A personal legacy isn’t something static that appears or is bequeathed when we die. We are continually creating it. Our everyday actions, emotions, and behaviors combine into a series of good and bad experiences that result in our individual life history.
When considering the legacy we are leaving behind, it’s helpful to take an honest look at our lives—from our earliest memories to present-day experiences. Chances are, as you take time to reflect, you will recall events that made you feel all sorts of emotions.
Often, these feelings move us to want to write about our lives, perhaps even more so as we move into our later years. We may feel a need to “set the record straight” by clarifying words and actions from our past. This sort of project can be comprehensive or narrow in scope, and can take the shape of a letter, memoir, journal entry, conversation, poem, etc. Legacy writing can take many forms, but the first step always begins with personal reflection.
How do we tell our story? One way is to create a personal legacy document. The exercise that follows is an example of how to write about a life event in need of remediation. However, the process can be used to describe any of your experiences.
A personal legacy document is defined as any narrative that describes or explains a period of time in someone’s life.
If you are unsure where to start, reflect on your individual history, and make two columns on a piece of paper. It’s sometimes helpful to look at old photo albums to aid your reflective journey. Start with your childhood, and systematically move through your history to the present. In one column, list the deeds of which you’re proud. In the other section, record anything you’ve done that you regret.
Take a look at your list and identify which negative memory causes you the most pain. Circle it. This is your starting point. Here is where you identify your audience, or the wronged party. Write the name of the person, place, or thing involved in this recollection next to the circled memory. This is who you will be addressing in your document.
Next, on a new page, record everything you can remember about this unsettling life event. Make three columns labeled: before, during, and after. Write down the concrete and abstract details of what happened in the beginning, middle, and end of the experience. Remember to include feelings, intentions, your temperament that day, and personal circumstances at that point in your life. Try to identify all the existing verbal and nonverbal communication going on at that moment. You are not creating a document here; you are brainstorming, so don’t worry about creating sentences. Get your ideas on paper in any manner that is functional to you.
These pieces are the elements you’ll use to construct the story of what happened, a graphic organizer or outline to guide your writing process. If you don’t have enough information in any of the three columns, go back to brainstorming and look harder at the situation. Add some sensory details to your lists so you can show – and not just tell – your reader how you feel. For example, “Right before I saw you, my brother called to say we needed to paint our parents’ house. My arthritis was so painful that day that the thought of doing that plunged me right into a funky mood.”
Now you are ready to write. It’s important to remember writing is a process. What you put down on paper initially will not be perfect, and you shouldn’t strive to make it so. Write, and do it fearlessly, so you can find your inner truth and voice, and then convey this to others.
What you have created thus far lays the foundation for plotting your story. All stories have a beginning, middle, and end. These are equivalent to the before, during, and after columns you’ve just created.
The “before” represents the exposition of your story—the explanation for what leads to the negative interaction you are trying to remediate by writing. But before you get to the part where the trouble explodes, you need to show how the exchange built up. If you’ve brainstormed adequately, these essential pieces will be in the “before” and “during” sections of your outline or graphic organizer.
Although it takes time to write these details, they are a key part of the process, helping you to illustrate what brought you to the moment of harm (the climax). This allows for the expression of your humanity – right or wrong – and to tell your side of the story, giving the reader an opportunity to connect with your state of being, and perhaps find insight into your thoughts and actions.
The person or people being addressed won’t need help recognizing the climax and what came afterwards for them. However, you will need to tell them how it has affected you. This is the “after” of your story, illustrating the falling action, or what came after the life event.
Finally, we arrive at the point of resolution, where you get to apologize and attempt to make restitution for your actions or words. It’s the most important part because without a thorough and honorable admission of your misdeed, you cannot ask for a reprieve. You have to be crystal clear about what you are owning, and what you are asking forgiveness for. Better still, describe any life lessons you learned and carry with you.
Your first draft is now complete. As you go back to revise and edit it, you can decide on your vehicle of delivery. Will you make this document into a letter? Will you deliver the information personally through conversation? Will you compose a short story and offer it to the transgressed? Will you keep it as a diary entry for yourself? (Sometimes the latter choice is the only one available if our audience is deceased.)
Read your finished first draft out loud to yourself. Note information or descriptions to add, and scratch out anything that doesn’t make sense. Rewrite to include omissions and additions, and make sure there is unity in your document so every sentence advances your story. Do this over and over until you are satisfied. If you are feeling brave, have a friend or relative read your story and offer a critique.
You can repeat this process any number of times. These same steps can also be used to describe wholesome, nourishing pieces of your history, or the history of a relative or friend. Doing this can support the flow of your life into the future, knowing you have done your very best to be a good person.
Creating a legacy document can open doors of communication you thought were closed. It can illustrate a life that was previously unknown, stand as a memorial to a deceased person, aid in remembering favorite trips or adventures, help heal relationships, figure out our place here on earth, or be thematic and pull memories from various corners of your mind. Chances are, as you move through the process of writing there will be an element of self-discovery. Your life – your living legacy – may be enhanced with this unveiling.
Heather Mlsna is a professional writer. Her business, Last Letters/No Regrets, seeks to promote healing and remembrance through writing. It serves individuals seeking to express themselves on paper who need help getting started. Heather can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. (https://lastlettersnoregrets.com)
Excerpted with permission from Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine, Winter 2018-19 Issue, copyright 2018. All rights reserved.