This article by Robin Lloyd-Jones, about the Autumn Voices project, was commissioned by The Author (the Journal of the Society of Authors) and appeared in their Summer 2018 issue.
In undertaking any project it helps to have insider knowledge. When I began the Autumn Voices project, in 2015, I was 80, and 83 when it ended. During this time I interviewed twenty Scottish writers ranging in age from 70 to 92 about their later lives and their continuing creativity. The majority of these men and women had made for themselves a benign circle. That is to say their creativity contributed to their health and wellbeing, and their health and wellbeing, particularly their mental health, was an important factor in maintaining their creativity.
It has certainly been my own experience that to forget self in a worthwhile project is like a tonic. Being completely immersed in what you are doing, having the mind fully engaged, having a purpose in life, waking up with something to look forward to, and knowing that you are still doing something useful to, and valued by, society – these things contribute massively to a happy, healthy and fulfilled old age.
There was general agreement amongst those I interviewed that old age brings with it many gifts. One of the gifts most frequently mentioned was a heightened feeling of acceptance. First, there was acceptance of old age itself with all its accompanying infirmities and losses. Writing about these things and expressing the fears and worries they aroused played a large part in being able to come to terms with them. Vicki Feaver, for example, in her poem ‘Bone House,’ describes with unflinching honesty how her body has ‘weathered’ – her hunched shoulders and stiff neck, belly-skin stretched by four babies, resembling ‘the rippled sand on a beach / when the tide retreats.’ Facing her ageing in this way helped her to accept it. And Alison Prince, in a poem about memory loss, begins, ‘I am forgetting quite a lot these days,’ and, after listing the kind of things she forgets, ends with, ‘My absent mind is filled with the delight / Of sweet horizons and the heron’s flight.’
For others wry humour is a way of dealing with their progress from ‘wrinklies’ to ‘crumblies’ – as when David Donnison (aged 92) hopes that nature will provide a tidy solution ‘before I find I haven’t a clue / where I am, or when, or who.’ And here is Douglas Dunn, a former Professor of English at the University of St. Andrews, in the first verse of his poem, ‘Thursday’ :
Gave yet another lecture. God, I’m boring.
Said all the same old things I’ve said before
With touches of ‘however-ing’ and ‘therefore-ing’.
Dear God, it’s true, I’m just an ancient bore.
Reaching an acceptance of old age’s infirmities and losses was hugely helped by the realization that ageing also has a positive side and that old age is not something you accept passively, but something you actively grasp, even welcome. In this phase of their lives experience, maturity, judgement, and mastery of their craft were at their optimum and came together to produce some of their best writing (yet).
Another of these positives is the greater acceptance of self that often comes in later life. It has been my own experience that the censor who used to sit on my shoulder and whisper, ‘What will your friends think if they read this?’ seems to have lost its perch. And the gatekeepers who guarded my subconscious, refusing to let out painful or inconvenient thoughts and memories, have gone off duty. I have become more accepting of who I am, more honest about my true feelings, and much readier to write freely about these things. Vicki Feaver said she thought that some of the best writing comes when you write about the things you like to keep hidden, the things you are ashamed of, or frightened of. Novelist and biographer, Jenni Calder, told me: ‘When I was young, I felt there were things I should be good at; I wanted to emulate the examples of both my mother and my father. I was going to be a supportive partner, raise children, be an efficient housewife, a brilliant cook, and a successful writer and academic. Almost by accident I was diverted from an academic career which made me realise that it probably wasn’t my forte anyway. Gradually I learnt to admit that I was asking too much of myself.’
Despite the popular image of oldies as ‘grumpy old gits’ many of the writers to whom I spoke thought that they had become more tolerant not only of self, but of others. This, they reported, had opened the way to being able to forgive. Instead of huge amounts of mental energy being tied up in feelings of hatred, annoyance, suspicion and other negative feelings, it became available to channel in creative directions.
Closely allied to tolerance, acceptance and forgiveness is gratitude. The writers I interviewed for the Autumn Voices project expressed gratitude, in particular, for grandchildren – the delight they gave and, through them, a rediscovery of playfulness, a playfulness that found its way into their writing. Gratitude was expressed for the gifts of old age that have been mentioned, including the gift of gratitude itself. Gratitude is there also in expressions of grief. Sometimes, when we express grief for our loved ones, the pain we feel is a form of gratitude for what we once had. Pain and happiness are tied together. The pain of the present moment is made possible only by past happiness.
Although nearly all the writers in the project worried about the onset of dementia, nobody feared death itself. They saw life as being like a good book. You hate to see it come to an end, but you couldn’t enjoy it if it didn’t have an end. There was, however, a realisation and an acceptance that time was running out for them. In her interview poet, bookshop owner and online magazine editor, Sally Evans, said: ‘It’s not so much life and death, but the shortage of time remaining to us that affects older creative people and writers. Unlike other people, we don’t usually retire from our jobs and try for an easy few years before conking out. Writing is not something you retire from.’ Vicki Feaver expressed it this way: ‘Writing a poem is the nearest thing I can do to preserve something. It stops the panicky feeling of time running out along with the guilt at wasting days and weeks with nothing achieved.’
This new relationship with time brought with it a heightened appreciation of everything
around them. Poet, essayist and chldren’s writer, Diana Hendry, put it this way: ‘As
hunger sharpens the appetite, so age intensifies one’s awareness of the beauty and wonder of the world, of love and of blessings.’ Douglas Dunn spoke of ‘First snowdrops, crocus, daffodils, the greening of one’s garden and the countryside, the first swallows … These feel more significant, more demanding of attention. They alert me more than ever to the rhythms of life and time, to the pleasures of being alive.’ And Alison Prince wrote of her days being numbered now so that ‘their component parts, their nanoseconds, come as miracles shining.’
One thing which these writers in later life definitely did not accept was the negative stereotype of the elderly – the self-fulfilling prophecy of old folk as people whose useful life is over and who no longer have the physical or mental capacity to be productive or creative. We live in a culture that is still learning how to age. ‘To know how to grow old is the master-work of wisdom, and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living’, wrote Henri Amiel in 1874. The Autumn voices in this article are moving towards this wisdom and, through their writing and their example, helping others in its discovery.