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. 

§ 75 Responses to Writing in My Ninth Decade 

  • Nancy Julien Kopp says:

    Thank you for sharing thoughts many older writers have. There is no magic number when we decide we are too old to keep writing. I think we must keep using our brain— keep it exercised as much, if not more, than our body. Write in!

  • Mrs. B says:

    This is a heartening essay. In my 70th decade, I lose words, keys, my cellphone, but the desire to write doesn’t desert me. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  • You put your finger on exactly how to successfully age as a writer and human. Workarounds and adaptability. And compassion and kindness towards our irascible, forgetful selves.

  • Dear Sarah, I am right behind you at 70, cheered by your words. “Am I Carol Burnett imitating Scarlett producing a dress from drapes, but neglecting to remove the curtain rod?” made me laugh out loud. I sometimes cheer myself by remembering when I forgot how to spell “the” at the age of eight. I simply could not figure it out and could not recall. Names have always been a struggle for me… The brain is a twisty passage sometimes!

  • I could relate to so much, Sarah, and I’m “only” 63. I’m so glad to have women going before me to light the way and make me laugh.

  • good job.keep it up .

  • dianemr says:

    You nailed it, Sarah! I’m only a few years behind you, and I am playing that same word-search game you describe so well. There’s too little written about the progress of aging in a way that’s honest without becoming all Pollyanna or recommending ways to avoid/hide the progress. Your piece is honest and funny and refreshing! Your embrace of a sometimes quirky approach to your writing is encouraging. A real pleasure to read this morning. I thank you. Wish I were a little closer to Rehobeth—I’d buy you a drink or a coffee/tea.

  • Marsha Mcgregor says:

    This is one of the best Brevity blog posts I have ever read, which is saying a lot. Not only inspiring and reassuring but beautifully written. Thank you,Sarah. Marsha McGregor


  • Marin says:

    I absolutely loved this piece! I am about to turn 70 and I find myself increasingly curious about what is to come. It’s so lovely to read the suggestion that, with age, one’s mind actually can become something new and so very creative!

  • jillnkandel says:

    Beautifully written! “Finding detours around the roadblocks.” So true. It is the essence of writing whether we are young or old. Thanks for this. I’m glad you found your impatiens!

  • Thank you for this. Where can we find your other writings Sarah?

    • Sarah Barnett says:

      Sorry I don’t have a long list of publications. Mostly local, I’ve made it into Delmarva Review and Delaware Beach Life.

    • I forgot to say “Adventures in Forgetfulness” will be published in the Fall issue of the Bay to Ocean Journal, a publication of the Eastern Shore Writers Association

  • Gary says:

    In the middle of my ninth decade, I share some similar concerns of finding the right words, putting them together and making sense. It’s the same as walking into a room and forgetting what you came there to find. We laugh and go on and will keep going as long as we can. Kudos to you, Sarah and to all of the rest of us finding creative ways to cope with getting a little older and just maybe, a little wiser too.

  • Wonderful essay. You creatively solved your writing challenges. I love writing collage, braided, and hermit crab essays because I don’t think linearly— I have ADHD, my mind is everywhere all at once. Here’s to writing at all ages in whatever form it takes! Congratulations on your successes, Sarah.

  • Shirley J Harshenin says:

    Brilliant. Love this.

    • jabuddha651 says:

      I also found this piece brilliant. A Brooklyn boy myself, I am only just starting my 7th decade. I struggle with few of the same forgetful problems; yet getting my book completed is fraught with numerous obstacles. I look forward to the adventures ahead as I continue on this magnificent journey we call life!

      • Shirley J Harshenin says:

        I nearing my 60th and can relate to almost all of the obstacles the author talks about. I love the way she’s brilliantly maneuvered her way through them. Hugely inspiring.

        I too look forward to the adventures ahead! Best wishes with your book, Brooklyn Boy! 🙂

      • jabuddha651 says:

        Thank you Shirley. Working on my book – a philosophical memoir of sorts – is a wonderful part of my life’s adventure for the past year. I have learned that a great deal of the art of gracefully growing older successfully is the ability to let things go. Among others, our need to live up to others’ expectations and opinions of ourselves. I have lived in four states; not including confusion, exasperation and fulfillment, and have uncovered so many gifts and blessings in my life. I wish you great happiness and an undying seeing spirit!

      • jabuddha651 says:

        That should have read “seeking spirit”.

      • Thanks for writing. Always nice to hear from another Brooklynite!

      • jabuddha651 says:

        More than just a tree grows in Brooklyn!

  • Judy Reeves says:

    Here I am, just turned 80 and still writing. Yesterday the word “been” flummoxed me. Was it spelled right? Was it even the right word? How good to find workarounds, to have such great good humor as you expressed, Sarah. I must admit the line about “ninth decade” through me, until I remembered, oh yeah, me too. What a surprise to find myself here. Still writing. Still appreciating writers whose work connects as yours did this morning. Thank you.

  • nagneberg48 says:

    I honor and applaud you. Thank you for your inspiration, your humor, and your honesty.

  • Sarah Barnett says:

    Thank YOU!

  • dkzody says:

    inspiration comes from all directions.

  • Sally Jane Smith, Travel Author says:

    This is a beautiful piece, and the mosaic metaphor is beautifully apt. The sensation of reorganising, splintering and merging earlier passages is an extremely gratifying area of creation. In menopause, I’ve had the frightening sensation of the usual ways my mind works – the way it’s worked all my life – slipping away. These different mental pathways that come with ageing is something we should talk about more.

  • marianbeaman says:

    You are still very sharp, Sarah. Like you, “I’d been finding alternate routes around my memory issues.” And I also take comfort in the fact that I’ve always been absent-minded, even in my thirties. Now climbing the ladder of the eighties, I’m happy to have you as a role model!

  • youngv2015 says:

    I love this! Having started writing after I retired, and now in my 60s, I do think of these things. But your essay is uplifting. And I’m going to write is long as I can!

  • stacyeholden says:

    I love this essay! And here is another, albeit non-floral, word that begins with p: POSSIBILITY. This is what your essay opened up for me today.

  • ‘ … my writing style reflects the haphazard way my brain works.’ Actually you have bookended beautifully and brought the narrative (arc) around to a conclusion, with a lovely twist at the end. ‘Impatiens’ – aren’t we all?

  • kperrymn says:

    There is so much to love about this essay. I was entranced with the simile of the words floating above your head like the wine glasses that are out of reach. You had me there, and I stayed with you through the whole wonderful piece. Thank you. I love this essay! (Or did I already say that???)

  • Wonderful sharing and insights Sarah and great post. Here’s to our ever changing and growing minds.
    Love this ” But I’m excited to have found detours around the roadblocks in my brain. ”

  • Thanks for this. Same thing happens to me and I’m only 78. But yes, the word comes back as if on a very slow moving tide . I tell my students over sixty that we forget because we have so much to remember. I think the term, “Senior moments” should be banned! As well as the term Senior Ctizen, which makes us sound like high school students in their last year.. How about “Spring Chickens?”

  • BJ says:

    Thank you so much for writing and sharing this piece Sarah. You’re an inspiration!

  • Rita Glenn Hoffman says:

    At age 85, I’m working on a sizable project that is sometimes overwhelming when I consider the possibility of my never finishing it. I appreciate your encouraging and inspirational thoughts. What else do I have to do but continue with the work I love but sometimes I need a boost. Thank you for supplying that today.

  • Sarah Barnett says:

    I’m so glad my essay gave you a boost; hope you get to finish that project.

  • K Bean says:

    Mining your catalog of thoughts and articles is inspirational. You can only have that resource because of the patience you had to create it over time. It’s a lovely and comforting thought that it bears fruit again when it is needed. Cheers!

  • Alice Lowe says:

    this was so timely – my ninth decade will start next year & I’ve been wondering if I had anything left in me to write. The answer yes, but at a different pace & intensity & with lots of patience. My forgotten flower was lobelia – I knew it was an L – & when it finally came to me I was so thrilled, don’t think I’ll forget that one again. Thanks, Sarah.

  • Grandma Moses STARTED at 98. Clancy at 55. I say you take the time you take, write on and courageously and playfully and beautifully.

  • Writers half your age don’t have the clarity and focus you’ve brought to this essay. It’s brilliant. Thank you!

  • I love this, Sarah. At 70, I have some of the same experiences and concerns, but I love the way you keep working around it.

  • Cheryl Lynn Achterberg says:

    I admire you, think your writing is exquisite, and hope to do half so well in my future. Stay with the style, stay true to you. It is beautiful.

  • At the low end of my seventies, I have similar experiences to Sarah Barnett. Though I am feeling as if am just beginning with my first self-published book: Against the Wild Wind.
    When my memory plays that tricky game of forgetfulness, I am thrilled as the word always comes back, sometimes in French, other time in Vietnamese. I am grateful for the power of the mind that is flowing strong and sharp and joyful in me. I am happy to read the same in Sarah. Thank you 🙏

  • Susan Morse says:

    Sarah, You are an inspiration; thank you for your poignant essay.

  • Scott Fleming says:

    Hi Sarah, I enjoyed reading your recent piece in the Brevity Blog. After reading your bio, I started to wonder if you might happen to know Betty Fleming. Betty was my aunt who passed away last year. She was a long time resident of Rehoboth Beach and was a freelance writer who contributed many human interest stories to local Rehoboth publications. Writing was so important to Aunt Betty. She was also involved in a Rehoboth Beach Arts Guild. She loved the Rehoboth Beach community. Just thought I’d reach out to say hello and see if you possibly knew my Aunt Betty.

    Best regards,
    Scott Fleming

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