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(Elder)Blogging To Give Shape To Our Lives

[EDITORIAL NOTE: This piece was originally published in somewhat different form at blogher.org in January 2007.]

Back in the olden days when I was growing up, people wrote letters – thoughts put down on paper with pen and ink – and mailed them to faraway friends and loved ones. Depending on how far away, letters could take days or sometimes weeks to reach their destination and the arrival of a long-awaited postal reply was cause for excitement.

Letters were read and re-read and saved in pretty boxes, sometimes a collection of them tied together with ribbon. When I was a child and a young woman, long distance telephone calls were too expensive except for major celebrations and emergencies. Instead, we wrote letters, passing on personal news and commenting on whatever might be affecting our lives, our minds, our choices at that moment.

When I was about ten years old – five or six years after my father returned from soldiering in World War II – I woke late one night to the low murmur of voices in the living room. I crept quietly to the top of the stairs where I discovered in the living room below my parents sitting on the floor in front of the fireplace. Between them was with a cardboard box filled with letters – V-mail - which I recognized from the war when my father was away for three years.

Mom and Dad were reading letters aloud to one another, talking about what was written, sometimes hugging or kissing. And when they were finished with each letter, they tossed it in the fire. I’m so sorry now they didn’t save them.

My great Aunt Edith and I exchanged weekly letters for 25 years. She was my favorite, most trusted older relative and I poured out my heart to her about every good and bad thing that happened to me from age 15 on.

Visiting her one time when I was about 40, she announced that I was “old enough now for these” as she handed me a box with every letter I’d written her through all those years – essentially my own biography in my own hand and the most precious gift she ever gave me.

I was reminded of all this while reading Anna Quindlen’s January 2007 column in Newsweek. She was holding forth on the then-new movie, Freedom Writers and on the lost art of writing:

“…as the letter fell out of favor and education became professionalized, with its goal less the expansion of the mind than the acquisition of a job, writing began to be seen largely as the purview of writers…And in the age of the telephone most communication became evanescent, gone into thin air no matter how important or heartfelt.”

To her credit, Ms. Quindlen recognizes a revival of writing that has been brought about through technology although she appears to be unaware that the writing revival more often takes better form than the “…many [emails] r 2 cursory 4 u” she references.

Online writing, and blogging in particular, is so much more than “txt msg” shorthand. In fact, in blogging if you can’t or won’t spell correctly, if your blog is filled with typos, if your thinking (and therefore your writing) is sloppy and unclear, your blog will be ignored – at least, that appears to be so among elderbloggers who grew up in the days of pen-and-ink writing.

Quindlen beautifully captures the essence of letter-writing in those olden days:

“The details of housekeeping and child rearing, the rigors of war and work, advice to friends and family; none was slated for publication. They were communications that gave shape to life by describing it for others.” [emphasis added]

“Gave shape to life...”

Although nowadays we publish for all the world to read, I’ve come to believe this is what personal or identity bloggers, particularly elderbloggers, are doing – giving shape to our lives.

Carl Jung described one of the seven tasks of aging as the need to review, reflect upon and sum up one’s life. Most elders have a need to tell their story before they die and Jung himself wrote in his Memoirs, Dreams, Reflections, published shortly before his death:

“I try to see the line which leads through my life into the world, and out of the world again.”

Although it is an imperative for elders, making sense of ourselves and giving shape to our lives is what writing has always been about at any age. Blogging gives that need a new dimension through the medium itself, and the sharing of our thoughts with so many others, than personal letters allow. And blog technology has supplied the added dimension of commentary, discussion and others’ insights that one-to-one letters could never give us.

Ms. Quindlen, in her paean to the benefits of personal writing, laments a

“…concept that has been lost in modern life: writing can make pain tolerable, confusion clearer and the self stronger.”

I think bloggers – old and young – intuitively know this, and that our blogs are on the bleeding edge of a renaissance in personal writing. Our blogs (and saved emails) will become as important to our loved ones as be-ribboned letters were in the past.

[Today at The Elder Storytelling Place, Kent McKamy gives us funny tale of a woman who really, really, really doesn't like big cities in Don't Fence Me In.]


Comments

I didn't start keeping a journal until my fifties somewhere. Why?..I don't know. Blogging evolved out of walking away from 30-some years of teaching Sunday school and a need to keep my brain actively engaged in what I believed. It, no doubt, is too filled with my faith to appeal to most, but it remains who I am. The door it has opened to my finding friends in faraway places has been a blessing; and I count this site and Elder Storytelling among such description.....

Great piece on blogging. Coincidentally, it is one of our goals at Elders Tribune to "expand" the mind of older adults through writing and publishing online. Do drop by for anyone interested in writing and have your work showcased.

OH Ronni, I had to smile at that story of your parents burning their letters - that's exactly what my parents did! One day my brother and I came home from some expedition and they were standing watchign a bonfire. We were upset because they had held a bonfire without us, and it was only years later that my mom told me they had decided to burn all their letter to one another before they were married. Their reasoning was that if one of them predeceased the other, it would break the survivor's heart to read the letters. Now, I fervently wished they had just given them to me to lock up in a bank vault somewhere out of their reach :)

Although my blog does not take the form of a daily narrative, I do still try to write weekly letters to my dad in which I tell him about my week. I find these are a great discipline in describing your life to others in a structured way. And the great thing about the electronic age is that you don't have to hope the recipient returns them one day - you just save a copy!

Amen, Ronni. When I was 25 my family and I moved 600 miles away from my parents and favorite aunt. I wrote two letters a week - one to my parents and one to Aunt Lois - for the next almost 20 years, until they all died. Each letter had to say something different because they always shared the letters.

They never learned to use a computer so no emails and as they aged hearing became an issue so telephone conversation was difficult. Letters were the best way to communicate.

As I made their final arrangements I found boxes of my old letters, mostly chronicling the ups and downs of raising four children and a husband. Many still had newspaper clippings and snapshots in them.

Now that my children are grown I’ve had time to re-read every letter and I’ve come to appreciate how important recording our mundane, everyday life is to future generations. I started a journal two years ago (not hand written but not a blog either) that I spend 30 minutes on every night.

Having just celebrated my 5th year of blogging, I gathered up all of my archives, zipped them up and burned them to a disc. They will be included in my will, just the same as my other writings and my musical compositions.

I especially liked what you wrote about typos and E-text. I will not read a blog that is not written with a fair respect for grammar and spelling. Integrity is integrity and the web demonstrates that it is sorely lacking in younger bloggers.

Thanks for a great piece!
Steph

Steph - Unfortuantely, typos, misspellings, poor grammar, etc. are not confined to younger bloggers. There is no telling how many blogs have not been included on the Elderbloggers List over the years for the same reason.

Everyone misses a typo now and again, but when they are consistently there, it's too distracting to try to read.

I save letters and emails that say special things to me. I recently had someone who was close me get crabby about some emails I'd been sent by him. My reply was, "If they had been letters, I would have tied them on blue ribbon and saved them." He still didn't like it. Maybe he's afraid I'll post them on my blog!

I'm wondering if those letters expressed romantic sexual feelings, too private for anyone else-- especially pre-teen children--to see.

Maybe I'm guessing this because my husband and I spent our honeymoon on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean! I think our letters are still in a box in the attic-- thanks to your post, I'll try not to want to destroy them.

I fondly remember waiting with impatience for the postman to deliver the daily mail. A letter was the highlight of any day. Now I look at e-mail for my daily 'fix'. Somehow, it isn't the same with all of the abbreviations and the obviously lack of thought that goes into them. The upside is, I can now read mail from e-mail friends who I will never know. I guess it balances out.

I still have all of the letters my late husband wrote as well as those of my son, who wrote when he was in the Navy. They are my priceless possessions. Sadly, my daughter has always used e-mail and I lost her missives when my computer crashed.

After reading about typos and sloppy writing I made two errors. I should have used the word 'obvious' and 'whom". May I blame it on old age?

Great! You've reinforced my intention to add blogging to the outlets for senior writing that I'm constantly advocating. Of course I've found the benefits for myself in my blogs "Never too Late!" and "Write your Life!"

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