Discover Legacy Journaling, with Merle Saferstein

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Our guest today, legacy journaler Merle Saferstein, discusses writing techniques to help you extract your journals’ deepest insights and share them with the younger people in your life. We think you’ll find the process she describes inspires an experience as meaningful for the writer as it is for the recipient.

Merle was the director of educational outreach at a Holocaust Center in South Florida for twenty-six years. When she retired in 2011, she developed and currently teaches a class entitled Living and Leaving Your Legacy®. She lectures on the subject of legacy nationally and internationally, trains hospice staffs on how to do sacred legacy work, and works with individual patients at the end of their lives. She is the author of Room 732, is a council member of the International Association of Journal Writers, and is a contributor to the Huffington Post and Thrive Global.

Merle provides tools to craft an enduring gift for your loved ones. She also shines new light on how you’ll think about your own legacy. Great stuff here! To learn more, listen to our interview, or read below to see highlights from our talk.

Defining Legacy

Merle is a vibrant, engaging speaker. She’s got the spirit of a storyteller and understands the long lasting impact one’s stories have on future generations.

Legacy journal writing is defined by Merle as “words written specifically for the benefit of others.” This form of writing has benefits not only for the recipient but for the writer as well.

The Benefits of Legacy Journaling

A life-long journaler, when Merle began her own legacy work she was struck by all that she’d processed through the act of writing. “I consider myself a very positive person, but when I sat down to work on this project and reread all of my notes, I realized I’d wrestled with a lot of tough feelings and emotions, and my journal was the place where it all went. It was through writing things down that I was able to maintain the positivity I associate with myself.”

Merle points to the ways legacy journaling enriches our lives by providing:

  • an opportunity to impart wisdom.
  • new insight into a specific moment in time.
  • deeper understanding of important people in our lives.
  • historical documentation that can be passed on to future generations.
  • preservation of important times and places.
  • clarification of values and beliefs.

Legacy journaling enables Merle to maintain meaningful records for her grandchildren to hold onto. Since their births, Merle’s journaled about their shared moments. She also writes about specific subjects she wants her grandchildren to consider, and periodically offers a life lesson for reflection. Merle has not yet decided how or when these journals will be presented to her grandchildren, but she’s confident in the connection she knows they will foster.

In addition to this gift for her grandchildren, Merle has taken on an ambitious and significant legacy project that grabbed our attention. Merle has filled over 360 journals in her decades of journal writing. That’s right, 360! Years ago, she decided to glean highlights from these pages to put into a format she could share with her family.

Marriage was the first topic Merle dove into. The timing proved perfect as she’d just been asked to officiate her great niece’s wedding.  Merle’s own marriage of 52 years, and all she’d written about it, proved to be the perfect primary source. The entire process entailed boiling 100 pages down to just 12. “I needed to excavate those ideas most worthy of sharing,” she explains.

One pearl of wisdom Merle chose to include was her take on the old adage she’d been told years ago. Never go to bed angry. 45 years later, Merle recognizes that emotions run deep and that sometimes we need time to sift through strong feelings in order to make meaningful peace with them.


The wisdom that comes with living is a gift to share.

Merle Saferstein

Project Ideas

In workshops, Merle guides students through the different forms their legacy journaling can take.

  • Legacy love letters. So often our hearts and minds fill with thoughts we forget to express. Merle suggests marking graduations, birthdays, and other special days with a legacy love letter. Here important sentiments, wishes, and values can be poured onto the page in a memorable way.
  • Ethical wills. Those wishing to pass on life’s lessons and dreams for loved ones may compose this spiritual document meant to be shared after the writer has passed. The ethical will does not contain directives and is intended to read as a hopeful, positive piece of writing that recipients can hold onto.
  • Memoir, autobiography, scrapbooks, and oral history are other popular forms Merle encourages.

Legacy Journaling Tips

When it comes to process, there’s not one “right way” to approach legacy journaling, but Merle shares her own methods to help you get started.  

To begin extracting gems from her personal journals, Merle broke the project down into manageable stages she shares below.

  • Identify your intended audience. Deciding who this writing is for helps you hone in on what material is especially relevant.
  • Read. Spend some quality time looking over your journals. Reread pages carefully and immerse yourself thoroughly. Give new awareness a chance to spring up and present itself.
  • Identify the themes you want to share. Use stick-it notes to mark ideas and topics.
  • Organize the text.  In Merle’s case, she identified 70 topics she wanted to cover. She made files for each on her computer and put relevant text into corresponding files.
  • Edit and synthesize the text. Keep on refining until you have the product you want to pass on to family members.

Merle summed up our discussion with words that truly resonate.  “The wisdom that comes with living is a gift to share.”

Your Action Plan

  • Learn more about Merle’s work. Visit her online.
  •  Listen to my conversation with Merle.
  • Get started on your own legacy journaling project today. It’s never too early to start.

If you’ve enjoyed this conversation, you might also appreciate our interview with Brenda Hudson, author of Story by Story: 15 Projects to Write Your Family Legacy.

Capture Your Family Stories in 15 Minutes or Less, with Brenda Hudson

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Tis the season for family gatherings and small talk around tables. What will these conversations look like in your home? Do you wish the talk ran deeper? Have you ever wished for a way to preserve memories of Uncle Bob’s one-liners or the aroma of your grandmother’s pies? How well do you know your family’s stories? Our conversation about family legacy journaling with author Brenda Hudson can help you maximize your time with loved ones and ensure their stories are told and preserved.


Brenda is a teacher, editor, certified journal facilitator, author, and creative writer. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Boston University and a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota’s Department of Writing Studies. She leads writing workshops where participants create unique stories and books of themselves using journaling and book arts techniques. Her how-to book Story by Story: 15 Projects to Write Your Family Legacy is based on her successful legacy writing workshops.

To learn more, listen to our interview, or read below to see highlights from our talk.

What Is Family Legacy Journaling?

Although oral storytelling is highly satisfying, writing down rich details increases the likelihood they’ll be passed on to new generations. Brenda delights in helping people preserve their family stories through a method she calls family legacy writing. She describes this method as “a written conversation among family members and across generations.”

Family can be defined however you like. The term “legacy” alludes to the notion that you’re capturing special moments to ensure they live on. Brenda teaches that this form is different than memoir writing which is typically told from a single perspective. Instead, family legacy stories resemble conversations where multiple interpretations unfold to craft a story told from a variety of vantage points.

Studies have found that family bonds are strengthened when you know your family history.

Brenda Hudson

Getting Started

Sitting down to a blank page can be daunting, a truth Brenda acknowledges with empathy. “Getting started can be intimidating. I really want to help people get right in there to have some fun.”

Many of Brenda’s new students communicate feelings of anxiety and offer disclaimers like, “I’m not a writer but I want to tell my family’s story.” Brenda points out that by our very nature we are all storytellers. She jokes, “When was the last time someone stopped you in the middle of a conversation to announce you weren’t telling a story correctly?”

Her book, Story by Story: 15 Projects to Write Your Family Legacy, offers story-based project ideas to help get you started. By breaking the process into manageable bits, you can dive right into story telling with minimal preparation or worry.

Projects to Try

Each of the activities Brenda has designed works as a stand-alone project. She shares a few favorite ideas below:

  • Family sayings. Is there an expression that comes up often when your family gathers? It might be funny or cautionary. Who says it and under what circumstances? How do other family members respond?  Does this expression state a sentiment shared by others? Put these expressions under a lens to learn more about your family. You might enjoy compiling the sayings you collect into a family notebook.
  • Juicy questions. Is there something you’ve always wondered about? A special mealtime when everyone is gathered can be the right time for research. Be sure to ask a question with an answer you’re genuinely interested to hear. Ask everyone assembled the same question and note the range of responses you receive. Write them each down.
  • Family photos. Bring a picture to a family event. It might be formal image or a fun candid from your phone. There are no rules. Set the timer and invite your family to freewrite about the photograph for ten minutes. Offer a prompt like, “This is a story of…” When the time is up, everyone who wishes is encouraged to read the story they’ve recorded. To spice things up, participants might choose to read each other’s pieces aloud instead. Again, the wide range of responses will inspire a lively follow-up conversation. Be sure to record what you hear. 
  • Record special moments. Audio recordings of young and old voices storytelling together make extra special heirlooms.

Above all else, the objective of Brenda’s projects is to get the memories down on paper. Along the way, take note of unexpected discoveries and forgotten moments that the activity retrieves. These are the gems you’ve been digging for.

Compiling the Details

Brenda shows there are a number of ways to assemble your family’s story.

  • Gather family vignettes into a self-published book to gift family members with.
  • Post the stories on a family blog.
  • Create handmade books full of photos and relatives’ handwriting.
  • Make a family trivia board game.

We get so busy living our lives that it’s important to remind ourselves to pause and capture these moments before they are forgotten.  Writing your family story, says Brenda, lets you live each moment twice and also provides a gift to share with future generations.

Family legacy writing helps us grow strong roots to connect us to the places we’ve come from and provides a way to relate more deeply with the people we love.

Your Action Plan

  • Learn more about Brenda’s writing and teaching on her website www.voicedlife.com. While you are there, sign up for her monthly newsletter.

  • Read Brenda’s book, Story by Story: 15 Projects to Write Your Family Legacy. (We love her book so much, you’ll soon see it appears on our 2020 list for best ~ coming out in January.) Try out each of the 15 innovative projects ideas she shares, and be sure to let us know how it goes. We’d love to share your projects with the Journaling.com community.

  • Gather with loved ones and let your curiosity shine. Ask big, bold questions and record all of the answers you are gifted with.

  • Listen to our conversation with Brenda.

If you enjoyed this interview, you might enjoy our conversation with Shelby Abrahamson, art journaling expert and blogger at  https://journaling.com/articles/journal-to-increase-your-productivity-and-creativity-with-shelby-abrahamsen/ Founder of the blog, Little Coffee Fox.




5 Journaling Prompts to Help End Your Year with Clarity & Purpose

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With the passing of another year, now is the perfect time to journal about where you’ve just been. Contemplative reflection brings clarity — the perfect launch pad to spring you toward 2020.


Put Your Year into Perspective

1) What ACTIONS did I take this year that I am most proud of?

For many of us, positive steps forward are what we lose sight of first. Let’s change this! You might need to take a few extra minutes for this one, but we promise it will be worth it. Take time to brainstorm. Try making a list of everything you’ve achieved. As the memories roll in, spend time with each one. The more we write, the more we remember. Celebrate these actions. Harness their energy so that they become a source of fuel that helps you do your next big thing!

2) Is there anything that happened this year that I need to LET GO OF?

Wrapping up the year means a fresh start is around the corner. Now is your chance to leave baggage behind. You might examine what benefits holding old hurts or anger achieves. Assess that answer honestly and challenge yourself gently. Some people find it helpful to complete an entry like this then burn it ceremoniously or discard of it in another meaningful way. Others will hold on to this significant writing as a reminder of what they’ve survived and are capable of moving beyond. Whatever you choose is perfect.

3) Name ONE SCARY STEP that took me closer to a goal.

Did you ask for a raise or stop coloring your hair? Did you have a difficult conversation with your partner or friend? Write about it and give yourself a pat on the back because daring to dance outside your comfort zone is a big deal. Make time to reflect on the ways this bold move changed your life. Think about how today would look different if you hadn’t taken this step.

4) What brought me joy this year?

Was your year adequately colored with streaks of joy? Did you play and experiment? Did you belly laugh till tears filled your eyes? How often did you see friends or eat something delicious? Name something nice you did for your home. How did you make a child smile? Did new books, art, ideas, or activities make a splash in your life this year? What conflict, grief, or illness diminished your joy? Examine this last question closely and explore how to navigate difficult days without losing sight of pleasures. Visualize and write about ways to revel in simple joys like a new houseplant, a cat in your lap, or a phone call with an old friend.

5) How was I of service this year?

It’s helpful to take stock in the ways we’ve supported loved ones, our community, and the planet we live on. You might wish to examine whether you’ve targeted areas where your efforts can be maximized. Did you focus on the causes that move you most? Did you work through the right organizations? Were the people you helped able to accept your assistance at the time?

Once you start reflecting, there’s no telling where you’ll wind up. Journaling helps us look at the year from multiple vantage points by pointing out achievements, joys, and areas of growth. Grab your journal and just see where it takes you!