December 10, 2010

The Near Future Tense

So I did it. I wrote a draft of my own obit. A very interesting exercise. It suffers from the same problem of trying to write a pitch paragraph or a synopsis: how do you reduce so much complexity into four paragraphs? Luckily, the form makes it really easy. You just follow the examples and plug in the bits. Which leaves out A LOT.

And you try to make it interesting too. The form doesn’t really help. You don’t want slapstick. In fact, the form demands that you be reverential. Suffice it to say, you can’t be very interesting in an obit. You can only gesture and hint.

This gave me the idea of writing an obit of myself that is nothing more ~ or less ~ than a character sketch. Using concrete actions and objects to convey personality. The example of thought of was the characterization of Jesse James by Ron Hansen in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (which I have here). I haven’t done this yet, but I’m going to at some point. It sounds like fun!

Another thing that would be fun would be to write the obit like Michael Kimball writes people’s lives on a postcard. If you haven’t seen this, you should! It’s great.  I’ve actually kind of done this in my bio on my site, though.

One of the things that writing the obit brought home is how average I am. To be perfectly honest, this is both a relief and a bit troubling. A relief because I think of myself as rather odd. A bit troubling because I, like everyone else, like to think of myself as special and accomplished, but I really haven’t done many of the things that are considered accomplishments that you put in an obit.

Writing an obit of yourself makes you assess your life. This is something I don’t do very often. It brings something home that I’ve always known but take for granted most of the time: my interior life is almost always in the near future tense. In other words, I am most often consumed with thinking about the here and now or what I need to accomplish in the next week or feeling guilty about what is on my to-do list that I’ve put off for too long (which is usually reading someone else’s work).

I don’t often assess the past and think about where I’ve been ~ and I suppose that hinders me learning from those experiences. I do, though, when I’m feeling bad, try to figure out emotionally why and what about me and my family and my past has got me here. So in that sense I assess the past.

When I think about the future, it’s most often to try to figure out concrete steps to accomplish a larger goal. I don’t daydream in the Walter Mitty sense of trying to escape my life (nope, I use books for that).

So this makes me think that my assessment of myself is more often based on what I’m trying to accomplish rather than on what I have accomplished. I do the same with other people, and that’s why teaching is hard for me ~ I tend to want to grade on potential, and I always see the potential.

It also makes me think about everyone else’s obits and how my standards of measure (how nice the person was, how they treated family, whether they thought deeply about things, whether they worked hard, and so on) don’t show up in an obit either. My standard of measure would be much more closely aligned to what they would look like as a character in a novel.

Questions of the Day: So, am I being morbid? :-) How do you assess your life?

PS This has implications on how I write fiction. Hmmm.  Something to think about further.


Pembroke Sinclair said...

I want to read your obit! Why didn't you post it?

Milo James Fowler said...

Interesting take on obituaries in relation to characterization. I want to be remembered for who I am and for what I've accomplished as both a human being and a human doing.

Tamara said...

P - Riiiiight... I'll send it to you. (There's something weirdly revealing and solipsistic about writing your own obit. It feels weird to post it.)

Milo - Thanks for stopping by! Writing the obit has pointed out accomplishments vs. what I value. I'd love to be remembered as a writer of novels, but there a way to go before that happens. I better get busy. I can't wait to check out your work!