For a while, I’ve been contemplating writing a piece called “Life Lessons from Death Notices” about a surprising source of inspiration for living and writing I’ve discovered in my latter adult years. In one of those strange synchronicities that occur every now and then, lo and behold, a new documentary called “Obit” that opened in late April offers a behind-the-scenes look at the process, judgments, principles and practical construction of the polished gems of journalism that comprise obituaries in The New York Times.
Just as The Times was required reading in the journalism course I took in graduate school back in the freshly post-Watergate days of the mid-70s, “Obit” should be required viewing for anyone interested in writing stories about people today. I’d go a step further and recommend the movie, and the biographical masterpieces it chronicles, to anyone interested in learning about life and the way we value its meaning and contributions.
All About Life
The first lesson the documentary teaches is that “Obituaries have next to nothing to do with death and almost everything to do with life.”
The second is that there is meaning, value, and interest in lives beyond those of the rich and famous. Although men and women of great notoriety and achievement routinely gain entry into the newspaper’s precious space – like Muhammad Ali or Maya Angelou – not everyone in the Times obit section is famous. Often they are totally unknown characters who toiled behind the scenes in anonymity, while something about what they did in the course of their lives contributed to or came to symbolize a much larger or more historic event or theme, or a memory that may be common to an entire generation. Consider, for example, Betty James, who came up with the name for the Slinky, or Manson Whitlock, the last known typewriter repairman.
Difference Between Informing and Inspiring
The third lesson I took away from “Obit” is a kernel of wisdom essential to any aspiring writer, and that’s the difference between imparting facts and creating stories that do much more than that. The Times obituary begins with a reporter on the phone, madly scribbling answers on a standard form, filling in birth and death dates, cause of death, place of birth, parents, and grandparents, marriages, children, education, jobs, etc. Next comes the creative challenge of organizing the facts, complementing them with historical and sociological context, and then composing a story that may convey knowledge, nostalgia, humor, insight, inspiration, or in the best of cases, all of them.
As one Times obit reporter explained it, “You follow the story to where it has its greatest power.” And so the obituary on William T. Wilson, who died of complications of prostate cancer at 86, mentions neither the deceased’s name nor death until AFTER four riveting paragraphs about the 1960 televised presidential debates between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy. We then learn that it was Wilson who not only negotiated the terms of the debates for Kennedy but who also personally applied the cosmetic powder to his face that made the young senator look more cool and commanding than the visibly sweating Nixon and probably helped him edge out his more experienced opponent in the historic election.
Quotes That Stick
A facet of the classic Times obituary that has captivated me and provided the seed for this post is the unforgettable quote. A while ago I started filing them for future reference and to untwist my mind in tough times. Here are a few favorites that have made it onto my list. As you’ll see, I tend to be partial to performing artists and authors.
– Soul singer and songwriter extraordinaire Curtis Mayfield (1942-1999), on patience and faith:
“I’m a great believer in the saying, ‘It might not come when you want it to, but it’s right on time.’”
– Legendary rock ‘n’ roller Bo Diddley (1928-2008), on the risks of being overly ingenuous:
“I tell musicians, ‘Don’t trust nobody but your mama, and even then, look at her real good.”
– Method acting icon Marlon Brando (1924-2004), on his life’s purpose:
“I suppose the story of my life is a search for love. But more than that, I have been looking for a way to repair myself from the damages I suffered early on and to define my obligation, if I had any, to myself and my species.”
– The opening act at Woodstock, Richie Havens (1941-2013), on how he defined his purpose in all the diverse activities of his life, from music and acting to environmentalism:
“I’m not in show business, I’m in the communications business.”
– Zen practitioner and rare female member of the Beat Generation writers’ circle Joanne Kyger (1934-2017), on the conundrum of Buddhism:
“Their philosophy just comes to an end saying you just have to practice the study of nothing.”
She followed with this anecdote about meeting the then-27-year-old Dalai Lama in India while traveling with other Beats:
“And then Allen Ginsberg says to him how many hours do you meditate a day, and he says, ‘Me? Why I never meditate, I don’t have to.”
– Actress Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003), on death:
“I have no fear of death. Must be wonderful, like a long sleep. But let’s face it. It’s how you live that really counts.”
Well said. Which is why tomorrow morning after reading the headline stories and checking the op-eds, I’ll take a look at the obituaries to see if there’s anything I can learn from the way others have lived theirs.