Old writing skills: new uses for real life problems

Notebooks, map, timer on a desk
Planning a writing course gets serious

Oh, help, my summer writing school is less than two weeks away! I’ve been preparing seriously for a couple of weeks. Now it gets super-serious, tick tock!

“Write into life” brings a brand new emphasis to my work. I’ve taught writing skills to thousands of people — for poetry, fiction, plain language, digital writing, corp comms, editing, and so on and so forth. We’re talking experience and authority here, oh ho ho, yes we are, I’m not a newbie.

Except… I’ve stepped into foreign territory where the words write and life have equal weight. These workshops lock writing to life, in a very positive and deliberate way.

Writing is a multi-purpose tool for life skills

As bloggers, you already know just how powerful writing is, and the many ways it helps the writer. (I’m not talking about money or fame.)

A few examples: when we write, we discover, clarify, develop, review, analyse, and prioritise our own thoughts. We confess, confront, explore, examine, purge, revise, and modify our feelings. We — oh stop, I could go on all day, and you could instantly give me another 50 ways that writing helps us in our lives. (I’d like to hear them!)

Writing skills for particular life issues

Anyway, I’m preparing three completely new workshops within this Write into life framework. I need to make sure that participants really do gain new writing skills; and that those skills are useful not only for them as writers, but also for them as people. I need to deliver for writers with a life.

Each day has a topic, and the three topics are:

  • write over your troubles
  • a writers’ group that works for you
  • write into the bonus years.

As I get each day’s programme clear, I’ll let you know more. Meanwhile, I’m very interested in what you think about all this. As you see, I’m starting from scratch— I could do with some tips!

Here’s an outline of the 2018 summer school.

19 books about aging, happiness, and the bonus years

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Books to sustain, enlighten and entertain us as we dare to contemplate the prospect of growing older and dying.

For the record, I list some books below that have educated or entertained or enlightened me as I nervously anticipate the final stage of life. Happy reading! Links are to the Amazon page for each book.

Please share your own favourite books about these topics, and tell us what they gave you. (That’ll be your good deed for the day.)

Non-fiction

  1. The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science. Norman Doidge, 2007 — Inspiring. Revolutionary at the time. Introducing neuroplasticity, the reason why a boot camp for old age is a goer.
  2. The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable discoveries and recoveries from the frontiers of neuroplasticity. Norman Doidge, 2015 — Exciting sequel to The Brain That Changes Itself.
  3. Mindful Work: How Meditation is changing Business from the Inside Out. David Gelles, 2015 — Valuable. Entertaining. Why it’s never too late to start meditating.
  4. The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. Charles Duhigg, 2014 — Boot camp basic. The science behind forming good new habits and replacing bad ones.
  5. The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: Discover the surprising talents of the middle-aged mind. Barbara Strauch, 2010 — Thrilling.
  6. Stumbling on Happiness. Daniel Gilbert, 2006 — Joyful science.
  7. Amortality: The pleasures and perils of living agelessly. Catherine Mayer, 2011 — Sobering. Documents the new wave of Peter Pans and their (our?) denial of old age.
  8. The Art of Aging: A doctor’s prescription for well-being. Sherwin B. Nuland, 2007 — Thoughtful.
  9. How we die. Sherwin B. Nuland, 1995 — Unforgettable description of exactly what happens to body and brain as we age and die. Lays bare the cost and conflict induced by medicalized death.
  10. Being mortal: Medicine and what matters in the end. Atul Gawande, 2014 — Brilliant and brave. Deservedly top of the pops.
  11. The Nostalgia Factory: Memory, time and aging. Doowe Draaisma, 2013 — Fascinating, perceptive and wise.
  12. Travels With Epicurus: A journey to a Greek island in search of a fulfilled life.  Daniel Klein, 2014 — Enriching. Studies contented old age as lived by Greek friends and described by philosophers.
  13. Somewhere Towards the End: A memoir. Diana Athill, 2009 — Irritating, but widely admired.
  14. From age-ing to sage-ing: A revolutionary new approach to growing older.  Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, 1997 — Advice on how to become wiser with age, and start a revolution. (Good luck with that.)
  15. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. Jonathan Haidt, 2006 —Walk through 10 big ideas and find one that matches your style.
  16. How to Age. Anne Karpf — An important essay on gerontophobia in the west with all its cruelty, daftness and implicit self-sabotage — and the high price we pay for this.
  17. This Chair Rocks: a Manifesto Against Ageism. Ashton Applewhite. This book is  a tonic, suit of armour and box of chocs rolled into one. Go Ashton!

Fiction and poetry

This list is short, because I quickly realised that it could become e-n-o-r-m-o-u-s. Please share your favourite fiction and poems that sustain or enlighten or entertain you, because of some association with death and aging.

  1. The Summer before the Dark. Doris Lessing — Stunning. Must-read. The heroine is plunged into an artificial old age by circumstance. An exercise in empathy and experimentation.
  2. Memento Mori. Muriel Spark — Loved it. A mysterious caller announces to each character in turn, “Remember you must die.” Rrright! How do you respond? Call the police? Explode? Run away? Or agree… Beneath a feather-light, frivolous treatment of death lies a timeless message for us all.

Joy of Writing in Feilding, Manawatu

Manawatu Writers' Festival 2017, September 8-12

Tomorrow I’ll bus to a little town two hours north of Wellington for the inaugural Manawatu Writers Festival. An impressive programme includes more than 40 sessions over four days. I was asked to speak at the official opening and to run a workshop, and am delighted to be part of this boutique writers’ festival.

This event is special because the population of Feilding is a mere 14,000 — on the other hand, it’s only 20 minutes from the provincial capital of Palmerston North. At least three writers’ groups are active in Feilding.

In my workshop I’ll be asking participants about their main source of joy as writers. I know what will happen: each individual will have a definite answer — and their answers will be varied in the extreme.

I’ll also ask them to state what spoils the joy of writing, for them personally. Then I’ll ask everyone to place the kill-joys on a wonky chart on a scale between unchangeable and changeable, and external and internal factors.

  • What would you say were the greatest enemies of your own joy in writing?
  • Where would you place them on the chart below?
  • That’s all: now I’m interested in your thoughts!
Chart for the factors that kill your joy as a writer
Chart for the factors that kill your joy as a writer

How dancing has improved the function of an aging brain

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Antique dancers’ brains benefit from dancing antique Greek dances

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(Written in 2015.) In which I perform a scientific analysis of the effect of dancing on an aging brain: three out of four cognitive skills have shown a marked improvement.

 

I belong to the Crows Feet Dance Collective. We rehearse once a week for 90 minutes and every year we perform a brand new contemporary dance show. “New”: that means every rehearsal is a learning session.

Any sort of dancing must surely be good for you physically, improving balance, flexibility, strength, and the cardio-vascular system. And let’s take it for granted that dancing is usually a social activity, which is also important for older people.

But how about the brain? Does dancing really make you smarter, as some research seems to suggest?*

I began dancing 9 years ago, aged 66, and I’ve been reflecting on certain cognitive changes that I can attribute largely to dancing. So consider me a walking, talking, fully subjective before-and-after case study.

Three cognitive skills have become much sharper: orientation, proprioception and kinaesthetic learning. I know: I was there. For my first four or five years I blundered around the floor in utter confusion. But eventually the truth emerged: yes, even at an advanced age, even with an incompetent driver, my brain was capable of benefiting.

Alas, I still give myself a Fail for focus, on which everything else depends. I understand that concentration does tend to get more difficult with age. But the other three areas of my dancing brain have improved so much that I will not give up.

Orientation: much improved

In the everyday world, I’m pretty good at knowing north/south/east and west. Provided you remain in the same hemisphere, sensing the compass points is not too difficult (hint: look for the sun).

But in a dance studio, orientation is not so simple. You’re whizzing around rapidly, occupying different areas, changing directions, spinning, turning left, right and upside down, told to face upstage or downstage or left or right or this corner or that corner, and you’re surrounded by other rapidly moving dancers. For the first few years, yes, years, I was constantly confused about orientation.

My sense of helpless confusion has passed. If at times I do get confused about orientation, I get it sorted pretty quickly.

Proprioception: a new era of awareness

It’s hard enough to pronounce this word, let alone actually do it. Proprioception is the sense of where each part of your own body is in space. Precisely where are your feet, your legs, your hands, your arms, your back, your head at this moment? At what angle is each leg, each arm?

Maybe I needed this skill more than most. I used to live in my head. I functioned OK, but in fact I had hardly any awareness of my body at all. I was aware of my busy little brain going 90 miles an hour, but as for my body, it was a kind of blur that came along for the ride. It was attached to me, but what it was doing—who knew?

Without good proprioception, you would never learn any choreography—your body would always be doing its own thing. You have to know how a certain position feels in your body: you can’t keep checking up, glancing at your limbs while you dance.

Happily, my propriocentric awareness has rocketed.

Kinaesthetic learning: damn fine

I learn so much faster now than before. Only a few years ago I would spend the whole rehearsal blundering from one move to another, copying the other dancers, thinking step by step in a dislocated juddering sequence of events.  Bend this bit, now flick that bit, right foot first, triplet, stop, run, stretch right… And I would use every memory aid I could concoct. Drawings. Diagrams. Videos. Narratives. Lists.

In those early years, learning choreography was horribly slow and horribly painful. Even when I could remember the moves, I was never really dancing. Still, by the time we performed I could stumble through my stuff more or less in the right place most of the time.

To be fair, learning new dances is pretty demanding on the brain. You’re watching and listening, and integrating oral instructions with your body, the music, other dancers and the geography of the dance floor. It’s not easy, which is why I like it.

Let me be blunt. I will never learn at a fraction of a young person’s pace. We all notice that. But when I compare my 75-year-old self with my 66-year-old self, the difference startles me. My muscle memory is stronger, and sometimes I even get that magical sense of flow.

Focus: must try harder

The one cognitive skill that I’m not happy with is my ability to focus.

It’s embarrassing to realise that I often look as if I don’t know the dance—but I do know the dance! I’ve just lost my focus temporarily.

In rehearsal, loss of focus is a nuisance and slows learning down. On stage, loss of focus can be a disaster.

Admittedly, it’s more difficult dancing in performance. The space is completely different, the lights are bright, you have to dodge obstacles, the auditorium is pitch black, and tension is high.

One night during our last season, I performed a brief involuntary solo. Inside, I was mortified, but I bluffed my way back to the gang. The stage was very busy at that point with at least 20 dancers in action, so I pretend that nobody noticed.

Next step: mindful dancing

Thus I give myself a 75% pass, which leaves room for cognitive improvement in the last 25% of my life. That’s great, because my motto is: Don’t peak too soon.

This is my boot camp goal: to focus on the dance consistently. In other words, to be mindful while dancing. To notice when my mind wanders and bring it back to the task at hand… and not to be too hard on myself.

The joy of dancing is immense. I want to carry on learning and growing and stretching myself body and mind and soul until I drop. And I don’t want to disappoint myself or my fellow dancers, who are all dear to me. For all these reasons, I will do my uttermost to focus on focus.


 


Use it or lose it: dancing makes you smarter, longer

Robert Powers of Stanford Dance summarises relevant research and its implications for us.

Image from The antique Greek dance, after sculptured and painted figures (1916) Emmanuel, Maurice. In the public domain.

My parents’ rules still work — do yours?

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bootcamp2015-small 2Posted in 2015: In which I discover that younger people are also interested in the process of aging, and give a speech to DARE 2014 conference called Life is Long: Find happiness now.

 

In a sense, my boot camp for old age really began last year. Last year I learned new things about myself as a result of preparing a speech for the DARE 2014 conference in London. This was a special event from me as for once, two of my worlds converged.

The slogan of DARE 2014 was “People skills for digital workers,” and apparently I was the one who coined it.  The audience works at programming, web design, content management, systems design, digital strategy and so forth. Likewise, my own daily work is in the digital sphere, where my age is totally irrelevant. At the same time, I was becoming fascinated by all the illogical, contradictory, bizarre attitudes to aging that surrounded me.

What interested a younger audience about aging

I found to my surprise that younger digital workers were also concerned about the process of growing older. Many told me that they found it helpful just to see their current worries in a long term perspective. I was living proof that life is long and careers have many surprising twists and turns and that 74, in my experience, was proving to be a sweet spot.

The folk at DARE know exactly what their audience wants and provide strong guidelines for the content and form of presentations. So the process of preparing our talks was rigorous, involving a set structure and several rehearsals with other speakers. This was heaps of fun, as well as a mighty hard challenge. I found that writing about my life story brought me some surprising new insights. (Funny, that.)

What I learned when I spoke about aging

  1. Your life story, past and future, is fluid. It is not cast in concrete.
  2. Your parents embed certain mantras in your head. If they’re good, you can refer to them forever. (In our family David said, “Be kind” and Celia said, “Go on, have an adventure!” Perfect.)
  3. We already know how to grow old happily, thanks to science, experience, and common sense. It’s a good idea to start being happy right this minute, regardless of circumstances and regardless of your age.

You can watch my 25-minute speech without a Tardis

Life is short: find happiness now

Studying happiness for no good reason

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(Republished from 2016) In which I enrol in a Massive Open Online Course on the Science of Happiness even though I am not unhappy.

 

OK, here’s one boot camp task that I haven’t peered into yet. It is rather weirdly worded: “Align happiness factors.”

Why did I write it that way, so prissy and non-committal? Why didn’t I write “Start being happy” or “Do 40 happiness exercises per week”?  Because I’m not unhappy. I’m generally satisfied with my life, which is (it turns out) a pretty good definition of happiness. (More about that later.)

Happiness as a topic not a goal

Very well then, we’ve established that I’m not unhappy. So if being happy isn’t a struggle for me, why include it in the boot camp? (Oh God, Smugilla is coming through loud and clear today.) I might as well set myself as a goal “carry on breathing” … although, come to think of it, to carry on breathing is … hey let’s not go there.

What’s more, I’ve always thought pursuing happiness was a daft idea. Chasing it? Running after it? Haven’t you got better things to do? What will you do if you catch it — trap it? Bottle it? Domesticate it? Anyway, isn’t happiness right under your nose?

Let’s be serious here

My reasoning was that old age may bring  new pain and sadness and confusion. How can a person continue to be “happy” when friends die, when we ourselves are terminally ill? What do we know about happiness, scientifically, that will make a difference when the chips are down? What habits of body and mind increase our chances of being happy late in life?

Think of the very old people you know. Some are funny. Some serene. Some contented. Some are grumpy. Some are desperately unhappy. And the difference in their outlook may be out of all proportion to their circumstances.

Just planning ahead here

So I figured, why not get my ducks in a row, well in advance of any bonus troubles? I’ve already read a pile of books on happiness, and they swim around my mind in a vortex, sucking me in to contradictions and inconsistencies. (Which I quite enjoy.).

Order, order! says the sergeant major. So I enrolled in a MOOC on the Science of Happiness, a Massive Open Online Course from the UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Centre. That’ll sort me out, I thought.

By gum, now I’m gonna be happy happy happy. Bring it on.


 Image from “El Angel, el molino, el caracol del faro, estampas rurales y de cuentos, estampas de un Leon y una Leona, estampas del Faro;” (1921) by Mira, Gabriel. Public domain

Singing through migraines

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Me caught in a dazzle of sunlight: something like a migraine aura

A few weeks ago, 200-odd people sang Donizetti’s Requiem to an appreciative audience in the Wellington Salvation Army Citadel. And one of those 200 people was me.

I love this annual workshop, organised by the Wellington Region of the New Zealand Choral Federation. Anyone can join in, anyone at all! On Friday night we start learning an interesting choral work under an exciting director. 24 hours later we perform it, with stunning soloists. In a word, it’s a buzz — intensive learning in a supportive crowd, culminating in one all-or-nothing performance.

The migraine obstacle

Only one problem: I usually get a migraine and don’t make it through to the performance. Staring at little black marks page after page. Sunbeams striking at a particular angle. Bright lights. Heavy concentration. Yep, that’ll do it. But if I go home I’m still happy and satisfied, because I’ve still had most of the experience.

The challenge is always, how long can I last? Two hours, four hours, six hours?

A well-designed score and cunning tricks almost save the day

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Some years we sing from scores that look like ants on the march. They’re tiny, cramped, more black than white, barely readable for me. Usability: fail. Page design: fail.

But the Donizetti score has good margins and layout and plenty of white space. Yes, that helps! I placed myself where the sun didn’t shine, took aspirin, drank loads of water and in short played all my anti-migraine cards. Almost made it.

Perfect timing: singing blind

The audience is waiting. We’re ready to perform. The beautiful soloists walk in. The conductor raises his baton … uh oh, is his face a tiny bit blurry?

Here comes the aura, a shimmering zig-zag lightning that grows and moves along its own sweet path. The conductor is a blank. The score is a blur. But I can’t leave now.

I know the first bit. And I feel fine, just blind, no other symptoms. I won’t lip-synch, I’ll sing. And I do, for the entire performance.

I make concessions. I skip the risky bits, like all those fabulous ff opening high notes. My greatest dread is of singing during a solo — imagine that!

The aura wriggles away in time for the applause. I’m fine, really just fine.

Life lessons for me

  • Learn your music really really really really well. I mean really.
  • You’re not a soloist. A kindly crowd will carry you through.
  • Adapt to circumstances.
  • Do your best. Your best is good enough.
  • Listen to the music in the migraine.
  • Rejoice!