There is a Jewish tradition, which traces back to Genesis, called an “ethical will.” This practice is about passing down values from one generation to the next generation. Originally, ethical wills were transmitted orally. For instance, on their deathbeds Isaac and Jacob shared their values and wishes with their kids. But over time ethical wills evolved into written documents, usually letters.
In his book Having the Last Say: Capturing Your Legacy in One Small Story author and writing coach Alan Gelb helps readers create something similar: a 500 to 1000 word personal story about the things that’ve shaped our values and our lives. These “last says” are legacies you can leave to your love ones. The book is geared toward baby boomers. But Gelb’s concept is also a helpful way for all of us — regardless of age — to pause and self-reflect.
In Having the Last Say Gelb shows readers how to create a compelling narrative. Which he says includes these four main elements:
- “The Once”: like “once upon a time.” It’s the specific time you start your story and end it.
- The Ordinary vs. The Extraordinary: something extraordinary (i.e., out of the ordinary) happens in the story to ignite it, so the story unfolds.
- Tension and Conflict: closely tied to your extraordinary event. Conflict drives every story. In your personal narrative, conflict is the struggle “between you, the protagonist, and what is coming up against you.”
- The Point: your why? “This is the question that lies at the heart of all narratives.” In other words, “what’s The Point of it all?”
To help readers find the topic for their story, Gelb includes a list of questions. He suggests responding to each question quickly in a sentence or two. Then after four or five days, return to your answers and see which ones resonate with you. Which responses are pulling you in? Which responses would you like to explore further?
Here are some questions from his list, which you might explore:
- What has been the hardest thing in my life?
- If I had to quickly replay my life, which two or three moments would jump out ahead of all the others?
- Do I believe in a higher being? If so, how?
- What have I done that “they” said couldn’t be done?
- What in the world utterly fascinates me?
- What object or possession holds the most meaning for me?
- If I can’t sleep at night, what’s keeping me up?
- Have I ever experienced a genuine life-changer?
- What would I choose to be remembered for?
- Why do I consider life to be worth living?
- Which of life’s complications am I still struggling with?
- What makes me laugh?
- Where am I most at home and why?
(The book includes different “last says” as examples, and Gelb talks about how and why each story works. You can read two “last says” here on his website.)
I find Gelb’s idea to be really powerful. I wish I had something like this from my father and grandparents. I wish I knew what they thought about life. I can guess, and maybe I’d be right. But how incredible to read their own words. To read their voices on paper (really the most valuable pieces of paper). To read their truth. Their hearts. To read the values, memories and thoughts they wanted me to know.
You might create your own story. And you might ask a loved one to create their own, too. If writing a story seems overwhelming to you (or to your loved one), then write a list. Simply respond to the above questions and leave that as your legacy. Or jot down random memories in a journal (or type them in a Word doc). Or write about what you’d like your loved ones to know about you, about life, about any topic that’s important to you.
Don’t let the form of writing stop you from leaving something meaningful for your loved ones (and from reflecting on life for yourself). Write in whatever form or style makes sense to you. The real gift is in sharing your words — i.e., yourself — whatever shape that takes.