You are a writing coach with a top selling book for high school students, Conquering the College Essay. How and why did you make the transition to writing a book geared towards baby boomers?
It came out of my own experience with growing older. As I found myself increasingly present at the memorial services of friends and family, I often felt that, amid the eulogies, I would very much like to hear the actual voice of the person being eulogized. I realize that the work I did with high school students—helping them create short narrative essays that are essentially a form of life review—could be applied to people my age and older.
What is the purpose of a “last say?”
The primary purpose is to help confer and gain perspective on the life that you have lived. The “last say” provides a vehicle by which people can do this work in a way that is relatively easy to understand and master. Beyond that, the purpose of the “last say” is to create a keepsake for the people who are important in your life, to help them understand better who you are and who you were, and also to have a personal statement read at your own memorial service, if you so choose.
In the book you suggest a length of 500-1,000 words for a “last say.” Why this length?
There are two reasons. First, it is a length that is easy for a layperson (i.e. not an orator) to deliver orally, as one might be called upon to do at a memorial service. Secondly, it is a length that the unseasoned writer can feel comfortable working within—but still lengthy enough to allow the writer to be able to achieve truly meaningful expression.
How does a “last say” differ from the Jewish tradition of an ethical will?
A Jewish ethical will (in Hebrew, “Zava-ah”) is a document that is designed to pass ethical values from one generation to the next. Traditionally, and even into contemporary times, within the Jewish renewal movement, the ethical will has been written as a legal or quasi-legal document. The “last say” retains the purpose of an ethical will—to pass ethical values from one generation to the next—but looks to the narrative form to create a more engaging reading and listening experience. It is a teaching, but it is not didactic.
Do people need any writing experience in order to craft their “last say?”
They do not. I have found with those adult writers who have produced “last says” that they very much follow the pattern of my high school writers. If they follow the precepts of my books, which clearly explain the narrative form, and if they use the exploratory exercise, asking themselves questions in order to find a topic, they can create totally compelling pieces of writing.
How much time do people generally spend on crafting a “last say?”
This is, of course, variable, given schedules and time constraints, but I generally tell people to set aside a couple of weeks to complete this task, start to finish. That doesn’t mean, of course, two solid weeks of work. It means perhaps seven or eight hours aggregate, with time allotted for pausing, reflecting, and reworking.
What advice do you give to writers when they feel “stuck?”
“Feeling stuck” is a normal and natural part of the writing process. Sitting before a blank page is not an easy thing for anyone—but the rewards, when you pass through the anxiety, can be enormous. My book goes into a number of techniques that combat procrastination and serve to get you “unstuck.” These are little tricks of the mind, like setting a quota for yourself, and they are generally quite effective.
Describe your collaborative group work and “Last Say” coaching services.
My work with adult writers has been, in significant ways, quite different from my work with my high school writers. It is much more of a social experience. Over the years, my wife and I have talked casually with friends about forming a group in which issues of aging could be discussed. This never seems to happen, however. But with the work of writing the “last says,” that kind of discussion definitely does take place. The writers and I meet at the beginning of the process to lay it all out and then they work one-on-one with me. At the end, we come together to share finished pieces. That part enables others to see how their peers are doing at making sense of life. While I have helped some adult writers craft their “last say” without that social component, I find it to be a valuable piece of the process and I envision small groups cropping up all over the country, in which trained facilitators can enable individuals to do this kind of group work. My personal coaching, by the way, is completely unbound by any sort of geography. It’s all virtual—except for those occasions when we might choose to get together for face-to-face time.
What has the response been from clients you have worked with, and their loved ones, after they completed their “last say?”
Generally, there is a real sense of pride accompanied by a kind of exhilaration that the writer has been able to pull off something so real and profound and meaningful. I’ve had people tell me that they’ve read their pieces to family at the Thanksgiving table, for instance, and everyone dissolved into tears. Overall, I think there’s the satisfaction of going through the act of life review with real courage and candor and then the satisfaction of making and giving a beautiful gift. I’ve also been gratified to hear people tell me about how the experience has opened them up to writing in general. One of my adult writers said, “Since writing with Alan, I’ve been journaling on most days. Not as good as when he helped me, but it’s great to write, and sometimes a little brilliance shines through.”
What do you hope to accomplish with your new book, Having the Last Say?
From Woodstock to Watergate to the walk on the moon, I’m a baby boomer through and through—proud to be part of a generation that has embraced experimentation, individualism, and activism. Now, like my fellow travelers, I am looking toward the third act of life, and, in characteristic baby boomer fashion, am trying to figure out how to “solve” that puzzle. Of course, it’s not a puzzle that can be solved, but today, with recent phenomena like Death Cafés and Death Over Dinner, both featured on NPR, the dialogue around the third act is rapidly expanding. I would like Having the Last Say to become part of that dialogue, serving as a unique and useful tool that can help people with life review…and help them become better writers!