Merle R. Saferstein Shares Her Knowledge of Legacy Writing and Why To Do It
This month, I am pleased to introduce you to Florida author Merle R. Saferstein and her goal of helping others create legacy writing. She was director of educational outreach at the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center in Miami, FL and for 26 years worked closely with hundreds of Holocaust survivors. Out of this work and her own journaling, she developed and teaches a course entitled Living and Leaving Your Legacy®. She lectures on the subject of legacy to a variety of audiences nationally and internationally.
Over 48 years of journaling, she has amassed a collection of 380 journals. Curated excerpts from her journals form the basis for her book, Living and Leaving My Legacy, vol 1. About her book, the author says, “At one time or another, most of us have asked ourselves these questions: What life lessons have I learned? What do I want to pass along? What do I want people to remember about me? What gives my life meaning? Together we will explore the answers to these questions and many more.”
Sheila: Merle, thank you for participating in this interview. I am eager to learn about legacy writing and how journaling helps one do that. I will be asking you about how you lead people in answering the questions you pose. But first, what is legacy writing?
Merle: Thanks, Sheila. I am thrilled to participate in this interview. I often quote myself to explain the basis of legacy writing: “The wisdom that comes with living is a gift to share.”
Unlike journaling we do for ourselves, legacy journaling is written for the benefit of others. A legacy journal can be a record of one’s spiritual values, life lessons, messages from the heart, reflections, and more. Legacy journaling provides the beneficiary with insight into someone else’s thoughts and feelings. It serves as a first-person account of one’s journey and contains a peek into one’s soul. It is important to note that a journal we write for ourselves might eventually morph into a legacy journal.
The manuscript itself can be as simple as a legacy letter written to someone for a special occasion, or it could also be an ethical will. Someone who wishes to invest in creating a book might write a memoir or an autobiography. There are a variety of forms for legacy writing.
Sheila: How did you begin the work that ultimately led to writing Living and Leaving My Legacy, Vol 1?
Merle: When I worked in Holocaust education, my job was to help the survivors share their stories with students and teachers. In doing so, they were passing along their legacy of remembrance. For those 26 years, legacy was an important factor in what I did. From the survivors, I learned many important life lessons including the incredible resilience of the human spirit and the importance of standing up and speaking out for what we believe in.
I have been keeping journals since 1974. At the time I retired from my work as a Holocaust educator, I had accumulated 359 journals. In 2002, I knew I didn’t want to leave them to my children since some of what I had written was for my eyes only. After giving it much thought, I made the decision to take excerpts from my journals and put them into a book for my daughter and son. As time went on, I expanded that idea and made the decision to share the book with a broader audience.
Imagine my collection of journals as a tapestry. Initially, I identified approximately seventy topics which encompass the individual threads of my life. I untangled them, so each subject stands as a single strand apart from the rest. To look at marriage or parenting or any of the other subjects by themselves without anything else encumbering them gives me a microscopic, uninterrupted view of each of these threads.
It took me fourteen years to go back into my journals and take the excerpts that I was willing to include. Once I completed that process, I narrowed the subjects down to twenty-two that would appear in two volumes—eleven in the first volume and eleven in the second one. Under those subjects, I had anywhere from seventy-five to four hundred and fifty pages, which I then spent five years editing down for sizable chapters. I understood that this would be my written legacy, which I call a legacy journal. In it are life lessons, conversations, memories, journal prompts, reflections, values, and dreams. The topics in the first volume include parenting, marriage, career, spirituality, on being a woman, and more.
Here is something I wrote when I first began this project.
July 22, 2002
My life comes back to me in vivid detail and in living color as I read what I wrote years before—moments that I had long ago tucked away. Re-examining my life from this perspective gives me a chance to look at things differently and see how I lived, what I thought, and how I felt. It also helps me to see how I have grown, what I’ve learned, and what has stayed the same. And above all else, it provides me with information that I can pass along to others.
Sheila: How do people use journaling in their legacy endeavor? What if they have not been a regular journal keeper?
Merle: Some people use their journals in writing their memoirs. They might refer to them for the timeline and/or for recalling memories. Others might feel comfortable leaving their journals in their entirety to their loved ones.
On the day Sophia and Bella, my two granddaughters, were born, I began keeping journals for them. To this day, I write in them during or after I’ve visited with the girls, sometimes after I talk to them, and other times just when the desire to do so hits me. Someday these journals will be a legacy I will be leaving to my granddaughters.
To answer your question, there are a multitude of legacy projects one can do which don’t require journals as a resource. For example, one could create a collage of photos, make a special video, fill a scrapbook with memorabilia, write a legacy letter or an ethical will, gather recipes and put them into a cookbook, and many more such projects.
Sheila: You mentioned the term “ethical will.” What is an ethical will? Can someone journal to figure out what they will include?
Merle: An ethical will is a spiritual document and a window into one’s soul. It consists of the person’s life lessons, values and beliefs, hopes and dreams, and ways one wants to be remembered. Ethical wills convey expressions of love and blessings and communicate a legacy to future generations.
Writing an ethical will can serve as a vehicle for self-exploration. It helps individuals reflect on what matters most and examines the essential truths they learned in a lifetime. Referring to one’s journal for ideas, thoughts, and life lessons can be helpful.
Above all else, writing an ethical will is a gift for those writing it as well as for their loved ones. It is a way to share one’s wisdom.
Sheila: Do you have an example of how you help others write their legacy? Perhaps a short excerpt from your book?
Merle: One of the topics in Living and Leaving My Legacy, Vol. 1 is entitled “Parenting: Forever with Love.” The following are a few examples from it that demonstrate how I have incorporated life lessons from my journals within the pages of the book.
July 21, 1992
Michael was curious, so we spent some time talking about the merits of tough love. Bill Milliken, the author of the book Tough Love, says the message to the child must be something like: We as parents don’t care how what we do makes you hate us. We love you, which is why we’re doing this.
There are those kids who dropped out of school, left home, got in trouble, and then came back expecting their parents to give in to them as they previously had. In some cases where the parents can ascribe to the tough love philosophy, there might be hope. Now that their son or daughter has no money nor a place to live and needs his/her mother and father, the parents have to take control.
I explained to Mike how sometimes parents must say no once and for all. He told me how he watched his friend’s mother give her kids all the essentials—food, shelter, and money but no discipline or rules. He said that as if he knows what matters most in parenting.
March 13, 1993
Rebecca had gone to South Beach and hadn’t come home yet, so I was concerned. She finally walked in at 3:00 a.m., and Daryl and I had woken up and had been up for at least an hour waiting for her. During that time, I thought about how parenting has its highs and lows—like so much else in life.
When the kids are away, there’s no daily contact—everything is long distance, so we can’t touch, feel, and experience the joys in the same way. On the other hand, we also don’t agonize when they are out in the middle of the night.
May 2, 1993
Earlier at dinner, Rebecca asked if we would be embarrassed if one of our kids was in jail. Neither of us knew exactly how we would feel and hoped we’d never have to face that. I told her the messages we wanted her and Michael to know. You can always come home. We have faith and confidence that you will succeed in whatever you do. We will always be there for you. We love you unconditionally.
Sheila: A success story about helping others to do legacy writing?
Merle: While this isn’t a success story, it illustrates how legacy journaling can be used. Three years ago, during a Living and Leaving Your Legacy® class I was teaching at a cancer center, I met a forty-year-old woman who had metastatic breast cancer. We became friends, and I encouraged her to journal and also to make a legacy video for her three-year-old daughter. My friend fought hard to be cured so she could live to raise her child. Unfortunately, she died in September 2020.
Three weeks before her passing and while she was in hospice, her brother called me. My friend wanted him to ask if I would be willing to read her journals and choose those passages that I felt would be important for her daughter to have someday.
It was a stunning request which I readily agreed to do. Luckily, I had the opportunity to write to my friend while she was still alive. I let her know I would be honored to do this and would choose excerpts I felt could be shared while carefully respecting her privacy.
Above all else, I was overwhelmed that she was entrusting me with her personal and precious journals. She would be gone, and I would be left with her most intimate, authentic thoughts and truths. I understood this to be a sacred responsibility. When I agreed, I knew it would not be easy emotionally but also that it would be tremendously meaningful. More than anything, I wanted to make sure that her daughter would eventually have as much as possible of her mother from these journals.
What I realized as I made my way through her journals is that it’s one thing to read my own, but it’s a completely different experience to read someone else’s—especially since she wrote them never intending for anyone else to ever read them.
There were ten journals in all. Some were notebooks, two were calendar journals, and the rest she had purchased or had been given to her as gifts. In one of them, she kept track of her medical issues, doctor’s appointments, and medications. In some, she wrote notes from the various classes she was taking. She had specifically written one of the calendar journals for her daughter, and that one, of course, will be saved for her in its entirety.
This profound experience gave me a window into my friend’s heart and soul. I understood that I would be preserving her legacy, which to me is the ultimate in legacy journaling. It also allowed me to reflect on what it is that matters most and to pass along those life lessons, messages, values, and events for her daughter to cherish.
Sheila: I am moved to tears at the responsibility you so lovingly accepted and carried out. How old is the daughter now and how did you present the legacy journals you created?
Merle: My friend’s daughter is now eight years old. When I completed the journal, which I had bound into a book with a copy of one of her original journals as the cover, I wrote a letter to the uncle. In it, I explained that this was something that should be given to the child when she is a late teen. The reason for that is because there is much within the pages of the journal which will only be meaningful when my friend’s daughter has matured.
I also included a letter to the child and explained why I did this for her. The following is an excerpt from the letter.
I am clear that your mother’s journals were written for her eyes only. The gift of journaling is to feel safe in exploring anything and everything that comes from our minds and hearts onto the page. Above all else, this is what is most important about the act of journaling. It is the gift that we give ourselves when we take the time and make the commitment to journal.
The process I used with my journals is the same one that I have used with your mother’s. I read each page, decided which excerpts are best to share, and honored those thoughts that truly are for me only (and in your mother’s case, for her). I have approached this process in reading your mother’s journals with the utmost respect for her privacy. I am honoring her in that way. To adhere to her wishes, I will be destroying them—except for the journal she wrote for you. It is what she wanted. That is why she asked me to do this for her…
As you read your mother’s journal entries, I hope they will bring your mother to you in a special and meaningful way. This has been my intention in doing this for you.
Sheila: Your sentiments about the responsibility you had taken on are so beautifully and strongly present in these passages.
Tell us now about the four questions that helped you formulate your new book Living and Leaving My Legacy, Vol. 1, and how they work for leading new legacy writers to manuscripts they will share.
Merle: My goal in asking these questions is to help people begin to look at their lives with the understanding that how we live our lives becomes our legacy. By answering these questions, my hope is that they will then have a basis for beginning a manuscript. Along with these questions, I suggest they create a timeline of their life as well as look through old photographs to stir up memories which they might want to include in their legacy writing.
Sheila: Is there an association of professional legacy writers? How do legacy writers and teachers gain peers and support in their endeavors?
Merle: To date, I have not learned of any professional association for legacy writers or teachers. There are several books which are written about legacy, but I have yet to find any community of individuals who are doing this work.
I was fortunate early on to have a journalist with the Miami Herald write a two-page feature article about my journaling and the first legacy class I taught in October 2012. What she wrote generated great interest and truly put me “on the map.” Since then, my legacy teaching and legacy writing work has been through word of mouth. To date, I have taught sixty-five legacy classes with an average of six sessions in each. I have done sacred legacy work with hospice patients and have also trained hospice social workers, volunteers, and music therapists to help their patients do legacy work.
Sheila: Your work is much needed and impressive. I am sure what you have taught so many others helped them see great meaning in their lives and feel a sense of fulfillment. And, of course, I imagine their descendants feel lucky to have their ancestor’s words.
You’ve told us there is a volume two with another eleven topics. Tell us about your plans for writing a series of books.
Merle: When I first began this project in 2002, I imagined a collection of two or three books. After working on it for all these years and choosing those topics I most wanted to share, I realized that two volumes would be best. I divided the twenty-two topics into the two books, but I worked on them simultaneously since I had originally planned to publish both at the same time. It was my publisher who suggested I publish them individually. The second volume will be released on June 20, 2023.
Sheila: Congratulations! Your readers will have time to use your methods and inspiration and then look forward to more of your ideas and help.
What went into that realization of what you most wanted to share? So many people who have notebook after notebook from journaling for years don’t know where to start with their material. I am sure this interview and your book will help them. Ultimately, after figuring out the threads you wanted to explore, how did you decide the right number to help others work with their accumulated material?
Merle: Initially, as I read through my journals, I took out any excerpt that I thought I might possibly want to share. Because of the massive amount of writing I have accumulated, at first, I had way more than would ever be possible to include in a book. It took me many edits to cull through all the excerpts. With each read-through, I would eliminate more and more. I felt that approximately thirty pages per chapter was reasonable, so that became my ultimate goal.
In the end, what I hoped for was that I had chosen those excerpts that were the essence of the topic—those which best represented what I had learned and experienced. The process was anything but easy.
The truth is that I did not consider how any of this might help others sort out their material. I wrote my book primarily for my children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews. I was focused on leaving my written legacy for them. Of course, now I am hopeful that this will inspire others to do the same, and in some way, I would be happy to help anyone who is interested in doing so.
Sheila: As a poet and memoirist, I feel that my legacy is largely in my poems and prose, some of which are in letter form. Our interview has me thinking about writing more in letter form, especially, because that would help me explore more of what I would like my daughter and grandchildren, my niece and a cousin I am close to know how I think about my experience. I like the idea of letters personally to them as legacy. I think any of us writing from personal experience will enjoy your exploration of the topics you decided on and the help you provide us to focus on our own categories of most important topics—and they might be different for different individuals.
What do you think?
Merle: I am hopeful that some of the prompts at the end of each chapter might be helpful in beginning the process of choosing topics. While the readers will have specific subjects of their own that speak to them, perhaps exploring my categories will spark ideas.
As far as letters, I am a huge believer in the art of letter writing. Prior to email, I used to write letters to my family and friends. In fact, my husband would complain that I was supporting the U.S. mail with all the stamps I bought. Letter writing was my favorite way to communicate.
I always handwrote my letters. There is something about seeing one’s penmanship that evokes an indescribable emotion for me. In my legacy classes, I suggest writing a letter by hand to loved ones. I have bins filled with letters from my parents and others and cherish each of them.
Many years ago, my daughter asked her grandmothers to write her letters. She also asked us to do the same, and so we have written letters for her and for my son that are included in the folder with our wills.
A legacy love letter, as with an ethical will, is as I have said, a gift we give ourselves as well as our loved ones.
Sheila: Thank you for inspiring a new project in my writing life and in the writing lives of so many others! I am eager to read more of your work and look forward to ordering Living and Leaving My Legacy, vol.1.