Finding “The Once”–advice from Alan Gelb, author of Having the Last Say

As a writing coach, I have found myself focusing more and more on encouraging people to GO SMALL. Keep it concrete, specific, situated in  one uninterrupted run of time. Give us one moment that stands for the larger whole, one afternoon in your mother’s car that contains the distilled essence of your entire relationship with that woman. Marion Roach Smith wrote an excellent book with precisely this focus. (More about that here.)

I found two of my passions  merging when I recently discovered Alan Gelb’s book. Here “going small” meets the self-written obituary!

having the last say

I’m not far enough into reading Alan Gelb’s Having the Last Say: Capturing Your Legacy in One Small Story to write a proper book review–that will come later. But already I’ve found fresh thinking I can’t wait to share.

But first, the background: Alan Gelb is the author of the bestselling Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps. He recently became inspired to adapt his tips for 17- and 18-year-olds faced with writing a personal narrative to the other end of life.

He explains in the preface to Having the Last Say:

…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)….

Gelb challenges those of us in the “third act” of life to create a legacy in the form of a short (500 to 1,000 word) personal narrative, suitable for sharing after our death. He envision this “last say” as somewhat like a eulogy or obituary, but more focused on story-telling.

You might wonder how a person encouraging you to write a 1,000-word essay could fill 200+ pages with advice on how to do it. The answer is, by bringing in a lot of writing technique, with a focus on storytelling.

And now to that nugget of fresh thought: “The Once.” Again, quoting Gelb’s book:

In order to meet the expectations of the reader, the writer/storyteller/narrator needs to address certain issues that apply to all narratives. The most immediate issue is how to handle time. Let’s call that “The Once.”

All narratives must figure out how to handle time. This issue will be especially pressing as we figure out how to have our “last say.”

An allotment of 500 to 1,000 words represents rather tight quarters. That means if you are writing about your trip to Machu Picchu, you can’t start your story at O’Hare. There isn’t enough time…, and frankly, even your closest friends and family, gathered around to hear this “last say,” would not be especially interested–unless those details were somehow crucial to the point of your narrative. So you’re going to have to choose just a few aspects of this life-altering trip to relate. One way you’ll choose is by deciding what you can most effectively convey in the limited amount of space/time you have to work with.

“The Once” refers to that specific point in time in which the narrative is situated–like “once upon a time,” the traditional opening for fairy tales….

Gelb uses several versions of one story to show us how starting at different points in time yield different effects. He helps us see how a writer’s choices compress or expand time, perhaps start in medias res to grab a reader’s attention, or making use of rhythm to build from the humdrum toward the extraordinary moment that gives the story its power.

I find a fellow traveler in Gelb–another person interested in helping people use creative writing techniques to find and convey  the meaning of their lives. He makes me a wee bit frustrated–how MANY times will I read about someone discovering writing memoir or autobiography just for family and friends, not for publication, and assume they are the first to stumble on uncharted territory? But I let that pass. I look forward to reading more of Alan Gelb’s Having the Last Say.

Could YOU find one story that stands for the whole of your life, and tell it well, in a form that could be easily read aloud in 5 minutes or so? That is the gauntlet Gelb throws down.


About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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