Writing in old age: changing formats, topics, style and purpose

A small pohutukawa tree decorated with red bows and golden bells. The tree is about twice the size of a cat looking at it.
An old writer’s Christmas tree. Ursula provides a sense of scale.

My writing regime has changed as I grow older. So has the substance. Are these changes voluntary choices or a natural result of aging?

Below, I try to analyse the changes that I’ve noticed. (Like Doris Carnevali, I’m my own lab rat.) Interestingly, I tell myself that all these changes except the first (in formats or genres) are changes that I’ve chosen, not changes that happen in spite of me. But how would I ever know? Fact: they are all entangled with each other and they all feel authentic and good and appropriate for my needs.

Short or modular formats for my old-age writing

No more novels. No more plays, unless a one-hour one-hander. No more books about writers or digital writing. I have no incentive for long-haul big-scale writing.

One new book is waiting in the wings, but the structure will be modular and almost linear. Enough of industrial-strength plotting and structuring! In my 80s I would need a mighty motive to start on a long and complex work, the sort that demands to be front of mind morning, noon and night. Even then, could I handle it? If not, how frustrating.

Seems I’ve found a solution in poetry. Right back where I started.

Poems were the perfect format when I was mothering four young children. And they’re perfect for me now that my time is limited in other ways (including life expectancy). Apparently I also enjoy blogging, because here I am again! I thank you for the pleasure, oh readers. Without you, why would I blog?

Obvious changes in topic

If you follow this blog it’s pretty obvious that I’m very interested in the process of aging. That’s been my main topic for the last 6 years or more. Like most young poets, I once wrote about my life as a young person extremely interested in my personal life: that’s the legitimate work of young poets.

As an old poet, I can choose from a much wider range of topics. My choice is to explore the experience of growing old in the 21st century. It’s been hugely satisfying, because many readers are hungry for information and insights into this big event—

because this
is our first attempt at being old
and we're wondering how to do it
not just for us but for you  (From "Templates" in How To Be Old)

Has my style changed in old age?

I have been saying that my style as a poet has changed considerably in old age. But has it? I’ve just looked again at my first book of poems (Lament for Ariadne, published 1975).

I can hear my distinctive voice in that very first book of poems and every book since then.

The early poems were pretty direct and sometimes confrontational. They were described as lyrical and witty and “acerbic”. I think they were heavier on metaphor and Rachelisms.

This is the difference:

I could be arcane, I could be smart
I could crochet the strings of your heart
I could be subtle, I could be wise
sprinkle my lines with splendid lies
but now that I'm staring at my own demise
I don't have time. So here's the deal.
I'll stop talking to myself
and talk to you. (From "Foreword" in How To Be Old)

Any style changes (like a hint of song-shapes and a stronger emphasis on rhyme and rhythm) spring from that. Same with other changes that make the poems very easy to read aloud. Friendly humour rather than smarty-pants wit. Now it’s you and me together in the same boat: “It’s all about you.”

Am I still capable of writing fancy, mysterious or aggressive poems? I’ll never know, because I’m not trying.

My purpose in writing has changed in recent decades

There’s a reason and it’s not neurological, in my opinion. I used to love writing poems that travelled far from the original impulse, like Apirana’s seagull. I wrote to explore, wander, to discover what I wanted to “say” at the moment. Which might well change the following week.

Now to my surprise I’ve got opinions and even a sort of agenda when I write. That’s quite new to me, as a poet. For most of my life, I’ve written poems for sheer pleasure and to discover what I might think, or could think. I was a Napoleon-to-seagull sort of poet.

Now I write because I want to share my ideas, to bring pleasure, recognition and perhaps clarity to readers. To express what you as a reader might have been thinking. Or to trigger your own thoughts on the same topic and stretch them. In old age, my writing has grown a community limb! Readers are in my life now, you matter to me whenever I start tapping the keys. Readers used to be a delightful bonus for my solitary writing; now you’re more than half the reason why I write.

Never in a million years would I have imagined such a change. Until now, I’ve known theoretically that different writers have different goals—but never imagined the magnitude of this particular change in my writing practice and output.

Bring it on! I am enjoying it.

And (it follows like night follows day) I’m interested in the way your own writing may have altered as you grow older.

Are you looking for a PhD topic?

How about: The effect of age-related-changes in body, mind and spirit on the practice and output of poems by writers in their 80s? (Look around: we are legion.)

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18 thoughts on “Writing in old age: changing formats, topics, style and purpose

  1. I think I’ll pass on the PhD thank you. Ursula seems to be surveying the space you’ve left for her on the nativity table!

  2. Beth A Rubin says:

    When I was younger and I sufficiently socialized about how to be an adult woman, for better or worse, I turned to magazines and literature for some guidance, signposts and instructions. Now, in my mid sixties, without my grandparents or parents, I find I do the same. I want to tell you that your blog is one of those guides. Thank you.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Beth, I’m honoured. As long as you take it as a starting point and not dogma!

  3. I’ve scaled down my Christmas trees, too. They’re just as pretty in petite form. Let’s hear it for all the 80-years-plus poets, woohoo!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      How perfect: I’ve reclassified my tree as petite! 🙂

  4. judibwriting says:

    we are legion indeed!

  5. A natural result of aging. It’s acceptable.

  6. I don’t think my writing has changed very much. I’ll be 79 a week from today. I have tried to shorten my stories of real life by leaving out extraneous details. I know that people groan when they see long posts looming. I enjoy your self-analysis.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That’s interesting.

    2. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I wonder what changes would be noticed by a literary psychologist. And does such a person exist?

      1. That’s a fun thought.

  7. Gallivanta says:

    That would be an excellent PhD topic. “In old age, my writing has grown a community limb!” I like this development. The community aspect or limb as you call it is why I like many of the young artists and writers of today; they consider interaction with their audience as a vital component of their work.

  8. SandyL says:

    Refreshiing and honest point of view. I enjoyed your post. The switch from Me to You is a cornerstone in maturity dont you think. Being comfortable with our choices is a privilege of age

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I notice rather from me to us! What! You mean I’m part of the human race? That too is a comfortable feeling. Thanks, Sandy

  9. I find the urge to be ‘useful’ in some way – especially after becoming conscious that I, er, haven’t been – is a motivator for me, that and the knowledge that time is passing … being creative is always a work in progress and all too easy to down tools and give up.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That seems like an important insight. Sometimes our creative activities are useful, though, and that’s terrific.

      1. Yes – useful to us, at least, and hopefully to others – a final contribution. 🙂

  10. Love your observations. I myself wouldn’t say I have a lot of experience on the matter, but the difference between my writing ten years ago and now is that I’m more subdued in my present day. Back then, I wanted to be as edgy as I could, but now, I just want things to flow, if that makes any sense. I enjoyed this. Thanks for sharing!