Exploring Our Lives : A Writing Handbook for Senior Adults

Exploring Our Lives : A Writing Handbook for Senior Adults
Francis E. Kazemek
September 2002

In Exploring Our Lives: A Writing Handbook for Senior Adults, Francis E. Kazemek, M.A., Ph.D., provides step-by-step instructions on how Senior Adults can turn their vast reservoir of memories into fascinating memoirs, fiction, poetry, children's storybooks, and more.

As human beings, we are natural storytellers, and the stories we tell and the memories we write about help us shape and re-shape our lives. They also create cherished legacies for future generations to enjoy. Exploring Our Lives guides readers and shows them how to capture in writing their pasts, presents, and possible futures.

The writing novice who has just retired and now wants to put pen to paper will find the book an invaluable tool, while more experienced Senior writers will discover creative activities and exercises to help expand and improve their writing. Practical tips are included for getting started, generating ideas, working with a first draft, revising, editing, and sharing one's writing with others.

Kazemek has been teaching Senior Adults how to write about their lives for over 20 years; all of the ideas and activities are tried and true and have been successfully used over and over again by Seniors ranging from age 50 to age 93. Actual writing samples from some of Kazemek's students are even included as specific examples throughout the book. With Exploring Our Lives, Kazemek brings his wealth of teaching experience to readers everywhere.

Whether you're looking to write memorable stories for your grandchildren, capture the significant events of your life as a legacy for your family and friends, or simply would like to try your hand at fiction or poetry and aren't sure where to start,Exploring Our Lives is guaranteed to fire up your imagination and put you on the road to creating a legacy for future generations to cherish and enjoy!

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Introduction: Honoring Memory
Chapter One: Getting Started
Chapter Two: Writing & Writers
Chapter Three: Remembering Our Lives
Chapter Four: Writing about Memorable People
Chapter Five: Form Poetry
Chapter Six: Writing Our Lives
Interlude: Fathers and Sons
Chapter Seven: Photographs and Writing
Chapter Eight: Free Poetry
Chapter Nine: Fiction
Chapter Ten: Children’s Picture Books
Chapter Eleven: Diaries & Dream Journals
Chapter Twelve: Writing Groups and Writing Resources
Coda: Living with Grace, Force, and Fascination

“. . .memory is a kind
of accomplishment,
a sort of renewal. . . .”
The American doctor-poet William Carlos Williams wrote the above lines late in his life as he reflected upon the role and importance of memory. Memory, he insisted in many of the poems he wrote in his 70s, is more than nostalgia for the “good old days.” Certainly it involves a looking backwards, a life review, but it also is a looking forward, a new viewing of what we may have taken for granted for many years. Memory is a creative act, and as such we all have the potential to be creative artists.

Here is part of a story by a woman who was 92 years old when she wrote it. In her story she recounts her family’s move from a comfortable city home to an undeveloped rural area during the First World War.
My mother was very lonesome. There were no nearby neighbors to visit. There were only us kids from day to day. All the water had to be brought in from the well. We bathed in a wash tub, used an outdoor “biffy,” and also used kerosene lamps which had to be filled and cleaned each day.

My mother’s life was changed completely, and her daily life became more difficult because of these hardships.

She had little say in the move. She simply listened to my father. Things were different in those days.
The writer is remembering a key event in her family’s life, but she is doing more than that. She is seeing through eight decades and re-creating her mother’s loneliness, hardships, and sadness over leaving her neighborhood and friends back in the city. After all these years, her mother’s feelings still exist and are acknowledged as important not only to the writer but to anyone who reads the story. This creative act of seeing the past with understanding and imagination honors the memory of the writer’s mother.

This book is about honoring memory, yours and those of others. Its purpose is to help you capture and shape memories into a variety of written forms: stories, poems, memoirs, and more. It is also about exploring your daily personal life through diaries and the recording of dreams.

You most likely have your own particular purpose for reading this book. Perhaps you want to put into print those oral history tapes that you or others have recorded and to which no one listens. Maybe you would like to try your hand at writing poetry and are looking for some practical suggestions on how to get started. Perhaps you want to capture significant events of your life as a legacy for your family and friends. Or perhaps, as one woman said in one of my writing workshops, you simply want to write memorable stories for your grandchildren.

Whatever your reasons for reading this book, you will find it immediately helpful and practically useful. It will guide you with many examples and specific instructions as you put your memories and ideas on paper. But more, it will encourage you to try your hand at different kinds of writing that perhaps you have never attempted before. In over twenty years of conducting writing workshops with Seniors, I have found again and again that people who are convinced they can write only biographical stories in prose are surprised and excited at their latent ability to write poetry, fictional short stories, and children’s books. Looking at a particular events in our lives, say, our first love, through a written memoir, short story, or poem gives us various angles from which to see the event. Each kind of writing offers a different insight and the kind of renewal that William Carlos Williams describes in his poem. I hope as you read this book you will try forms of writing that might be new or even strange to you. I guarantee that you’ll be delighted with the results.

This book is arranged in various chapters, each of which presents a different kind of writing. I suggest that you take a little time to look through the Contents and perhaps read the Introduction to each chapter. This will give you an overall understanding of the book’s scope and might even intrigue you to consider forms of writing which you typically don’t use.

Once you have a sense of the book’s arrangement, I recommend that you read and work through the chapters in the order I have arranged them. Of course you may choose to skip around, and that’s fine. However, I have made various connections between and among the chapters, and working through them, or at least reading through them, in order will help you better see these connections. Let’s begin.

Chapter One: Getting Started
My purpose in this chapter is twofold: to get you writing immediately, and to introduce you to the format I use in the rest of the book. You quickly will see that it’s not only easy to start writing, but that you can write about anything-even the most seemingly insignificant thing.

Writing about Objects
Here’s a short poem by the American poet, Carl Sandburg. It’s titled “Street Window”:
The pawn-shop man knows hunger,
And how far hunger has eaten the heart
Of one who comes with an old keepsake.
Here are wedding rings and baby bracelets,
Scarf pins and shoe buckles, jeweled garters,
Old-fashioned knives with inlaid handles,
Watches of old gold and silver,
Old coins worn with finger-marks.
They tell stories.

All of those objects that are special to us and perhaps to no one else, all of those rings, pins, knives, keepsakes, and whatnot, they all tell particular stories. To begin, let’s try writing about a couple of particular objects: one of yours and one of mine. I’d like you to follow along writing about your object as I write about mine.

Select an Object
Choose an object that is important to you in some way or that holds special memories for you. Look around your house, in your dresser drawers, or perhaps even on your own person. Maybe the thing you select is a cameo bracelet or pin, a dish handed down to you by your grandmother, a piece of pottery you purchased on a special vacation, a brightly-colored stone you found at the seashore, a piece of furniture, or a cross-stitch hanging created by one of your children. It is important that you have the object in front of you so that you can explore it!
I’ve selected the watch that I wear daily. Now get a blank sheet of paper and list your object.

My Object
My father’s watch

Looking Closely at the Object
Examine your object closely. Look at it from different angles. Turn it around in different ways if you can or walk around it. Look at the smallest parts and those aspects that make it unique. Feel it. Smell it. Listen to it if you can. Taste it if that’s possible.Nothing is insignificant! On your sheet of paper make a list of words or phrases next to mine that simply describe what your see, feel, smell, hear, and taste.
My Object
My father’s watch
Gruen Veri-Thin Precision
Silver case
Black minute and hour hands
Red second hand Military time: 1 to 1
2 in silver outer ring, 13 to 24 in black inner ring
60 second marks in black in most outer ring
Rust spots on face
Cracked crystal
Wind-up watch
“Helen to Frank 46026339” engraved on back
Ticking is loud
Edges of case nicked, scarred, and rough when I rub them
Tastes metallic like a fork
Smells like metal that’s been wet and rusted in the past

List as many words or phrases as you can that describe your object. Try to list at least ten to twenty.

What we’ve just done is simply to describe What our objects are. This is one of the “Reporter’s 5 Ws & H” questions: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. Let’s do the others. Once again, use my list as an example.

Other Things About the Object
My Object
My father’s watch
Gruen Veri-Thin Precision
Silver Case
Black minute and hour hands

My father
Construction worker
Died in 1977 at age 61
Born and lived in Chicago
A young hobo during the Great Depression
Work-callused hands
Strong, knobby wrists

My mother gave it to him when he left for WWII: “Helen to Frank”
My mother gave it to him in Chicago
My father wore it for over 30 years
I’ve worn it around the USA & the world since

I got it when my father died
It was on his chest of drawers

It’s important to me because it reminds me of my father
It’s a connection between my father and mother
It’s a connection between them and me
It’s a symbol of my father’s strength
It represents a way of life rapidly fading

Some of the words and phrases that you list under Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How, of course, can also be listed under more than one of these categories. For example, I put “I got it when my father died” under How, but I also could have put it under When. Where you place particular words and phrases is not as important as the fact that the more you describe, reflect upon, and list about your object the better.

Try a First Draft
Let’s try a simple paragraph about our objects using the lists of Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How that we’ve created. We won’t use everything on our lists; indeed, we may only use a small number of our words and phrases, but it’s better to have too much to work with than not enough. And as we begin to write we also might discover that new words and ideas come to mind.

I want the first sentence of my paragraph to grab the reader’s attention. Thus, I want to make it as particular and interesting as possible. Notice how the following first sentences become more specific:
I found my father’s watch when he died. I found my father’s Gruen wristwatch when he died. I found my father’s Gruen Veri-Thin wristwatch on the chest of drawers after his funeral.
Now on your paper try to write at least three opening sentences. Select one that you like.

Have you selected a sentence? Fine. Don’t worry about it being too short or “not good enough.” Right now we just want to get started with our writing. I want to further describe the watch so I’ll look at my lists and add some additional information.
I found my father’s Gruen Veri-Thin wristwatch on the chest of drawers after his funeral. My mother had given it to him when he left for Army boot camp in 1945. She had the jeweler engrave “Helen to Frank” and his service number “46026339” on the back.
Using your lists, add a couple more sentences describing your object. Once again, use particular describing words. Take your time. We’re in no hurry. Once you have two or three more sentences, we’ll continue.
Since I love this watch because it is a symbol of my father, I’m going to open my second paragraph by comparing it to him.
The case is as nicked, scarred, and rough as my father’s life had been. Hobo, construction worker, boozer, brawler, husband, and father of six, he often kept the wrong time with his family and friends-his spirit as cracked as the crystal on his knobby wrist.
I’ve made a decision here in my writing to use the object, the wristwatch, as a catalyst to describe my father. I could have moved in another direction, but this seems “right” to me now. Notice how, as I was writing, new words and phrases came to my mind that were not on my original lists, for example, “boozer” and “brawler.” Notice how I used words on my list, “cracked crystal,” to make a comparison to my father: “his spirit as cracked as the crystal on his wrist.”

Using your lists and perhaps adding additional words or phrases, write at least two more sentences about your object.

Now that you have a couple of paragraphs about your object, read them out loud. It’s important for us to hear how our writing sounds. Quite often by hearing what we’ve written, we’re able to see what changes we might-or need to-make in order to create the most lively and vivid piece.

We can write a great more about our objects, but my purpose here is to simply get you writing and for you to see it’s easy to begin. So let’s end the short sketches of our objects with a closing paragraph.

My object sketch is about my father and how by wearing his watch I carry something of him, of his spirit, with me. I want my final paragraph to express this connection, and I want it to be as vivid and interesting to the reader as my opening sentences. Going back to my lists and considering what I’ve written up to this point, I’m going to try the following:
The rust stains on its face grow darker and more alive when it rains. At such times I often hold the wristwatch to my ear and listen to its heartbeat. I smile and whisper to myself, “Dad.”
Since I want to convey the fact that the wristwatch represents an everyday connection between me and the spirit of my father, notice how I have given the watch human characteristics: it becomes “more alive”; I listen to its “heartbeat”; and I whisper “Dad” when I listen to it. I made all of these decisions based on my primary purpose for writing this short object sketch, and that is, to express the symbolic importance of my father’s wristwatch to me. As I wrote, I used the lists I had generated, but other words, phrases, and ideas came to my mind. They will also come to you as you write. The very act of writing awakens our subconscious and even our unconscious minds.

Look at what you have written up to this point, look again at the lists you have created, and consider the primary point of your short object sketch. Then try a final paragraph of a few sentences which will bring your sketch to a conclusion. Once again, try to be vivid in your closing.

Looking Again at Our First Drafts
What you should now have is a first draft of your particular object sketch. Here’s what mine looks like:
I found my father’s Gruen Veri-Thin wristwatch on the chest of drawers after his funeral. My mother had given it to him when he left for Army boot camp in 1945. She had the jeweler engrave “Helen to Frank” and his service number “46026339” on the back. The case is as nicked, scarred, and rough as my father’s life had been. Hobo, construction worker, boozer, brawler, husband, and father of six, he often kept the wrong time with his family and friends-his spirit as cracked as the crystal on his knobby wrist.

The rust stains on its face grow darker and more alive when it rains. At such times I often hold the wristwatch to my ear and listen to its heartbeat. I smile and whisper to myself, “Dad.”
Many writers maintain that the hardest part of writing is working with the first draft, or revising what we have written. That’s often true, but it depends on what we want to do with the piece of writing with which we’re working. You’ll always want to look again at your first draft to see if there is anything that will make it more descriptive, interesting, and coherent-revision, or re-vision, literally means “to see again.” However, sometimes, depending on your purpose, you might tinker a little bit with your first draft but then leave it as you first wrote it.

My purpose in this chapter is not to focus on revision; we’ll deal with that in more detail in a later chapter. However, let’s try just for some practice at least one or two small changes to our object sketches. I’ve re-read my object sketch several times, and for the most part I like it. However, something about the sentence “The rust stains on its face grow darker and more alive when it rains” doesn’t seem right to me. The stains do seem more alive when it’s raining or when there’s high humidity, but they really do not grow darker. I realize that what I was trying to do was to add more descriptive words simply for their own sake. The words “grow darker” are not necessary; thus, I’m going to delete them from my sketch. The sentence now reads: “The rust stains on its face come alive when it rains.”

I’ve also looked at my first sentence again: “I found my father’s Gruen Veri-Thin wristwatch on the chest of drawers after his funeral.” I actually found the wristwatch on his chest of drawers; thus, I think it’s better if I change “the” to “his.” This makes my first sentence more particular and more personal. It now reads: “I found my father’s Gruen Veri-Thin wristwatch on his chest of drawers after his funeral.”

Re-read your sketch a couple of times. See where you might be able to take out at least one word or phrase that is not necessary. Or you might see where adding a word or phrase would help improve your sketch. Make at least one change, and then we’ll leave our object sketches.

Review of What We’ve Done
Let’s review what we’ve done so far. First, we’ve selected some object that we really wanted to write about, something that has importance to us. Why write about things we don’t care too much about? Life is too short to waste it in such a manner

Second, before we started writing we spent some time examining, thinking about, and listing words and phrases about our objects. Sometimes we might have an idea in our mind and simply want to start writing, but, in general, it’s better to spend at least a little time brainstorming ideas, words, and phrases on paper before we actually begin writing. We used the Reporter’s 5Ws & H (Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How) as a guide to help us explore our objects.

Third, we used words and phrases from our lists to construct an opening sentence. We tried to make our first sentence descriptive, particular, and vivid enough to capture the reader’s attention.

Fourth, as we wrote our object sketches we not only used our lists of words and phrases but we also added new words and phrases that came to mind. We saw that the act of writing helped us to generate new ideas. Fifth, we read out loud what we had written. Saying our writing out loud helps us get a sense of the piece’s rhythm and often highlights possible changes.

Sixth, once we had a first draft we went back and looked at it again to see if there were ways in which we might make it clearer, stronger, and more interesting. We saw that by “re-visioning” our piece, by seeing it again, we might be able to improve it.

Seventh, we might now put away our object sketches and let them “incubate” for a while, or we might give them to someone to read. Depending upon our purpose for writing a piece and our intended audience, we might share our writing with others immediately or we might simply put it away for further reflection and writing.

This is the format that I will use loosely throughout the book. You will see variations on it, for example, different ways of generating ideas, but we will try to follow this structure whether we’re writing object sketches, memoirs, or poetry. In addition, I will use the Reporter’s 5Ws & H as a way of structuring subsequent chapters.

Let’s Try One More
Before we move on to the next chapter, let’s try one more object sketch using the same step-by-step process we followed above. I’ll let you do this on your own. Relax and take your time. Remember to write about an object that you care about or something that triggers important memories. Here are a couple of object sketches written at various times by two women in my workshops. One is short and the other more detailed. They will provide you with additional examples of object sketches and perhaps trigger ideas of your own.

The Green Rocker Chair
The green rocker chair is an old rocking chair. The arms look like the beak of a bird. They are red wood. The chair was my mother-in-law’s. She sewed and prayed in it. She was a fan of the Minnesota Twins and listened to their games in it-even when they lost. She was sitting in her rocking chair when she died.

Cameo Bracelet
Upon graduating from Crookston High School in 1945 my parents, Pearl and Lee, gave me a cameo bracelet belonging to my grandmother, Orpha.
The bracelet is made of antique gold beads woven together by wire with a fringe on the end, and it can be made bigger or smaller. The small cameo face, possibly a Roman centurion, is set in bright gold on gold. Over the years the links have had to be rewoven. My grandmother was born in 1842 in New York State, and died in 1897 in Crookston, Minnesota. Because I know so little about this woman, the bracelet is a real treasure to me.

I wonder when she acquired it, and who gave it to her? Did she wear it when she played the piano for a governor’s daughter’s wedding in Illinois? My bracelet had a twin which my mother wore. It is believed stolen from her home. This bracelet brings me close to my grandmother.

Important Note: Be sure to keep all of your lists, notes, and brainstormed ideas from this chapter in a separate folder. You will be using them later.

©2002 Francis E. Kazemek

Author Information

Francis E. Kazemek

The author of Exploring Our Lives holds an M.A. in English and a Ph.D. in Literacy Education. He is presently a Professor of Education at St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Kazemek has taught elementary through university level students and has been involved in adult literacy education for the past twenty-five years. Kazemek began conducting writing workshops for Senior Adults in 1980 and has continued to do so in cities across the country, and in a variety of contexts—local colleges, nursing homes, churches, community centers, etc. In recent years he has developed oral history and other projects which foster intergenerational storytelling and writing between school children and Senior Adults. He presently resides in Buffalo, Minnesota, just outside of Minneapolis.


This book’s a life saver, a life celebrator, and more of a splendid slice of life itself. It teaches you how to tap into your memories and write your way to your own forgotten fountain of youth. Write On!
STUDS TERKEL, author of Will the Circle Be Unbroken, The Good War, and Working

Unleash the muse!! Let the literati tremble! Kazemek provides an uncluttered, demystified, straightforward approach to prose and poetry which will encourage even the most timid to write. Oh the stories the senior class will write with Kazemek’s keys!
DAVE BIANCO, co-founder of The Elderhostel Organization