Writing is a “mind-altering business” for Carl Klaus
Founder of University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program, Continues to Challenge Himself in Latest Book on Aging
Carl Klaus, founder of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, has written his latest book, “The Ninth Decade,” a collection of essays on aging and octogenarian life. (Carl Klaus)
Octogenarians are the fastest growing demographic in the industrialized world, but until recently there were no non-fiction books detailing their day-to-day experiences. What is life really like after 80? If we come this far, how can we do it well?
Fortunately, Carl Klaus, founder of the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program and professor emeritus at the University of Iowa, has written a moving collection of essays that answers these questions and more. again. “The Ninth Decade” (University of Iowa Press) chronicles eight years of Klaus’ life past 80, with each essay spanning a six-month period. In this e-interview, Klaus talks about the importance of continuing to challenge yourself, the mind/body connection, and more.
“The Ninth Decade” by Carl Klaus
Q: This collection is a beautiful chronicle of your life after 80 years. How would you describe the book to someone? Why is it important that we examine life at all stages?
A: “The Ninth Decade” chronicles not only my life past 80, but also the life of my loving companion Jackie, remarkably different from me in her physical well-being, practical outlook, and sociable temperament. It also includes cameos from our near and distant 80-year-old friends and relatives, as well as biographies of notable 80-year-olds.
Thus, it offers a comprehensive and detailed history of advanced aging – the only work to do so – making it a particularly important source of information on the distinctive opportunities and challenges of 80-year-old existence for people on the brink. of this decade, as well as for specialists dedicated to the care of the elderly.
Q: There are a number of powerful themes addressed in your essays, including how our identities are often intertwined with our professions. You mention “how aging and the ever-changing circumstances of an institution or profession ultimately produce an ominous chasm between the present and the past”, and that you wonder “if a life of work makes us unfit for the satisfactions of a quiet existence.” Can you tell us how you learned to relax a little more and what advice would you give to those who are still working?
A: Learning to relax in the face of the changing circumstances of our working life is particularly important in enabling us to enjoy the pleasures of a quiet existence. The most important way I learned to do this was to write frequently about the changing circumstances of my life – so often I became familiar and accustomed to my diminishing professional life and eager for the pleasures of a quiet life. . Writing, in fact, is a mind-altering activity, a way of learning and becoming familiar with new ideas.
Q: Cooking delicious food seems to be a common thing in your home. How has your relationship with food changed over the years?
A: Cooking has indeed been an important part of my life for so many years that I could well be considered an irrepressible “foodie” — living to eat and enjoy the pleasures of tasty cuisine. In the old days, before I was beset by advanced chronic kidney disease eight years ago, I was free to cook and eat whatever I wanted. But now my diet is so severely restricted that the hot dishes I wrote about in “The Ninth Decade” are mostly a way to savor them again imaginatively — virtually rather than actually.
Q: What was the hardest part for you about keeping a holistic and honest account? Did this project surprise you in any way?
A: Doing an “honest” column wasn’t difficult, because I was never tempted to censor myself or clean up, because what good was a column that wasn’t completely honest? Doing a “holistic” column was impossible given the large-scale and often unrelated issues and topics included in each six-month block. Over the past few years of working on the project, I’ve been most surprised by a severe decline in my stylistic versatility, which often makes it quite difficult to put my thoughts into words, phrases, and sentences as easily and forcefully as previously. A sure sign of age-impaired writing ability.
Q: I’ve been impressed with how you keep challenging yourself to learn new things. For example: At one point, you and your partner Jackie both have difficult health issues, but you do things like watch a silent movie at a local theater and attend a course on cognitive aging. What did you learn about the mind/body connection, and why is it important that we continue to challenge ourselves?
A: Growing up in an old-fashioned family of doctors – my father, two uncles, my older brother and two cousins - I was inclined for many years to think that bodily well-being is largely determined by bodily factors such as adequate sleep, exercise, healthy diet and good hygiene. But over the past few years, Jackie and I have had several surprising experiences that have led us to realize the deep connection between mind and body. Indeed, I am now fascinated by the advice of contemporary gurus and gerontologists, who believe that lifespan is increased by an optimistic, benevolent and joyful embrace of old age – assuming, of course, that the state of old age inclines to embrace this. I can hardly imagine a more fabulous influence of the mind on the body than wanting it to live longer!