What is your primary artistic medium?
Writing, both memoir and poetry.
How did you get started as a teaching artist?
I was a middle school English teacher for 4 years during the late 1960s, and made writing projects the center of my teaching. In 1976, a poet-friend told me about the possibility of teaching poetry workshops in the schools. From 1976-2004 I worked with the organization, Artists-in-the Schools in more than 150 schools, involving over 28,000 students and their teachers. It was wonderful: having 6 or more days with the same students, showing them how to be more creative, more open, less judgmental, and more experimental than what they would do in “creative writing.” What fun, and freedom! I’ve also worked with Elders Share the Arts, and taught older adults in assisted living, nursing home, and local hospital facilities. As an intergenerational writing teacher, I coordinated residencies with students who wanted to take part in writing projects in nursing homes in Westchester.
What led you to Creative Aging?
I had set up and taught poetry/memoir classes for several years at the Pelham Public Library, I met Maura O’ Malley and Ed Friedman there. We all felt that Lifetime Arts could be a good fit for me, especially (for me) since they were straight-forward, kind, and dedicated to their work. I’ve yet to be proved wrong!
What has been the biggest surprise in working with older adult learners?
I often had the experience of older people being “younger” people – just grown up. The image that comes to mind is of a tree, with rings for each year– so the 70, 80 year old has a lot more of those rings, but also lives in the present moment. The combination of deep personal past with present awareness opens up an individual to write and understand life choices, experiences, successes, and failures.
What are the differences and similarities in working with the K-12 and older adult populations?
Everyone wants to be appreciated when they read their memoirs, and it’s unrelated to age. Younger children are like young plants, and need a lot of TLC to “grow creatively.” That’s also true for the older, more established “plants.” Older writers have many more years of self-criticism and hidenness. However, since they’ve signed up for a memoir class they’ve already walked through the door that leads to creativity. Whatever age I’m teaching I work very hard to create an accepting, warm environment, a place in which trust can begin to grow. I try to encourage natural reactions to the written work by asking people not to applaud or say the banal and often empty-sounding compliments at the end of a piece. Whatever my success in these approaches, it’s always moving for me when someone older digs into his/her earlier years and, often with photographic accuracy, brings that life and those times back to this moment.
What have been your biggest challenges? How do you respond?
The biggest challenge for me has been getting my classes organized in a way that presents coherent, encouraging material. There’s so much to say, talk about, and do, that there is never enough time to make the classes as full and as rich as I’d like them to be.
Another challenge is helping the students express themselves. Occasionally, there’s anxiety about what to write, and my requests to carry a small journal, to jot notes and write something isn’t always accepted. It’s a hard thing to write a memoir or even a short piece that might grow one day into something substantial. Having commitment to the process, unless there’s some kind of “gun to the head,” eludes many people. But they come back, week after week, and continue. That is really something!
What is the most satisfying aspect of this work?
Providing a space, almost a sacred place, for people of diverse backgrounds, personal history, and widely-different life experiences, to share their thoughts in a supportive, kindly, and vibrant environment.
What have been memorable/funny moments?
When someone reads a piece that is something that hasn’t been said before by that writer, when they develop the courage to reach in and “breath it out” to the writing community in the workshop. It’s also special when our class booklet – of the written pieces – is distributed, then watching the writers hold something that’s theirs, in print. I always stress that writing is a work in progress, and that practice makes better, never perfect. It’s wonderful when self-devaluations are minimized through the time we spend together, and we can begin to feel a kinship with each other. Funny moments are in split-second interactions in our small, temporary, but significant, community memoirists.
What skills are most important when working with older adults?
I think that it’s our job, as teaching artists, to create an environment of trust. We can do this by minimizing evaluations, being supportive, and establishing a total acceptance of whatever is done. The class becomes a unique experience in the students lives, and often one that they’ll want to repeat.
How does this work inform your own artistic process?
I use the exercises and assignments I give in class to help me plunge into the pool of my own past experiences. I feel more at home with diverse people and have loved learning about who they are, where they’ve been, how they see things. After all of that, how they’ve survived to keep their lives going day after day, I feel enlarged by their presence.
What are your current or upcoming teaching or artistic projects?
I’ve just finished teaching a workshop at the Larchmont NY Public Library, and I am currently teaching at the Harrison, NY Public Library. Aside from teaching I am printing out many of my memoir pieces and am organizing them for (perhaps) some kind of publishing venture. The publishing isn’t nearly as important as the writing. My teaching life mirrors my day to day life, and vice versa.
Thank you Bill for your wonderful work with Lifetime Arts.
Check back each month where we will feature a new Teaching Artist who has excelled in their work with the Creative Aging process.