Susan K Perry Ph.D.

Creating in Flow

Two Views of Aging While Creative

What happens when prolific writers get old?

Posted Jun 20, 2015

Book cover used with permission.
Source: Book cover used with permission.

Two well-known authors, May Sarton and Donald Hall, have written intimate tell-alls about how it feels to be 80-something. I read them both, and they couldn't be more different. Both are fascinating.

May Sarton, the celebrated poet and novelist who died in 1995, wrote At Eighty-Two, A Journal, in 1993-4, and it's now available as an e-book. Her conversational comments are laced with poetic observations. Most of all I noted and appreciated her honesty about the highs and ever-more-frequent lows of her mood. Need I add “Trigger warning for depressives”?

Here's a lengthy quote from Sarton's journal:

I have begun this journal at a time of difficult transition because I am now entering real old age. At seventy-five I felt much more able than I do now. Forgetting where things are, forgetting names even of friends, names of flowers (I could not remember calendula the other day), what I had thought of writing here in the middle of the night—forgetting so much makes me feel disoriented sometimes and also slows me up. How to deal with continual frustration about small things like trying to button my shirt, and big things like how to try for a few more poems. That is my problem. It does help to keep this journal; it forces me to be alive to challenge and to possibility.

The third cause of my depression I have already described: the chaos of my life and all that is asked of me beyond my strength. Day after day I wait it out, wait for the time when I can lie down and have my nap.

But life right now is joyless. There is nothing that I look forward to, and that is bad. Yes, I look forward to reading. . . . Another is that nothing has to be done; it has to be done in my mind because of my conscience, “I must write this answer,” but it is not as if I had a job which required me to appear at four-thirty and be brilliant. I can choose what I am going to give and when I am going to give it, and that is a wonderful dispensation to old age.

I have entered a new phase and am approaching my death. If I can accept this, not as a struggle to keep going at my former pace but as a time of meditation when I need ask nothing of myself, will nothing except to live as well as possible as aware as possible, then I could feel I am preparing for a last great adventure as happily as I can.

Most of the time I am happy, learning a new kind of happiness for me which has nothing to do with achievement or even with creation. Each day I plan something I can look forward to. Today it may be ordering bulbs. I think of a letter I want to write today.

Of course I do not want to die, although death seems to be the only solution to my problem at present. Let us hope that Prozac will help me, and it might even begin to happen next week. But the fact that it has not happened and that I have to take strong laxatives or I am constipated does not help; it is the worst thing possible for me. Why talk about this? But I say also, Why not? I seem to be totally absorbed now in my body and what it is doing, and this is miserable.


Donald Hall, former Poet Laureate, essayist, and children’s book writer, has a new collection, Essays After Eighty. To get some perspective, I looked up what he'd written to me way back when I was doing interviews for Writing in Flow: Keys to Enhanced Creativity. Here's how Hall described his writing rituals:

My pre-writing rituals are waking up, reading the paper, drinking coffee and having breakfast. I become absorbed the moment I look at the first manuscript, typed up from its revision the day before. I look forward eagerly when I go to bed at night to waking up in the morning and getting back to the desk.

According to his new book of essays, he's still at it in his mid-80s. The book is a pleasure to read. He omits nothing (or little) of the humiliations and challenges of growing old. It's his everyday, yet elegant, writing style, combined with just enough self-deprecation, that had me reading quickly and finishing the entire volume in one long sitting. Hall does no unnecessary name-dropping, and he never cries "poor me, I lost my wife." He does, though, make it plain how much his wife Jane Kenyon's early death devastated him.

He seems able to sit alone in his old farmhouse and focus on writing, even now, if no longer able to write poetry. He does have a lot of help (his companion Linda who stays over two or three times a week, neighbors, a son and daughter, physical therapist, typist, and more), without which his lifestyle would be less sustainable. Above all, Hall's essays demonstrated to me that not all aging men and women become depressed to the point of not being able to be creative.

We age as we live, uniquely.

Copyright (c) 2015 by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie’s Heel