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Interview: Author on Aging as a Creative Art


alizabeth mckim

Today, aging is commonly associated with images of decline and decay. But it doesn’t have to be this way, say the authors of an illuminating new book: Reading Our Lives: The Poetics of Growing Old (Oxford University Press).

The book was written by William Randall, a professor of gerontology, and Elizabeth McKim, a professor of English at St. Thomas University (Fredericton). The authors marshal research from numerous disciplines, including cognitive psychology, neuroscience and the psychology of aging. And they offer a new vision of aging that links memory, meaning, wisdom and spirituality. Randall and McKim explore the difference between getting old and growing old, and they show readers how to transform aging into a creative art.

AHB wanted to learn more, so we tracked co-author Elizabeth McKim down on the campus of St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

Ruth Dempsey: A book about "the poetics of growing old" – what a treat!

Elizabeth McKim: Thank you. To speak of growing old as having a "poetics" draws attention to the imaginative and consequently creative process of aging. As we age, we can focus on the external dimensions of aging – wrinkles, aches and pains, and merely get old – or we can recognize that we age biographically, too, and choose to grow old.

As we say in the book, an awareness of the interpretive nature of memory and a cultivation of what we refer to as "reading our lives" can lead to heightened self-awareness and a much deeper relationship with ourselves.

RD: The book claims that reading my favourite novels – fiction – can help me read my own life. How so?

EM: It’s a clich√© that we can’t really ever get inside another person’s head, but there’s an exception to the rule. Reading fiction is virtually the only way that we can see the world through others’ eyes, from the inside out. Not simply "literary" novelists, but those who write so-called "escape" literature, too, introduce us to people and places, cultures and eras in a way that textbook descriptions, pictures, films or even travel simply cannot.

Indeed, researchers of reading have discovered our minds interpret characters in much the same way that we interpret real people. And that the experiences we have, while lost in a book, are processed in much the same way as first-hand experience. For that reason, as
characters make mistakes and learn from them, so can we. And as characters discover things about themselves and others and perhaps achieve wisdom, we can, too.

But there’s another aspect of reading that helps us in reading our own lives, and that is the fact that readers are not passive receptacles, but active participants in the reading process. Meaning does not exist on a page but is created in the act of reading by what literary theorist Louise Rosenblatt calls a "transaction" between author and reader. We regularly and, often unconsciously, fill in gaps, jump to conclusions and build up the details of imagined scenes or actions based on our own experiences.

In other words, reading is an interpretive process. And so is our memory, researchers have found. Therefore, an awareness of the creative nature of reading and the creative nature of memory is the necessary precursor to reading our lives.

RD: It seems memory is quite mysterious in the way certain things "stick" while so many others don’t . . .

EM: That’s right. If we’re to begin reading our lives in a conscious way, we need to understand that autobiographical or episodic memory is our primary text, or as we like to call it, our "texistence." We each have an inner editor of sorts who, as we go through our days, sorts through the details and determines what gets discarded or retained. Most of our experience, which is vast, gets discarded.

What we’re left to work with is the evolving story of ourselves – our identity – that we have constructed as we go along. Unfortunately, it’s sometimes rather thin. The problem is we too often think of episodes from the past as being carved in stone, instead of realizing that the meaning we ascribe to them is actually based on interpretation and, as a consequence, is open and flexible.

RD: Are there ways to trigger memory?

EM: Yes, and they are really quite simple. In a workshop Bill Randall and I offer at the university, we walk participants through a number of methods. A popular one is what we call "The ABC’s of Autobiographical Memory," where we throw out a word, such as "apple," "bicycle" or "cat," and invite people to recall a story in relation to each. First one and then another participant begin to speak, and it’s amazing how the stories develop in conversation.

Other methods include: listing events from a particular period of one’s life and expanding on them; answering a series of guided questions, such as "With whom did you have your first kiss?"; or even collecting personal memorabilia or doing a scrapbooking project, in which stories related to each picture are told.

All one needs is some sort of trigger and the memories inevitably pour forth. Once they’re articulated – and often the articulation triggers memories that people had forgotten – patterns and themes start to emerge.

RD: Growing old, then, can lead to a thickening of our stories. Is that right?

EM: Absolutely. The episodes themselves don’t change, of course, but the way we understand them, the way we understand ourselves in relation to them, and the consequent significance of them can change and become richer as we grow older. And importantly, our evolving stories can give us enjoyment and boost our sense of meaning and purpose in life.

RD: Our stories can stall or get stuck, too. So retirement may be a new beginning or an endpoint, for example?

EM: If we have developed our identity solely in terms of our work, then retirement will be an endpoint and certainly devastating.

RD: Another example caught my eye in the newspaper recently. It told the story of Jean Goldstein, 85, who moved to a Toronto retirement residence with her husband after his health deteriorated. She found it extremely difficult to make new friends and panicked. It took the gutsy Goldstein three months of determined effort to cobble together a life in her new home.

EM: It’s unquestionably difficult to start over, no matter what our age. Changes such as poor health, retirement or the death of one’s parents or spouse make it even more difficult, since so much of what we know of ourselves is a reflection back from the community we have lived in.

Bill and I call such communities, whether they be as small as a family circle or as large as a government or faith institution, a "narrative" or story environment. And certainly, if we find ourselves in a new one, it takes time to find our place, whether we are 16 or 60.

But the awareness that identity is not entirely fixed, but partially constructed according to the environments we inhabit, can help ease the panic. So if we know that a feeling of floundering is natural, it’s much easier to work through it.

RD: Most of the responsibility for solving the problem seems to have landed at Mrs. Goldstein feet . . .

EM: Your point about Mrs. Goldstein’s confidence and courage is well taken. She eventually shifted into her new life on her own, but it doesn’t have to be that way, especially in a retirement community. The staff can ease the way by encouraging newcomers to talk about themselves, their interests, their experiences and their memories.

And of course, not only staff in retirement communities, but also every one of us can enrich our own lives and those of others by slowing down, taking a breath and inviting others to speak!

RD: People are keen to age as positively and creatively as they can. Any closing thoughts?

EM: The physical challenges of aging are undeniable, of course, but it’s crucial to recognize that we are so much more than our bodies. The biggest challenge I see is a cultural one: we need, as a culture, to shift our perspective on aging from a vision of decline to a vision of growth. My co-author, Bill Randall, and I think of "growing" old as a vibrant, fertile process that can become ever richer as we age. This shift holds the greatest promise.

And of course, Bill and I hope that our book, with its focus on the inside dimensions of aging, will in its way contribute to that shift.

Editor’s Note: For an interview with co-author Bill Randall, see Aging Horizons Bulletin, November/December, 2007.