Writing Your Way:
A Guide to Writing and Aging with Spirit

Editor's note: Ellen S. Jaffe is a writer, teacher, and psychotherapist living in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. She grew up in New York City and spent several years in England. Her published books include: Writing Your Way: Creating a Personal Journal; Water Children and Skinny-Dipping with the Muse (poetry); and Feast of Lights, a young adult novel. She has also published poetry and prose in many journals and anthologies, and teaches writing in schools and community organizations.

Unfortunately, Writing Your Way and Feast of Lights are now out of print, but Feast of Lights may soon be released as an e-book. To order Skinny-Dipping With the Muse, please contact Bryan Prince Booksellers (1-800-867-0090) or To contact Ellen directly, please visit her website, where you can learn more about her work and use the contact form there:

I sit here day after day
Alone but not lonely...
I’ve learned to be alone,
I’ll never learn to be lonely.
  — from a poem by Viola A. Jaffe

My mother, Viola, wrote these lines at age 90, in her room at an assisted living residence. She had always written “light verse” for family occasions but started writing poetry seriously, as a way of expressing and voicing her feelings, when she entered the residence at age 89. She wrote until the end of her life at 91 — in her words: “Something occurs, I react, and a poem results. Feelings turn into language, and language validates my feelings.” I think that she wrote to better understand herself and the world around her, and to find a way through the world’s mystery, chaos, and silence. Even — or especially — at that time in her life, writing helped her on her spiritual journey, helped her define her place in the world and in relationship to others. After one of her table-mates died (a not-uncommon occurrence in residences and nursing-homes), she wrote,

One more death, an empty chair at the table,
No one cares, no one marks the passing,
Each one thinks, “Who’s next? Not I, not I.”
One death as important as 300 in Pakistan, thousands in Darfur.
One person less, but a person, a woman I knew.

My mother was still alert, able to watch and care about the news as she had done all her life; she was aware of death on a large scale, far away, publicized in the media — but she was also able to see and mourn the death of one person, her friend, even when other residents and staff kept silent.

Writing allows us to do this: to bear witness to ourselves, our loved ones, and the world.

Why Write?

We often turn to writing and other art forms at turning-points in life — adolescence and sexual flowering, love, birth of children and grandchildren, illness, loss and grief, growing old. We find words and images (my love is like a red red rose; her icy heart) for our deepest, most joyful or devastating feelings, and this can help us go through these times without getting so lost. Poetry and other writing helps us to empathize with the feelings of others and also to feel we are less alone in our own feelings; many people have found poems or quotes that are healing in times of grief or which express the ecstasy of love. As we age, we tend to look both backwards and forwards, and also to see the present with new eyes — and writing can help us come to terms with the self we are now becoming. Finding the “right” word or combination of words can be a kind of “open sesame” to the treasure-trove of understanding.

The word we use about the process of aging is interesting in itself. We talk about “growing” old — which implies we are still growing, like a tree, or the grass, or the gardens we have tended all our lives. We may be growing in different ways, but we are still growing, we continue to grow — to flower, to fruit, to change, to go on. The word “grow” is related to “green” — the color of new grass and leaves. The green chlorophyll in plants is what allows them to turn sunlight into food and energy, the process of photosynthesis. How can we, metaphorically, keep this chemical/physical process alive in ourselves as long as we can? We need to be careful not to shut the door on this spiritual and emotional growth — and then accept the burst of color, the sweet fruit, as the green fades.

Your writing need not be for publication, and certainly should not start out that way. You are developing a relationship with yourself, with the hidden corners of your mind; you are exploring that dark basement, that attic full of old suitcases, those birds flying just outside your window, and your own (sometimes unfamiliar) body. Writing can become a practice — not in order to get “better” at it (though that will happen), but as a spiritual practice, a way to develop inner guides and guidelines, something that becomes part of your life.

How to Begin?

The first step is to find a journal or notebook that suits you, one that feels comfortable to write in — it might have a fancy cover or be a school exercise book. But it is important to have a book, rather than a collection of scattered papers that can disappear. You can paste a favorite photograph or art card on the cover if you like, to make it more personal.

It also sometimes helps to have a time to write — early morning, just before bed, with tea after lunch — whatever time suits you. But you also want to have the book at hand for thoughts and impressions that come spontaneously; you might see a beautiful rainbow, or have a wish for a loved person, or remember your mother’s Aunt Clara and the cookies she baked for you, or suddenly recall your experiences as an immigrant child in a new school. Some people do write (or rewrite/copy and file) on the computer, and this is okay, but not necessary: even writers who often use computers find it is good to have the physical experience of writing by hand — and a notebook is much more portable, user-friendly, and doesn’t need batteries or electricity. You are your own source of power!

Journal entries can take the form of random paragraphs, a memoir, “letters” that you won’t send but address to a particular person (even someone who has died — this is a wonderful way to still communicate in your mind and perhaps resolve some loose ends), poems (rhyming or just free verse), a piece of fiction (short story), or anything you like. You may have dabbled in writing earlier in your life — or not; now is the time to begin. It’s possible you will want to meet with a group of friends (whether you live in your own home or in a retirement home or residence), to write together and, if you like, share your writing with each other, reading it aloud. Meeting regularly as a group (e.g., once a week, twice a month, etc.) helps one to focus, and when everyone does their own version of the same theme, surprising things can happen. The group need not be large — 4 to 6 people is a good size.

People often think they don’t have time in their busy lives to write — or the prospect of looking at a blank page for hours, waiting to be inspired, is too daunting. One great way to overcome both these problems is to do a “timed writing” of 5 or 10 minutes (you can even start with 3 minutes — use an egg-timer!). The rule is to keep your hand moving for all that time. If you get stuck, you can simply repeat your title or subject, and then see what new words or ideas come. You can write a surprising amount in this time — and you may surprise yourself with the thoughts, images, and associations that come to mind in this “sprint” of energetic writing. Although in everyday life, we worry about our words making sense, following rational logic, and being useful to other people, in creative writing we are using the same words with a different purpose — to find images for our thoughts and feelings, to explore the past, to play with language, and to use our imagination, to dream, to wonder. Like Alice in Wonderland, we can become “curiouser and curiouser” about ourselves and the world around us.

A Few Exercises to Get Started

I will now suggest a few exercises to help you get started. These can be done on your own or in a group. They can be found in my book, Writing Your Way: Creating a Personal Journal (Toronto: Sumach Press, 2001). Information on ordering the book can be found at the top of this article.

1. Colors of My Mind

The world around us is full of colors, to which we have our own associations. These can be personal, or cultural; the colors of weddings and mourning vary around the world. A color can suggest something in the outside world — red could make you think of a cardinal, or of your favorite sweater, for example — or a feeling, like love or anger. A color might even suggest a sound, or a smell. Write down a color (start with one you really like, then do one you dislike), and describe what each color makes you think of. There are two ways of doing this:

  1. List at least four things each color makes you think of. These can be anything at all. Example: Blue: forget-me-nots, blue jays in the garden, my son’s old baby blanket, Bessie Smith singing the blues.
  2. List your five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch) plus “emotion” and then write one or more associations to the color you’ve chosen. Example: Red is the sight of a rose in bloom, the sound of a cardinal singing, the smell of fresh strawberries, the taste of hot peppers, the touch of velvet. the emotion of love, or of anger. The sense-images don’t have to relate to objects having that color: for example, red could be “the sound of cymbals clashing,” yellow could be “the sound of a child laughing.” In both forms of the exercise, the more details you use, the better.

The exercise using the five senses can be used with other nouns: home; spring; holidays like Christmas, Passover, Ramadan, etc.

2. Body Language

One way of getting to know your own body is to write as if a part of your body is speaking: perhaps your hands, your hair, your eyes, your back, your feet. It can be an inner organ like the heart; it can even be a part of the body that is missing (either from birth or because of surgery, illness, or accident). Do a timed writing of 15 minutes. Before you start writing, take three deep breaths, relax your body in a way that feels comfortable to you, and see if you can hear the voice of a particular body part. It may be something you and others can see (hair, feet, breasts), or an organ deep inside. It may be an area where you have been experiencing illness, pain, or loss. You might try writing several pieces about different areas of your body, including parts you like as well as those you don’t like or those that are causing you concern. The writing can be a series of paragraphs, a poem, a letter from your body part to you, or a dialogue between the two of you.

3. I remember/I don’t remember

I learned this exercise from Natalie Goldberg’s inspiring book Writing Down the Bones (Shambala Publishing, 1986). Natalie also emphasizes the importance of timed writing, especially for this exercise. Write “I remember” on your paper, and for five minutes, write what you remember — you may find yourself focusing on a particular person or subject, or just writing at random (both are okay). If you feel stuck, go back to “I remember.”

Read over what you’ve written. Then (now or next day), write the heading “I don’t remember.” Wait, you’re saying — how can I write about what I don’t remember? It’s a paradox, but most of us know that there are things we can’t remember — whether it is what we ate for breakfast yesterday, next week’s doctor’s appointment, or the house we lived in when we were 6 years old. Write about that. (“I don’t remember the house in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but I know my mother always wanted to go back there...”) You can even write something like “I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t called fat...” as one woman did in a workshop. If you are really ambitious, or curious, you can try writing this part of the exercise with your non-dominant hand: sometimes this brings up deep memories. (Be prepared — but know that you only remember what you are able to handle.)

You are writing this for yourself, of course, but some of these memories may turn into memoirs or stories you can pass on to your children, grandchildren, and other family members.

4. Final Exercise

The late U.S. poet Audre Lorde wrote, “I am not only a casualty, I am also a warrior.” (“The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” Sister Outsider, p. 41). How does this apply to your life?

Good luck! As novelist Ann Beatty says, “It is only through writing that you discover what you know.” Another writer, Ali Smith, gives us this lovely image: “And it was always the stories that needed the telling that gave us the rope we could cross any river with. They balanced us high above any crevasse. They made us natural acrobats. They made us brave. They made us well. ....” (from Girl Meets Boy).