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Age of Discovery

Retirement: They've lived full lives--had careers, raised kids. But now, some seniors are delving within and finding the stories of a lifetime.


We cannot stop the hands of time

Nor can we slow them down.

We age, each one, at a steady climb

That can't be turned around.

Do the things you never could.

Read a book . . . walk in the wood.

Fill your days with something new.

Study the stars high in the blue. . .

--"Growing Old Gracefully" by Samuel J. Hartman


Sam Hartman was never a writer. Sam Hartman was a heavy equipment mechanic who made his living with his back and his hands, a breadwinner who put three sons through college, giving them the education he never had been given.

At 82, that life is over. His working days are long behind him; his wife is dead, his children have children. And he has discovered a side to himself that he never knew existed, one he never could have imagined.

This is the literary Sam Hartman, the Sam Hartman who finds joy in words and language, a writer with a thick file of 66 poems, short stories and reflections to prove it.

"It's like learning all over again," he said, sitting at the kitchen table in his apartment in North Hollywood. "It's amazing."

At the East Valley Multipurpose Senior Center in North Hollywood, where Hartman is a member, a writing workshop meets every Friday afternoon. Ten men and women, mostly in their 80s, gather around a table and share their work with each other. Like Sam, they came belatedly to writing, after the kids were grown and the mortgage was paid, but their joy is no less intense for that. In some ways, it may be heightened.

In the nearly six years since the group started, its members have explored the world of writing in many forms. They have told stories from their past and others from their imaginations. They have written commentary, philosophy, comedy, book reviews. Sharing their writing, they also have shared their lives: news of grandchildren, vacations, good books, illness, death.

Whether they are writing fiction or personal narratives, who they are shows up on the page.


Time sometimes hangs heavily for a person like me who has lived a lifetime, scarcely realizing that her needs have been on hold. I'd reached the age of seventysomething vaguely bored, fatigued, wondering what life was all about anyway, preoccupied with when and how I would reach the end.

--From "A Need Realized," an essay by Rose Rothenberg, 81


Workshops like these are common at senior centers and community colleges around the country. Especially popular are so-called life writing classes, where members are encouraged to write their personal histories.

Some have done so with stunning success.

At ages 102 and 103, Bessie and Sadie Delaney, sisters from New York City, published "Having Their Say," a collection of wit and wisdom that became a bestseller and was made into a Broadway play.

And earlier this year, Jessie Lee Brown Foveaux of Manhattan, Kan., sold her memoir, "The Life of Jessie Lee Brown From Birth Up to 80 Years." Written as an assignment for a senior program, her 208-page memoir was featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. The article sparked such interest that a bidding war followed, and the manuscript sold for $1 million. Foveaux is 98.

But it's not the prospect of fame that keeps members of the group in North Hollywood writing. They just like to write, and they like each other.

On a recent Friday, they showed up for the 90-minute session at 1:30 as usual, folders and notebooks filled with photocopies of their writings. "We try to make copies and pass them out because a lot of us are losing a bit of hearing," explained Helen Barsha, 85. "And we try not to have them [run] too long."

No topic is off-limits. And most members are not shy. A memory is written down and passed out for everyone to share. A moment of revelation is explored and becomes a community event. Once on paper it is tangible and easier to discuss, like Hartman's poem about his late wife. His voice cracked as he read to the group:


I am there from time to time to visit in that

place sublime and tell you how I miss your tender care.

I kneel and pray and bring you flowers atoning for things unsaid. . .


Today, everyone in the group has written on the same topic: one wish. They go around the table taking turns reading, as easily as they might be seated at Sunday dinner passing dish after dish.

There is no teacher, and hasn't been since the volunteer who started the group moved away a few years ago. But things flow smoothly. Assignments are decided collectively; the group is pure democracy.

None of the day's offerings is alike.

From 82-year-old Jack Chesner comes a risque tale set in 2058, about a man who travels to a planet populated only by women. In "purely a humanitarian gesture," the man volunteers his services to ensure the future of the planet and is given a harem.

Everybody laughs. Chesner's X-rated pieces always make people laugh. He signs them with his pen name, "Giacomo."

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