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How We Almost Lost Shakespeare Forever

Shakespeare. You know who that is, right?

The most famous playwright and poet in all of history.

Britain’s official favorite-person-ever.

Shakespeare was writing during a time that English was dropping a bunch of its rules, and he leaned into that trend by using the language in ways it had never been used before, inventing a lot of our common words in the process.

Bedroom. Freezing. Distasteful. Bump. Useful. I’m not going to name all of them, but if you’re a nerd like me, here’s the link, knock yourself out.

He entertained peasants and royalty. During his relatively short career (1589-1613) the man wrote 39 plays, 154 sonnets, and two long narrative poems. He was prolific, he was talented, he changed the way we use English much like Jimmy Hendrix changed the way we use the electric guitar.

Given all that, it’s only natural that his works are still around, right?


It’s actually very unnatural for us to have Shakespeare’s works. Of the man himself, we have zero portraits. He was a genius and huge success, but never commissioned a selfie. We have five of his signatures, and in NONE of them does he spell his name “Shakespeare” like we do today.

During his lifetime, his plays were printed in pamphlets so that they could be sold to other acting troupes. The paper quality was low, they weren’t intended for archival purposes.

After his death, two of his closest friends published all but two of his plays in a collector’s edition of sorts, using calfskin binding and fine French paper. “Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies” is now regarded as one of the most influential books ever published in the English language. We call it “the First Folio.”

One book. The loving tribute of three devoted artists to their friend.

The man was a genius. The work was brilliant. Dozens of people had memorized the words, and recited them for audiences by the hundreds. But without that book, the works of Shakespeare would have likely died with their creator.

The lifespan of a spoken word is very short. But that same word written down, or recorded, is immortal. Click To Tweet

That is why we save the story.

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The Worst Last Name

Raise your hand if you have THE WORST last name

I did some substitute teaching a few years ago, and one morning I introduced myself to a class of 8th graders in a slightly self-deprecating way to help them remember my goofy last name.

“It sounds like FULL and WIDER” I said, extending my arms around my belly to demonstrate. A tall, dark haired boy raised his hand and said “Oh yeah? Your last name isn’t as bad as mine. I have the worst last name in this whole school.” He spelled it for me – a tangle of random letters, impossible to pronounce just from looking at it. And he said that he hated his last name.

It broke my heart for a kid at such a pivotal stage of identity development to feel embarrassment and contempt for his heritage. That night, I Googled his last name, and the next day when he walked into class I said to him “Did you know that your ancestors were members of the nobility? Not only that, they are one of the very few last names that rose from the common class to the noble class. They actually EARNED their nobility, which was nearly impossible to do in the 16th century.”

The pride on his face was instant. If I remember correctly, he looked at his friend and said “Ha! I’m nobility!”

Knowing your ancestry isn’t about your past. It’s about your future. How you see yourself today, right now, determines the trajectory of your life. Click To Tweet

Studies have shown over and over again that individuals who know their family and cultural history are more resilient. They adapt better in new situations, they thrive in harsher social environments, they overcome greater obstacles.

You don’t have to trace your bloodline through genealogy, or take a DNA test to determine your ethnic makeup. You can explore your heritage best by saving the family stories – stories of victory and defeat, and virtue and of vice. Of persecution, and perseverance, and poverty and providence. All of these things.  History serves us in a very real way, it’s relevant to how you live your life every day.

That’s why the theme for March is “Find the story.”

I challenge you to Google your last name right now – ditch the scroll and learn something new about where you came from. Click To Tweet

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Think you can tell that story?

When I was 17, I lived abroad for 6 months on the island of Saipan in the Northern Marianas. One thing that struck me was how the adults could speak their tribal language, but the kids couldn’t. Even though their parents spoke to them in their native tongue, they couldn’t speak it back. They had been taught to only reply in English, because it was considered a mark of social status for English to be your first language.

So I’m there, having this incredible cultural experience, and all these native languages are dying out in a single generation because the generation coming of age only knew their parent’s language well enough to receive it, but not well enough to own it and use it and pass it on. It was heartbreaking.

The 4 levels of knowledge

It’s a crazy psychological phenomenon that there are things we think we know, that in fact we don’t. Having heard something isn’t full knowledge. Full knowledge only comes when we:

  • listen to gain knowledge
  • ask questions to verify our knowledge
  • practice to achieve mastery
  • teach to verify our mastery

You’ve heard family stories all your life, some several times. Stories that you love, that have shaped your idea of who you are and where you come from. But have you ever tried to tell those stories to someone else? You may be dismayed at how little you remember, and end up digressing with something like “well, I don’t tell it very well, you had to hear it from them.”

That’s how stories die.

It’s so sad when stories die. It’s like forgetting where you buried your treasure. Click To Tweet

Our family heritage is our treasure, and if we don’t take the time to know it all the way – know it well enough to record it in detail and pass it on – we lose something very special. Something that was given to us for free, but can’t be bought back once it is lost.

I want you to know your stories. Your parent’s stories, your grandparent’s stories. I want you to save that treasure in a way that it can’t ever be lost. Like the languages of the Marianas Islands, information that is spoken can be lost in a single generation. But if we write them down, or we record them, then that heritage is safe. If one generation forgets the story, it can still be found again and mastered by a single person ten generations down the line.

That is why we save the story.

A story that is spoken can be lost in a single generation Click To Tweet
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Stories are common. YOUR story is rare.

Be careful that you don't view your stories as common things and therefore not valuable Click To Tweet

I wear a lot of jewelry made with semi-precious materials and natural stone – materials like onyx, agate, pearl, amber and jasper. I love asking vendors at art fairs and jewelry stores for the names of the stone, and after a while I noticed that when it came to jasper and agate, I never heard the same name twice. Moss agate. Blood jasper. Navajo Jasper. The names are almost as beautiful as the stones.

As it turns out, jasper and agate are formed in the same way, the only difference is that agate is clear in places whereas jasper is colored all the way thru. The colors come from the mineral composition of the earth when the stone is formed. And every pocket of stone is different because the composition of the ground is unique. When someone finds a cache of jasper or agate, they name it because that’s the only place in the world that you will find that pattern, that unique blend of color.

Life stories are like that too.

Every person endures their own unique blend of influences, of circumstances. Even though our lives share many, many common elements every story is unique and colorful and beautiful. Our purpose with the memoir process is to dig it up, to mine it out, to polish it up so that you can appreciate the raw, natural, unique beauty that is your story.

I mean, these are just rocks, right? What if the person who found them was like “eh, they are just rocks, everyone has rocks, I mean it’s not like the world needs more rocks.” And yet, here they are. Loved and valuable. Displayed and admired.

I hear people use these SAME words about their life story.

“I’ve got stories, but everyone has stories. Who would want my stories? There are so many other stories that are better than mine.” Be careful that you don’t view your stories as common things, and therefore not valuable. It’s not true. Your stories are unique, and valuable, and if you just dig them up and save them they will be treasured by the people who love you.

Whenever I tell people that I help people write their memoirs, it’s very rare that they say “I need help writing my stories.” What I hear almost every time is “I need your help getting my parents or grandparents to write their stories because they don’t see the point.”

Or, more tragically, “I wish my grandparents had written their stories before they passed away.”

No matter how painful or how plain the story is, no grandchild has ever said “I wish they hadn’t written it down.” Click To Tweet

If you feel this way about your own relatives, then you know exactly how your family will feel about you someday. Will they be glad you saved the story? Or will they be heartbroken that you didn’t?

Stories may be common. But your story is rare.

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Desperate, not just driven, to save our stories

In 2012, I had the rare privilege to hike Little Petroglyph Canyon, a lava trench in the Mojave Desert that is full to the brim with ancient Native American rock art. At the time, I was working as a freelance journalist for the local paper and writing a personal blog just for fun.

Hiking between the walls of glossy black rock, etched everywhere with depictions of animals and people and the sun and mysterious geometric shapes, it was a true testament to the timeless human conviction that what we know must be recorded, preserved, and passed on. Here I was, working for a disposable publication, and blogging in a virtual landscape that required nothing from me. It was easy.

It was not easy for the people who carved these walls. For them, it was hard.

As we waded through centuries of rock carvings, a question burned in my mind – “What were they trying to tell us?” Whatever it was, it felt very important to them. They couldn’t let it go. It had to be made immortal. It had to be set in stone.

One of the greatest misconceptions about the digital era – with all the noise and chatter and content and sharing and posts and NOISE – is that we share stories on a whim, because it’s easy to do. Because we’re narcissistic by nature.

But it takes more than a slight inclination and a big ego for a man to spend days carving their story into lava rock with their bloody, bare hands. Saving the story was carried out with a determination matched only by the will to survive.

Much like early people groups went to great lengths to obtain salt, it was like they instinctively knew that stories are essential. Not extra.

What if they were on to something?

What if passing on our knowledge is essential to our survival in some way that we don’t understand? All we have is this instinct, this nagging impulse to save the story.

So yes, the internet is noisy. There are more stories written online everyday than you can read in a lifetime. But volume of content isn’t us reacting to this sudden access to free publishing. Rather, it’s the other way around.

We don’t share our stories because it’s easy, we have MADE it easy because we are naturally driven – almost desperate – to save the story. tweet now


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Ethical Wills: the new Estate Plan must-have

What is your most valuable possession?

If you have an estate plan, you’re probably thinking of your most valuable TANGIBLE possession. Think again.

What do you have that has made your wealth possible? What do you have that has truly made your life BETTER?

Your values.

While most people understand the importance of an estate plan for distributing their tangible possessions, Ethical Wills allow you to pass on your intangible possessions – things like work ethic, family values, faith and optimism.

Ethical Wills are not new, but have come into vogue over the past ten years.

“I think people are realizing that wealth is not synonymous with happiness. In addition to their financial trust, they want to add a kind of happiness-trust. That’s an Ethical Will.”

Here’s what people are saying:

“It’s easy to leave your possessions to your children. But bequeathing them your values is more difficult. More and more people are putting life’s lessons into writing so they can be can passed on.” (NPR Talk of the Nation)

 “…it does not distribute your material wealth. It is a heartfelt expression of what truly matters most in your life.” (

“Reinforcing the fact that one does not have to be wealthy to leave a legacy, an ethical will provides the writer a way to live on after death in the hearts and minds of loved ones and friends.” (NCSU Forum for Family and Consumer Issues)

“Candidly assessing your life experiences and values… can energize you and change the way you see your life.” (Pat McNees, former President – Association of Personal Historians)

How do I get an Ethical Will?

Most estate planners are not equipped to create an ethical will for you. There are myriad articles and even a few books on the subject of writing your own ethical will.

If writing is not your strength, if you want your Ethical Will completed promptly and professionally, book an appointment with Emma the Lifestorian. We’ll get it done, and off your list.

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What is a Story Album?

“I don’t know where to start,” my Grandma said. She came into the dining room with a cigar box of photos that had lived quietly in her closet since her mother passed away almost 30 years ago. She had never opened it.

Over the next two hours, we went through the photos one at a time, the red light blinking on my digital recorder as Grandma talked about who was in each photo. It was fun to catch her reactions too. “Oh my gosh, look who this is!” she’s say.

We set aside a dozen photos that had prompted the best stories, then I took them home to scan them and transcribe the narratives. A couple of months later, we repeated the process with a photo album of my Grandma’s childhood.

This is a “Story Album.” Photos and narrative together, in a volume that is both memoir and photo album.

The Story Album is a project that I started doing as an introduction to memoir writing. In memoir writing, it’s hard to know where to start. It’s hard to figure out what the most important things are, to recall events with clarity, to pinpoint the major themes in a person’s life.

Photos have the advantage that they bring back clearer memories, they give you a place to start, and they naturally get people talking about the things they remember and the things that are most important to them. Also, a Story Album can be completed in a fraction of the time that it takes to write a memoir.

The final product is a professional photo album that features the scanned photos and typed stories side-by-side.

If you have questions about commissioning a Story Album, don’t be shy! Book an appointment or shoot me an email about the stories you want to save.

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Capturing the Ordinary

I always tell new parents “Make sure you take pictures of your baby crying.”

The ordinary events of our daily life don’t seem very special to us. Instead, we take pictures of the rare things – baby smiling, birthday parties, Halloween costumes.

It is good to capture rare moments, but we need to also capture the ordinary because it represents a larger portion of our history.

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For example:

My child learned to walk this week. I called my mother (obviously) and she said “Emma, you have to take a video of her scooting!” My child doesn’t crawl, she scoots. Everyone thinks it’s hilarious. She sits on her rear and propels herself forward with her arms and feet. I had already taken a video of Avila walking, but it hadn’t occurred to me to take a video of her scooting because it was ordinary.

Years from now, I will want to see the video of those first few steps. But I will also want to see that unique scoot, the one I watched her do every day for months. The walking video is a milestone. The scooting video is a sample of our everyday life. Both are important parts of our history.

Think about the things you do everyday with your family. Make sure you capture those things.

Today, I made a pledge to myself to use a guest book. I have a guest book from my wedding that I have also brought out on special occasions, like our house warming party. I’m going to ask people to sign it on ordinary occasions too. The guest book is something that records both milestones and everyday life in one volume. It’s such a small thing, but by the time we fill that guestbook up, we will have notes from people who are gone. We will have the progression of our kids’ and nieces’ and nephews’ signatures as they learn to write. We will have our history, recorded.

If you are hosting a holiday celebration in your home this year, I encourage you to start a guestbook. 

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What is a Legacy Letter?

A Legacy Letter, or “Ethical Will,” is a special letter from you to your loved ones. Let me give you an example of a Legacy Letter from my personal life.

A couple of years ago, I was spending the holidays with my parents. When the time came to leave, my dad handed me a manila envelope and said “This is for you kids, maybe it’ll help you understand you old man better.” As my husband and I drove away, I opened the letter and started reading. After the first page, I started to cry. It took me several tries, over several days, to read his letter all the way through.

Dad had had a dream that he was talking to one of his kids, and when he woke up he realized that there were things he wanted to tell us. There were things he wanted to make sure we knew. He talked about the things he loved about life and the things he regretted. He talked about his personal history, because he wanted us to understand our own history better. At the end, he wrote a personal note to each of us telling us how we had made him proud and what he hoped for us in the future.

That letter is one of my most prized possessions. The love and advice in those pages have had a strong, positive effect on the way I live and make decisions. When dad passes away some day, I will still have his words to read over and over again.

What do you write in a Legacy Letter? 

In your Legacy Letter, you should tell your loved ones whatever is most important to you that you want them to know. This could be about your past, or about their future. It could be the things you love about them, or the things you hope for them. Some people take this opportunity to say they are sorry, or to forgive old offenses and make amends.

How do I decide what’s most important?

Imagine you have ten minutes to say goodbye to the people you love. What would you tell them? Imagine that 50 years after you are gone, your loved ones still open the letter and read it sometimes. What words do you want them to read?

How long is a Legacy Letter?

A Legacy Letter can be very short – only a few sentences – or it can be several pages long. When I work with a client, we’ll talk about what you want in your letter in a 90 minute interview. More can be added later, but usually what comes out of that interview is the bulk of what will be in the letter.

When you write a Legacy Letter on your own, I encourage you to write as much as you can. The more your family knows about you and your history, the more they will know about their own history too. Who knows? You might just go on to write a memoir!

When do I send the letters to my loved ones?

When and how you send your Legacy Letters is up to you. Some people give them as a special gift, some people mail them right away, others may have the letters distributed along with their estate. In any case, you should always keep a copy for yourself alongside your last will and testament.

How much is a Legacy Letter?

A Legacy Letter service with me is $800. This includes the interview, revisions, and ten copies on archival quality paper. The real benefit to hiring a professional is that the letter will get done in a timely manner. It took my dad nearly a year to finish his letter from the time he started it. Some people don’t have a year, and putting it off can turn into not writing it at all. Hiring a professional will help you get it off your to-do list and make sure your letter is clear, complete, and printed properly so that the letter can be preserved.

Why should I write a Legacy Letter?

Everyone should tell their story, for posterity. Public records will tell us where you were born and on what day, but only you can tell the world the stories that make you you. Memoirs are ideal, and I talk more about that in What is a Memoir. A Legacy Letter is a small place to start, by telling your loved ones the things that matter most to you. It may seem like a small thing, but it is a priceless gift to the ones who receive it.