December 9, 2010

Writing Lives

I wrote my first obituary today. Surprisingly. You’d think I’d have written one before this. It was for the husband of a coworker friend. I did not know him personally but was happy to be able to help.

Obituaries are actually pretty easy to write (for a professional writer). They are a very specific genre with a pretty specific format, and there is a lot of help available on the internet. The family was able to download a questionnaire and then fill it out for me and I wrote it from there. I had most everything I needed from that, and the few questions I had I highlighted. It’s actually not that different from writing other newspaper articles. You gather info, you write it short and sweet.

I have helped a lot of people with resumes, though. It’s interesting to contrast the two. Not surprisingly, it’s actually much harder to write a resume. It’s a very high stakes and exacting genre. It’s like poetry in that every word counts for so much. Your research has to be much more indepth, and general out-of-the-box brainstorming with a friend prompting you helps a lot. You want to balance specific detailed evidence with broad sweeping generalization. It’s longer than an obit, and you have to pack in so much more.

But it’s interesting how they’re both the story of a life. They both try to show the subject in absolutely the best light. It helps if you have someone help you write both, because whether it’s you or a loved one, it’s hard to gain enough distance to do the job properly at the deadline when it’s needed.

In fact, after writing this one, I’m thinking of writing my own. Just for fun. Maybe two ~ one conventional and one off-the-wall creative.

Quite a contrast ~ conventional obits vs. trying to get at the “truth” of a life. Not that there is just one truth. Maybe, rather, getting at the lived reality of life. Fiction, I believe, tries to get at the lived truths of life, so ironically and paradoxically I think it approaches lived experience more closely than “factual” newspaper reporting.

Life is messy. You can’t possibly encompass a life in 300 words. But that’s not what obits are for. They’re there to convey facts and to fix people in our memories. They’re a snapshot of a monument.

Questions of the Day: Have you ever written your obit just for fun? How’d it go?

2 comments:

February Grace said...

Not an obit, but I did once end up writing an entire funeral service for the husband of a friend.

I had only met him once- it was not easy. But she pleaded with me-I couldn't say no. I originally thought they would just use what I'd written as guidelines for her son in law who was going to introduce people who would say a few words, etc. I was shocked when they used everything I wrote word for word. I also ended up speaking that day and even ended up helping her select the music and coordinated with the funeral director. It was a very surreal experience, and I honestly hope it's a duty I never have to perform again. I still wonder when I'm reminded of it, if I did the man justice. I can only hope.

Tamara said...

Bru - Sounds like a weird experience, but it also sounds like you did such a wonderful and meaningful thing for them! Lots of good kharma headed your way. I definitely think it's easier for people not so close to someone to write an obit or help with the funeral. It's so messy and complex when it's someone you know and love. (Kind of like writing a synopsis. :-) )

I hope you're having a great holiday season and the writing's going well!

~ Tamara