Writing in My Ninth Decade
October 26, 2022 § 75 Comments
By Sarah Barnett
I need a word. The first letter is p. Out-of-focus, it floats above my head. I want to grab it, but it hovers just out of reach like the wine glasses on the top shelf of the kitchen cabinet.
No big deal, right? My friends boast about having senior moments as if they deserve a prize for their failing, flailing memories. But I don’t have time for memory lapses. Midway through an essay I’m stuck trying to remember the name of a flower that starts with p.
Is my writing life over because I can’t recall words? Because my mind can no longer plot a direct path from beginning to end? Because recently I was so careless as to turn eighty?
My worries became an essay—”Adventures in Forgetfulness”—in which I catalogued my concerns over misplaced keys, a family history of dementia, my fear of finding my purse in the microwave or other wildly inappropriate place. But guess what? While I’d been worrying, I’d been finding alternate routes around my memory issues.
I explored my handwritten journals and stockpile of one-liners, scribbles and short takes written in response to prompts in weekly free writes. I found recollections of dreams, incidents, insights, none of which I remembered recording. One day, I surprised myself as I happened upon this handwritten line: “I am all of the seven dwarfs except Happy.”
My stash covered my Brooklyn childhood, a difficult relationship with my mother, my experiences when I became a mother, a divorce after a 30-year marriage. I’d covered almost everything in my memoir universe. Now, when I can’t produce the right words, I recycle, repurpose, and cut-and-paste from older work as if piecing together a mosaic from broken cups and plates.
Mining older pieces helped me produce new work. But did it count as writing? In “Adventures” I declared, “I’m not writing. I’m Scarlett O’Hara making a dress out of draperies.” Or, I wondered, “Am I Carol Burnett imitating Scarlett producing a dress from drapes, but neglecting to remove the curtain rod?”
In my ninth decade, my writing style reflects the haphazard way my brain works. I jump back and forth, pinball from past to present, and swivel from serious discussion to flippant remark in the same way I desert the half-emptied dishwasher to do a load of laundry or rummage in the freezer for something to defrost for dinner.
In another essay, I explored the concept of home. What draws us to certain places? Where do we feel most at home? Over several months my piece evolved into a collage of the places I’d lived, the places I’d dreamed about living, quotes from TV shows, movies, and literature all juxtaposed against the lifelong search of the hermit crab for the perfect home.
Was this better than the traditional beginning-middle-end method? I can’t say. Maybe I’m learning to write the way dementia sufferers say, “The thing on the wall with numbers,” when they can’t think of the word clock. Still, I recall that as I played with the pieces of my collage, arranging and rearranging to produce a readable flow, I felt like an abstract painter adding a splash of yellow here, a black triangle there. The design, the mosaic itself, felt as essential to the essay as the words, sentences and paragraphs.
My brain had misplaced the word for those flowers you plant in the shade, with blossoms in brilliant white, cheery pink and lipstick red. First letter p. I tried petunia, pansy, portulaca—astonished I could remember these, but not the word for those—the ones I planted every year until I tired of them. Though how could you tire of the way they zoomed from sparse seedlings to bountiful rounded bouquets?
It took a full day before the name returned to me. Impatiens, the p not where I remembered it, the name so like impatient, the temperament I wish I didn’t have.
Growing old is not like catching a cold. The possibility of losing myself along with my memory has become a constant concern. But I’m excited to have found detours around the roadblocks in my brain. Now, I focus on the seemingly endless possibilities as I assemble fragments, repurpose older work and rearrange sentences and paragraphs to discover fresh insights.
Before retiring and discovering the joys of creative writing, Sarah Barnett had careers as a teacher, a librarian and a lawyer. Her work has appeared in Brevity Blog, Hippocampus, Delmarva Review, and other publications. She lives in Rehoboth Beach Delaware, where she is vice president of the Rehoboth Beach Writers’ Guild.