

But before I head out for the shelter, I honor my Rollie dog with this poem, written not long after he died:

Neighbor Dog

Then in that moment
when he sank slowly onto my foot
and leaned heavily into my thigh,
then he was every dog I ever loved,
            but mostly Rollie,

who, dead and gone these past five years,
lives still in the press
of that black lab’s head.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

I Ain't No Dinosaur.

The following is from an essay in the Lives section of this past Sunday’s New York Times.  Written by Josh Weil, who is in his 30s, it describes his return visit to Russia where, in 1991, he’d lived as part of a student exchange program.

“What do you do when the world that made you moves on? How do you move on, too, without losing all it once meant? Most of us face this struggle: the sale of a family home, the reshaping of a hometown, marriage morphing into divorce.”

That first sentence particularly caught my attention: A few days earlier, I’d attempted to use yet another updated version of an ATM at my local Chase bank.  I stood there, befuddled, doing a great impersonation of an old person, trying to negotiate the new design. 

Now over the years since they were first introduced, I’ve adapted, and with barely a sigh, to all the other updated ATM versions—both at Chase and Citi, where I also hold an account.  I love ATMs, use them all the time, that is when I’m not busy paying bills online and doing all kinds of other internet-y stuff.

Which is all to say, I ain’t no dinosaur when it comes to technology.  True, I own a flip phone and a pretty old version of a MacBook.  And, true, that’s about it when it comes to my treasured tech gadgets.

Which likely had something to do with the problem I was having, standing stupefied in front of the ATM:  I was unable to cognitively compute the look of the damn thing.  And so the intervention—after my feeble squawk for help—from the kindly Chase employee.

Turns out, this new design is modeled after/resembles one of those Smart- or i-Things.  That made me feel a touch better.  And also put me in mind of the day I sat down with my 80 yr. old father and helped him record an outgoing message on his new answering machine.  On the tape, he sounds like someone was holding a gun to his head as he slowly repeated his name and request to “Please. Leave. A. Message.”

Which made me think that if someone were to put one to mine and say, “Ok, lady, what does this new ATM shape remind you of?,” I'd have to say, very slowly and clearly, if with some urgency, "Hold on.  Can I google it?"

Which is what I just did. See? I ain't no dinosaur.