Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Creative Writing with Seniors

This is another re-post. This one documents the creative writing workshops I lead with the elderly. I truly hope I have the opportunity to work with seniors again in the near future - Susan Y. Dyer

I don't knit or quilt. I write. That is what I do the most when I am not at work. I have been a member of several writing workshops over the years. The writing prompts and techniques shared in the workshops often followed me into the Primary classroom. Now, my work with seniors includes leading a creative writing group (per my asking if I could please, oh please, do so) every Monday, or so.

Here is what I always remember - "I am not teaching them to write or read. These are not my students. These are seniors who have lived vast and diverse lives. They have much to share. I provide the means, they provide the story, the insight, the selection of words or sentences which they link together, with or without regard to grammar or punctuation. There are no misspelled words or literary errors. I am not correcting their work. I am assisting them, in a variety of ways, to tell what they want to tell."

Here are three things I have observed in regards to the creative writing activities that I have led -

1. ) The "telling" is important to those who will remember that they wrote a poem or a prose piece and those who won't.

2.) I acknowledge that part of this process is edited by my own choices and that no matter how spontaneous or "not present" I try to be, my voice is woven into some of their work. The degree to which it is "woven" in varies enormously.

3.) The (my) focus is on providing each senior with the opportunity to express themselves through written language.

Having stated the above, I want to quote here a few sentences from an article by Ariane Conrad that I was reading this morning in the June 2012 issue of "The Sun" magazine about the artist Ron Ortner. The following is part of a response given by Ortner to one of Conrad's questions -

"...I think art is profoundly and fundamentally life affirming. To make art is to give, to pour yourself into life, so you don't die with the music still inside you."

I see writing as art and it provides individuals of all ages, including the elderly, an opportunity to let the creative voice within to be released and then shared via the page.

Below are some my first field notes on writing with seniors. Too, I have included many of the pieces that were written / constructed by seniors at The Bridge. Also, photos of both the pieces being composed and the pieces themselves are posted.

Let me preface first that I have turned over and over again the pages of "I NEVER TOLD ANYBODY - Teaching Poetry Writing in a Nursing Home," by Kenneth Koch.

I became immediately aware during my first creative writing group for seniors at The Bridge that asking the participants to physically write was not going to result in much writing. All of them could write their names and a few could write several words without pain or becoming tired. However, most had difficulties resulting from arthritis, vision issues and the ability to hold steady the writing tool. Kenneth Cole wrote in the above noted book that he and his assistants/volunteers served as scribes for the seniors that he worked with. I sometimes have one of my assistants available to work with me during the writing workshop, but I am generally on my own. This enables other staff to work one on one with seniors not participating in the writing activity or to engage those individuals who have no interests in participating.

During the week between the first and the second writing group, I spent my lunches and other free times cutting out words and fragments of sentences from a variety of magazines. I chose those that were of a larger size. I also looked for a variety of fonts and colors in my selection.  Yes, my idea was based on magnetic poetry and, too, influenced by an art show I saw years ago at the Walker Art Center in Mpls., Minnesota on Beat Poetry.

A half hour before those interested in joining the writers' group were invited to sit at the designated tables, I went on a hunt in the kitchen for flat trays that I could spread or place all of my cuttings.  I wanted several so that they could be passed up and down the table by participants as one passes dishes of food. This would be a familiar act for them. 

Next, I encouraged each person to pick from the tray 5-10 words or sentence fragments. One or two hesitated stating that they weren't sure what to do, that they had never written poems or stories before and didn't know what they should do or that they weren't good at such things. I went through several words with them and asked, "Do you like this word? Is this something you might say?" After about five minutes they were gluing down those we chose together and their own, independent selections.

The energy in the room was amazing. There was a creative hum. Some were actually humming as they constructed their pieces. That inspired me to continue bringing these materials and to continue the creative writing work itself.

The senior below was very engaged in constructing his composition.

Towards the end of the workshops, I put out markers if participants wanted to embellish their prose pieces or sign them, as the senior did above. You might be able to see that he also gave his piece a title and put the date on it.


When I read the piece above,  I was unsure what word followed which. I asked the writer and she instructed me to put periods at places that she indicated. It made some of the words declamations. That, she said, was her intention. I have also placed numbers in front of words and sentence fragments as guided by a writer to assist in reading it and to also help them remember their initial intention regarding composition.

For the third creative writing group, I repeated the method used the week before. I removed any crinkled pre-cut words from the trays and added new ones. I also added words that had emotional content to them - angry, blues again, happy, etc. As well as sentence fragments that resonated bits and pieces of the stories they have told me during our days together.

One participant, who had been in all of the workshops, immediately started taking words from the trays and placing them on the table in front of her. I could hear her saying, "These go together. This makes a sentence." She moved pieces here and there. Her actions reminded me of the moveable alphabet.  

Their pieces gave voice to their inner voice in ways I could not have anticipated. That was a literary gift to me. I was their first reader. 

I save ten to fifteen minutes at the end of the creative writing workshop to read all of the pieces out loud. I read slowly and emphasized word placement. All of the senior have stated that they enjoyed hearing the writing by their peers. It is truly a powerful segment of the workshop. 

Here are the pieces written during the two creative writing workshops noted above. If a writer was in both workshops, as several were, their pieces are printed one after the other and noted as A1 and A2 or C1 and C2 so that their identity is protected. 


 A 1 -

There's no room for a German mom.
Are you destined to become your mother?
It is a good thing.    

A2 -

America, the beautiful.
Our family real tough
I want to turn over a new leaf. 
You want to be known for being good.
The wonder of...
Blues again
Some people are stuck.
Yes, there is beauty.
Be merry, be bright, be colorful. 
Ways to live well.
And, yes, it's all as
anything for a whole life




I want simple goodness
We thought yes
To their dreams and 
each other
your gentle joy,
good all over. 
Thank you.



You might even say
To make life even
A handful of your heart's desire.
Easier - every day.
Or is it the other



The beauty of your voice
wtih the strawberries.
As it sounds.
Transform your 
Long and Winding Road
You don't have to.
Left behind.
Behind closed doors.
The next.
New Uses for Old Things.



life lesson

What makes me simplify everything.
Experience the new season
coming home to the earth
to enjoy doing nothing
Make autumn fires
The ordinary American spirit
Unlock the secrets of 
Infinite possibilities
Under the sea
What's next



life lessons 
worth trying
something different
simple and classic
the things we make, make us.
It was the start of my new life.


All play and no work makes
a happy girl
life is a mystery
the place where you live is a masterpiece
you could be extraordinary
live for greatness



AND sweet


Made to last 
No one ever says
hello, stranger
who do you want
to be thankful for?
 a little bit longer.



The Special K's(0: said...

Just wow. Fabulous! What a beautiful peek at the thoughts of their hearts(0: Great activity. I love it(0:

Tracy said...

this was beautiful! i absolutely loved it. it made me feel peaceful. i think it made the senior citizens feel happy.

adu said...

Loved this .......Here is what I always remember - "I am not teaching them to write or read. These are not my students. These are seniors who have lived vast and diverse lives. They have much to share. I provide the means, they provide the story, the insight, the selection of words or sentences which they link together, with or without regard to grammar or punctuation. There are no misspelled words or literary errors. I am not correcting their work. I am assisting them, in a variety of ways, to tell what they want to tell.".....Susan thanks again, we could take a leaf out of this in our work with children too -a gentler, more organic and creative way to help them tell their stories.
Is it ok to share your blog on FB or is it a non-no. Please do let mw know so that i can stop/delete or continue.

Susan Y. Dyer said...

Share away on FB my encouraging friend.

Susan Y. Dyer

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your insights. Just one quick but important edit. You mention a book referred to often, and written by Kenneth Cole. This is incorrect.

The book, "I Never Told Anybody: Teaching Poetry Writing to Old People" is by Kenneth Koch.

Mike Mantell said...

awesome activity! I just led a poetry group at my senior center and everyone was so enthused and supportive of each other. DEFINITELY going to do this again!

Thank you so much for the share :-)

Susan Slocum Dyer said...

Thank you Mike. I am moving to Barrow, Alaska this summer and hope to work with seniors there. I miss it terribly!