As the baby-boomer generation ages, its members are looking ahead to the biggest challenge of all: making sense of life in its third act. Having the Last Say takes life review out of the realm of memoir writing and journaling—making the rich and timeless tradition of authentic storytelling accessible to those who have never considered themselves “writers.” In creating “legacies” in the form of short personal narratives, you will have the opportunity to reflect on the people, actions, and events that have shaped your life and your values, and to share these stories with those who matter most. Gelb's reassuring and straightforward advice will help you every step of the way, from identifying an engaging topic to employing creative writing techniques to construct a compelling story.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
For my grandchildren,
I was born in 1950, which means that I am not getting any younger.
Like so many of my fellow baby boomers, my body feels its years when I rise in the morning and, as the comedians say, there is less hair on my head and more in my ears. Recently, I lost my parents, who died at the ages of ninety and ninety-one, and welcomed two grandchildren; these events have catapulted me into a new stage of life in which the march of time is finally undeniable. Like so many of my contemporaries, I am trying to do the work that needs to be done at this point—looking toward the future with as much fortitude as I can muster and looking toward the past in order to gain insight into what my life has been about.
Often these days, when my wife and I get together with friends, the subject comes around to how different things are now that we are no longer . . . how shall we say it? “young.” We joke about going to restaurants where we are decades older than everyone else and can’t hear each other for all the background noise. Conversation often touches on things like acid reflux, knee replacements, and long-term-care insurance. Still young enough to be somewhat stunned by such developments, we joke—and then we don’t. Having come into maturity at a time of women’s and men’s consciousness groups, we think about forming such a group to discuss issues of aging—and then we don’t. On some level, we wish to share our thoughts, concerns, and fears about growing older, but we don’t have the right vehicle for doing so. This seems a pity, as we still have sharp mental acuity and now we even have some wisdom to go along with it.
We are also confronting another challenging reality at this time of life: more and more, we are attending the funerals of close friends. That is heartbreaking but, as affecting as it is to say good-bye to those you care about, I must confess that I have sat through some of these services with what you might call a critical eye. While I am moved by the memories that are shared, on more than one occasion I have felt that I was missing the presence of the person being eulogized. Even though it makes sense to miss the presence of a person at his or her own funeral—after all, in a purely corporeal sense, they are no longer with us—I still felt that I wanted to hear that person one last time. I wanted that person to be in the room with us, and I wanted him or her to have the last say.
Now, I realize that it takes a certain kind of audacity to critique a funeral, but I’ve spent a great deal of time over the last decade helping people construct narratives that serve as a form of life review and I can’t help but feel that most of us are capable of expressing our thoughts through the written word. I believe that many of us would like to have that last say and might seize upon the opportunity if we understood what it was all about. It is the goal of this slim book to introduce this idea to readers and to motivate them to take on this assignment and succeed with it.
In 2008, I published another slim volume entitled Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps. In the years since its publication, my book has helped thousands of 17- and 18-year-olds learn how to approach that daunting assignment with confidence and direction. Its focus is on creating a powerful narrative in a short space, operating from the conviction that a powerful narrative—that is, a strong story—is what will lodge in the mind of the overburdened admissions counselor. Working with students has shown me just how effective the average person can be at crafting a powerful narrative—as long as he or she understands that form.
With this in mind, I began to think that there was really no reason why people in the third act of their lives could not match the grace, power, and articulation that my high school students achieve. Yes, there is less of an external motivation to do such work—the lack of a pressing deadline—but perhaps more of an internal motivation (the approach of the Ultimate Deadline). And let me point out that most baby boomers I know have never met a form of self-expression they didn’t like.
I was also convinced that the strategies I had developed over the years that have helped young people effectively express themselves could be successfully adapted to the purposes of older folks. The process of exploration and expression would really be the same; the only difference is that baby boomers are working with a much larger canvas.
I began to conceive of this third-act “assignment” as a short piece, some 500 to 1,000 words, so that the average person, if asked to, could deliver it orally with some measure of ease. In that short space, it should manage to capture the essence of the writer and convey or impart some kind of ethic or value that the writer wishes to share. In this sense, it would be akin to the ethical wills that have been an element in Jewish life since biblical times and that have stirred renewed interest among contemporary Jews who are looking to traditions that can confer more meaning in their lives. These ethical wills have served as documents whose purpose is to pass values from one generation to another. While I find these ethical wills to be worthwhile and often historically interesting, I do not think that they are especially interesting to read. This is why I felt it would make sense to try to use the narrative, a universally engaging mode of communication, to bring another dimension to what the ethical will seeks to do. In other words, it seemed ingenious to use a compelling story to convey or impart a value rather than doing so by some legalistic document that comes with no attendant reading/listening pleasure.
I recruited a diverse group of mature adults to participate in my experiment—some I knew, some I didn’t, but few would identify themselves as seasoned writers—and I asked them to create “legacies” in the form of small stories (“small” only in the sense of word count, not in terms of impact). Ultimately, if the writer so desired, these stories could be shared with family members, friends, and other loved ones—or even read at a memorial service. If the writer wished to keep the last say private, then so be it. There is still a significant benefit to be had simply in the creation of these pieces because the act of writing can go a long way toward helping people gain greater clarity about their life experiences. Since this was very much a brand-new idea, I was curious, and a bit nervous, to see if my recruits would receive it as macabre, but, in fact, the reception was quite the opposite. Almost everyone instinctively understood what I was talking about and was eager to give it a try.
We started out by mimicking an exercise I use with my 17- and 18-year-olds, in which I ask them to respond to 25 or so exploratory questions. Interestingly, many of the questions that I posed to my test group were the same as those I give to the teenagers. As soon as the writers completed this exercise, I went over their answers with them and we nailed down a writing topic. Then they went to work, producing drafts that I commented on. I can honestly say that I was amazed by the candor and expressiveness of these writers, who clearly welcomed this opportunity to review their lives. They were able to pluck out a moment that stood for something that was important to them, and they wrote stories that were meaningful to others, both in the here and now and potentially as keepsakes for future generations.
Having the Last Say offers this same opportunity to anyone who wants to capture his or her legacy in one small story. The key is to understand the narrative form and engage in a level of reflection that you may never have attempted before. As you move along this path, you will find lots of general writing tips concerning point of view, tone, and so forth.
I believe that you will find the experience to be stimulating and ultimately rewarding—both for you and for those around you. And, unlike my high school writers who are facing so much pressure with their college admissions, you can afford to approach this writing challenge with much less anxiety. After all, there really is nothing to lose and so much to gain. In other words, this is an experience to savor and enjoy at this reflective time of life in which we find ourselves.
Thirteen years ago, I helped found a synagogue in my small town in upstate New York. Historically, there had never been enough Jews in this rural location to warrant one, but demographic changes were under way and, with the increase in the Jewish population, the time for a synagogue had arrived.
Growing any kind of organization from square one is a story of its own—indeed, a saga—but I’m not going to go into that here. Let me just say that in building up this spiritual community, those of us who were involved took on tasks and responsibilities that were new to us. I, for one, had a truly sketchy Jewish background, but that didn’t stop me from becoming a synagogue president . . . or a seller of cemetery plots.
Yes, you read that right. One initiative that our congregation took on was to establish a Jewish section of the municipal cemetery in town, and I volunteered to become the point person with regard to purchasing plots. Years later, I knew I had passed a certain threshold on my life’s journey when I called a party that had expressed interest in making such a purchase and the elderly gentleman who answered the phone shouted out to his wife, “Gloria! It’s the Cemetery!”
As a writer, I strongly subscribe to the philosophy that you can learn about life from doing almost anything as long as you pay sufficient attention while you’re doing it, and one of the things I’ve learned about selling cemetery plots is that very few people are prepared for the stuff that happens in life’s third act. They place at arm’s length such issues as living wills, health care proxies, and, yes, cemetery plots. On multiple occasions, I have found myself working with a family in which a death has occurred and no burial arrangements were in place. And these were not situations that involved accidents or other violent upheavals. These were situations involving older individuals with manifold vulnerabilities who had chosen, for whatever reason, not to go down the path of preparation and prudence.
Now, mind you, I say all this without judgment. Denial, after all, can be such a useful and seductive tool, and few of us are immune to its charms. But denial comes with a price. A few years ago a cousin of mine died at the age of 65. He had a grave disease and went into the hospital for a treatment that came with an alarming mortality rate. Sadly, he died during that treatment.
As it turned out, my cousin entered into this treatment without first arranging for a cemetery plot. Fortunately, when he died, his friends and community were able to take care of things, but perhaps more significant, he also entered treatment without first having had some important conversations with his wife. In the years that followed his death, his wife felt acute loss over all the things that were left unsaid. Plans, feelings, dreams, regrets, hopes, fears—too much, she felt, had been left to the imagination. The process of review had been insufficient and the lack of it was painful.
As a generation, we baby boomers have traditionally held ourselves in high regard. After all, we gave the world Woodstock and, on some level, have always believed that what we had to say was truly important. We were raised in an idealized America, suffused with postwar optimism. Our parents, coached by Dr. Spock, promised us that we would lead happy, healthy, and productive lives, as we worked for companies that took care of us, enjoyed dental health and resistance to polio, and saw the USA in our Chevrolets. (Of course, in timely fashion, that optimism was tempered by the Cold War, the Vietnam War, Watergate, and, most recently, the economic downturn.)
For the most part, our mammoth group of nearly 75 million people who make up close to 40 percent of the nation’s population has been largely invested in holding age at bay, giving way to such phenomena as boomeritis, which is defined as injuries to older amateur athletes. (Guilty as charged, I admit, after a herniated L4 and two bouts of sciatica.) At a certain point, however, there are no joints left to replace, age catches up, and the time for reflection is upon us. This is when the process of life review starts to feel like time well spent.
Life review, in some form or another, seems to be a universal, cross-cultural activity, sometimes formalized, often not. The work can take place on paper, in the context of formal group discussions, in conversations with friends and loved ones, or within a person’s own head.
Erik Erikson, the psychoanalyst and developmental psychologist best known for his theory of psychosocial development, identified eight stages of development, each with a “virtue” that represents a favorable outcome for that stage. For instance, he cited basic trust as the virtue that should come out of the first stage of life (infancy to one year). The last stage of life, as Erikson identified it, covers the age of 65 onward. During that time, people look back on their lives and, depending on how those have progressed, will either feel a sense of integrity and accomplishment or not. The virtue that you want to come away with at this last stage of life is ego integrity—that is, an acceptance of self—and the process of life review can be enormously helpful in terms of achieving that.
However it is accomplished, life review involves organizing your memories in ways that are meaningful, thus combating the anxiety and chaos that can often take over in this last stage of life. Life review involves reflecting on the people, actions, and developmental milestones that have helped shape your life. It is work that can be alternately exhausting, exhilarating, sad, and joyful . . . or all of those things at the same time. And, of course, it doesn’t have to take place only in the last stage of life. Typically, that’s when it does occur, but no one is stopping you from doing life review at any age. As I said at the beginning, the high school students I work with are engaged in serious life review when they work on their college admissions essays. They just have a lot less life to review than we older folks do.
Many thousands of Americans are actively and thoughtfully pursuing memoir writing and journaling—two avenues of expression that are ideal for life review. I have found from my own experience, however, that these activities essentially appeal to people who have a well-established relationship with the written word. For such individuals, writing in journals does not feel like a big hurdle. With this book, however, I am looking to engage not only those who like to write but also those who have no significant history with writing or confidence in their abilities. To those folks, I say leave your preconceptions at the door because I believe that anyone can achieve expression through writing and can craft a valuable legacy in the form of one small story.
The high school students I work with are able to do just that. Many of them are far removed from the humanities; they are aspiring scientists, engineers, or mathematicians who may not have an especially easy relationship with the written word. But when it comes to writing their college admissions essays, they rise magnificently to the occasion. Why? Not because they are extraordinarily sensitive or insightful or dedicated (though they’re pretty darned good, for the most part, in those departments) but because they understand the narrative.
We will be discussing the narrative in the upcoming chapter, so I don’t want to show my hand here. I just want to say that as a form, the narrative comes with a prescribed structure. When you understand that structure—which you will by the end of the next chapter—then you can begin to work effectively with that form.
The narrative has been around since the dawn of human history. Sitting by the fire, cave dwellers passed their nights not with Letterman but with stories—that is, narratives. Some cave dwellers were particularly gifted at presenting narratives about the day’s events—the escape from the saber-toothed tiger, the close encounter with the woolly mammoth—and so they captured the attention of their peers and became popular. After all, everyone loves a good story—and just about anyone can tell a good story.
What I have found is that when the average person understands the elements of a narrative, he or she can usually become a skilled storyteller, if only for a one-shot experience. The 17- and 18-year-olds I work with tell stories about their parents and grandparents and brothers and sisters, about their frustrations and their triumphs over adversity, about the silly things that happen to them and the passion they feel for rowing or the oboe or making popcorn. Once they understand the elements that comprise a powerful narrative, these kids tell stories that I often find unforgettable. Years after I’ve finished working with them, after they’ve gone on with their lives, graduating from college and making their way in the world, some image or detail or event from their stories will come back to me and I will feel like I am visiting with them.
As I started to say a few pages ago, in the course of my Jewish journey I became aware of the practice within our tradition of writing ethical wills. The point of the ethical will was to pass values from one generation to the next, and the basis for this practice can be traced all the way back to Genesis. When they were on their deathbeds, figures like Isaac and Jacob gathered their children about them and made their wishes and values known.
The early rabbis instructed their followers to use ethical wills to convey the teachings of the Jewish tradition from generation to generation, and, over time, these wills, which were originally transmitted orally, became written documents, generally conveyed in the form of letters. Today, the ethical will has been adopted by wholly nonsectarian segments of the general public. It is used as a tool in estate planning, in health care, and as a spiritual healing tool. In his book Healthy Aging: A Lifelong Guide to Your Physical and Spiritual Well-Being, wellness guru Dr. Andrew Weil promotes the ethical will as “a gift of spiritual health” whose main importance is “what it gives the writer in the midst of life.”
Although I have great respect for a tradition that precedes me by millennia, I have said that I don’t find ethical wills to be a very engaging literary form. When I read them—even those of real historic interest—I do tend to glaze over a bit, as I am apt to do around any legal document. Ethical wills may contain content that is moving, insightful, brave, and tender—but they don’t really work as pieces of writing for me. And so, I began to think about how to take that form and move it to another level: the level of storytelling.
TELL ME A STORY
Think about the power of stories in your life. When you were a kid, you sat around the kitchen table and listened to your grandmother or grandfather reminisce about life on the farm/in the mines/in the bayous/in the shtetl. You were captivated and you learned. You learned what it meant to work hard (milking those cows before the sun rose), to persevere (selling those magazine subscriptions), to carry on family traditions (baking the pfeffernüsse at Christmas), and more.
Just as we all benefited from hearing such stories as children, so can our stories benefit our adult children and other loved ones. In fact, they are the gifts that keep on giving. It is so important to share our mythic family stories—encountering a rabid dog on the paper route; the time the twister blew up the barn; going on a union march with Grandma. These stories, however, are most often transmitted orally and, as with all myths, they tend to become codified as time goes on. On the one hand, this is comforting—we know what to expect—but, on the other hand, a certain complexity or depth is often missing.
In an interesting piece called “The Stories That Bind Us,” published in the New York Times in March 2013, author Bruce Feiler describes the pressures that typically afflict modern families. He states, “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.” Feiler goes on to discuss the work of psychologist Marshall Duke, who, in the mid-1990s, was asked to help explore myth and ritual in American families. Duke and his colleague, Robyn Fivush, developed a measure called the “Do You Know?” scale, which asked children to answer a series of questions, such as “Do you know where your parents met?” or “Do you know about an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family?” or “Do you know the story of your birth?”
The findings of this study were quite surprising. The more children knew about their family histories, the stronger their sense of control over their lives and the higher their self-esteem. Indeed, the “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the single best predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.
The stories that you will read in this book portray the inner lives of their authors. These stories are complex and profound and even revelatory. And, accordingly, they become very special gifts. Because isn’t it amazing how we share our lives with people without necessarily knowing what goes on inside of them? When people put their inner lives out there in the form of narratives, then the special gift is delivered in ways that can astonish. For one’s life partner or one’s children or close friends, the sharing of such revelations can do much to make a relationship grow—even when the authors of these revelations are no longer walking beside us.
Confessional writing has, of late, gotten quite bad press. The Internet has become a vast repository for what are often highly undisciplined outpourings of personal information that can feel more like exhibitionism than anything else. These outpourings are frequently met by a chorus of comments charging TMI (Too Much Information, for those uninitiated in Internet lingo). All together, this creates an atmosphere that would make anyone question the merits of putting yourself out there.
In fact, however, confessional writing is an ancient form of expression in which the writer explores the way he or she has lived life. We think, for instance, of Saint Augustine’s Confessions, often regarded as the first autobiography to come out of Western Europe. In it, Augustine recounted the events of his life and, in a manner that was revolutionary for its time, plumbed the meaning and significance of those events. A famous interlude in Confessions relates Augustine’s theft of some pears. Let’s look at that section:
There was a pear tree close to our own vineyard, heavily laden with fruit, which was not tempting either for its color or for its flavor. Late one night—having prolonged our games in the streets until then, as our bad habit was—a group of young scoundrels, and I among them, went to shake and rob this tree. We carried off a huge load of pears, not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves. Doing this pleased us all the more because it was forbidden. Such was my heart, O God, such was my heart—which thou didst pity even in that bottomless pit. Behold, now let my heart confess to thee what it was seeking there, when I was being gratuitously wanton, having no inducement to evil but the evil itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own undoing. I loved my error—not that for which I erred but the error itself. A depraved soul, falling away from security in thee to destruction in itself, seeking nothing from the shameful deed but shame itself.
This was written sometime between AD 397 and AD 398. In other words, more than 1,600 years ago—and yet there is an almost modern sensibility to the author’s probing of his inner life.
In a certain sense, the narrative or narratives you will write that are inspired by this book are bound to have a confessional aspect to them. This is your opportunity to explore vulnerabilities, conflict, inhibitions, and errors. And why would I want to do that? you ask. Because that is precisely the stuff of life review. But don’t worry—life review need not be exclusively dark and stormy. It can just as easily be a look back at what has been rewarding, satisfying, and gratifying—relationships; work; experiencing joyful heights through travel, the arts, physical feats, or whatever. What is confessional is the act of making your inner life public—and therein lies the gift, for it can be extraordinarily powerful for those who have known and loved you to also know that you struggled, that you wrestled with vulnerabilities and regrets, and that you confronted the difficulties of the human experience as bravely and as best as you could.
IN PRAISE OF LIFE
As I mentioned at the beginning, when I started thinking about these narratives, I also found myself thinking about what it would be like to write one’s own eulogy. After all, think about how special it would be to be privy to an assessment of one’s place in the scheme of things. Mark Twain nailed it when he wrote about the apparent demise of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and the service that followed:
As the service proceeded, the clergyman drew such pictures of the graces, the winning ways, and the rare promise of the lost lads that every soul there, thinking he recognized these pictures, felt a pang in remembering that he had persistently blinded himself to them always before and had as persistently seen only faults and flaws in the poor boys. The minister related many a touching incident in the lives of the departed, too, which illustrated their sweet, generous natures, and the people could easily see, now, how noble and beautiful those episodes were, and remembered with grief that at the time they occurred they had seemed rank rascalities, well deserving of the cowhide. The congregation became more and more moved, as the pathetic tale went on, till at last the whole company broke down and joined the weeping mourners in a chorus of anguished sobs, the preacher himself giving way to his feelings, and crying in the pulpit.
There was a rustle in the gallery, which nobody noticed; a moment later the church door creaked; the minister raised his streaming eyes above his handkerchief, and stood transfixed!
First one and then another pair of eyes followed the minister’s, and then almost with one impulse the congregation rose and stared while the three dead boys came marching up the aisle, Tom in the lead, Joe next, and Huck, a ruin of drooping rags, sneaking sheepishly in the rear! They had been hid in the unused gallery listening to their own funeral sermon!
A great narrative sequence, to be sure, but the more salient point is that the exercise you are about to engage in is a little bit like attending your own funeral and hearing your own eulogy, with the added bonus that your eulogy is something written by you yourself.
Excerpted from "Having the Last Say"
Copyright © 2015 Alan Gelb.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Understanding the Narrative 1
The Last Say: Alan 25
Chapter 2 Finding Your Topic 32
The Last Say: Anne 44
Chapter 3 Point of View 49
The Last Say: Alice 62
Chapter 4 The First Draft 67
The Last Say: Steve 90
Chapter 5 The Second Draft 103
The Last Say: Lydia 126
Chapter 6 The Third Draft 131
The Last Say: Dan 144
Chapter 7 Polishing 151
The Last Say: Nathalie 180
Chapter 8 Pulling It Together 185
The Last Say: Barbara 203
Chapter 9 Go Forth (And One Last Say) 209
The Last Say: Tamar 210