Book Review: Having the Last Say

Author: Alan Gelb
Publisher: Tarcher/Penguin
Book Publication: 2015

Writing coach and author Alan Gelb first came to the attention of publishers with his nonfiction work, Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps (a book that helps students grab the attention of admissions counselors). In Having the Last Say: Capturing Your Legacy in One Small Story, Gelb turned his attention to the challenge facing baby-boomers today – making sense of life in its third act.

Comprising upwards of 75 million people, or 40 percent of the population, the ‘boomers’ are feeling the heat of the unrelenting march of time. Many are also beginning to reflect on their life experiences, and that is what inspired Gelb to write this book. His experience as a writing coach  helps lend credibility to the guidance and instruction he offers here. Gelb shares the techniques behind constructing brief narratives that will serve as an entry point to sharing our most formative experiences, and the values that we adhere to.

Beyond the usual aches and pains felt by many born in or around 1950, the author notes another reality – one that is increasingly experienced as the years whizz by.  The number of funerals of close friends steadily rises for this demographic. Gelb recounts sitting through many of these services with a “critical eye.” Confessing that he is moved by the memories people invariably share on these occasions, he has nonetheless more often felt the absence of the person being eulogized. Not an unusual experience in that setting; after all, missing someone who is no longer with us in the physical sense is perfectly logical. But he shares his regret that he didn’t get to hear the person speak one last time. He writes of wanting them to be in the room with everyone gathered there to say farewell; of wanting him or her to have the last say.

Gelb was also inspired to write the book by colleagues and friends who were eager to do some reflecting on their own lives, wanting to express their thoughts in a personal narrative. These contemporaries of Gelb’s soon discovered that, given the right tools, even those among them who were reluctant to consider the possibility that they possessed any writing talent whatsoever discovered that they could express themselves eloquently.

The Jewish tradition has a name for these ‘last says’ –  ‘ethical wills’ are 500 to 1000 word stories that are delivered orally, or are written down and kept as a family keepsake. In Having the Last Say, Gelb shares his own ‘last say’, as well as a selection from many submitted by non-professional writers.

Reading this book makes you want to grab your pen and start writing, no matter your level of confidence. Do you have a passion in life you long to talk about? Maybe you feel that some part of your family history had a role in shaping who you are today? Whatever is quietly ‘speaking’ to you, asking for a voice, the clear and simple instructions Gelb offers can lead you to expressing whatever wants to be expressed in a way that is filled with meaning and heart.

Gelb has managed a seemingly impossible feat: he’s taken the subject of life reflection and review out of the domain of journalling and memoir writing (daunting phrases for those of us who don’t consider ourselves ‘writers’), and has us imagining that all we’re doing is simple ‘story-telling’. Who doesn’t do that, every day and in many ways? In a straightforward way, we’re guided to identify a topic in our life that is engaging, then use the writing techniques he shares and – voila – we’ve created a compelling story of our life, and of those who have helped shape it.

Gelb utilizes humour and compassion here, along with an understanding of the inherent difficulties that most of us encounter in putting pen to paper (or fingers to keys). Here is a step-by-step guide on how to look back and share all we’ve experienced, to have our last say at that gathering of family and friends who have come to bid a final farewell.

Having the Last Say: Capturing Your Legacy in One Small Story is available at Amazon.

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