Creative Challenge: Obit Writer for Hire

The great thing about long-ish haul flights is the chance to binge-watch TV shows or movies you might never get around to watching on terra firma.  I first encountered Obit. this Summer, at the tail-end of a flight from San Francisco to the UK and, as luck would have it, I was recently able to watch the rest of it en route from Washington DC to New York.

My fascination with obituaries was born in 2008 when my Mum and I had to write one of our own.  I remember poring over short snippets of alphabetically categorised listings, frustrated to see decades reduced to fifty words or less that mainly summarised the logistics of burial rather than the lives lived.

Years later, at a film festival in London, I happened upon a documentary called Kiss the Water.  The programme blurb read that Director, Eric Steel was compelled to make the film after having come across his protagonist’s obituary in The New York Times.  I was intrigued.  Until this point I had always thought obituaries were brief and largely perfunctory.  What could her’s have said that hooked this Director in?  A quick google later and I found my eyes stinging and my interest piqued.  Her obituary was like nothing I’d ever read before – the language so lyrical; factual yet full of fondness – this was a person whose life I wanted to know better.

I’ve since learned the Obituaries Department – yes, it’s a thing – of The New York Times is world-renowned.  These are column inches of note that many a person’s parting wish it is to occupy.  Taking inspiration from the 2016 documentary feature film, I thought it might be fun to get inside the mind of an Obit writer and try our hands at doing a day’s work in their shoes.

Starting the day, getting a name you’ve never heard of, knowing that you are going to have to have command of this person’s life, work and historical significance in under seven hours is equal parts exhilaration and terror.  Every single day I have to fight down panic and I’ve done this a thousand times.

Margalit Fox, Obituarist, The New York Times, from Obit.

So what makes a good Obit?  According to the writers interviewed in Obit. , there are a number of things to keep in mind:

  • 800 words is ideal.  Over 1,000 words makes a statement, as though the person whose life warranted over 1,000 was worth more than the one summarised in triple digits.  A good Obit should be newsworthy and factual.
  • The second paragraph must confirm the death, either by the cause or familial confirmation.  (An unfortunate necessity stemming from one outstanding Obit for an actress whose family were dumbfounded to read of her death in France since she was very much alive and well and living on the East Coast of the United States.)
  • Avoid euphemisms.  We’re all going to die someday.  Don’t be afraid to use the word.
  • A good Obit should make an impact.  Ask yourself: is it newsworthy?  How so?  What was the person’s impact on their town?  On their work?  On the wider world?
  • Use a headshot image of the person in question.  Each Obit should have at least one headshot, preferably one that mirrors the impression made by its words.
  • And the most important thing is to make it about LIFE.  Margalit Fox explains in the film,

In an Obit of 800 words or so, maybe a sentence or two will be about the death but 90% is about the life.  So, it’s counterintuitive – ironic, even, but Obits have next to nothing to do with death and, in fact, absolutely everything to do with life.

THE CHALLENGE:

Pick a name, write an Obit.  800 words max.  It can be for someone you know, or don’t; it can even be your own.  What do you want the world to say about you when you’re no longer here to tell it?  (If you do choose to write your own the caveat is your life must stretch to at least six decades – that’s enough for an intro, conclusion and 100 words per decade, should you need it.)

Give yourself no more than 7 hours – we’re doing this in a working day remember.  Your day should include research time.

You don’t need to show your work to anyone if you don’t want to – this is a challenge for you to play with your creativity and see where it takes you.  If you would like to share your work, please feel free to post a link to it in the comments below.

If you need some inspiration here are some of the best I’ve read:

  • Megan Boyd’s, of course.
  • My old Spanish Professor, Nigel Dennis, whose warmth and wit was mourned around the world.  This one is in Spanish, appearing in national newspaper, El Pais.  Here’s the translation of an extract that summed up what those who met him were fortunate to experience in person:

    I don’t know anyone who had met Nigel Dennis, even casually, who didn’t think highly of him…Nigel Dennis who was born in London, 1949 and died this Tuesday in St Andrews, Scotland was, in every sense, intellectual, human and personal.  He was what the Nobel prize-winning poet Juan Ramón Jiménez would have called an “aristocrat of the world”; “the man who united – in equal measure – a profound fostering of the inner self and a conviction of the natural simplicity of living.”

  • Sadly not her actual Obit but I like that Carrie Fisher thought about how her’s might read ahead of time.

Wishing you luck and inspiration for this challenge.  The final word goes to Margalit Fox,

If you think about one of the slang ways of saying somebody’s died, we say “he’s history” and what an Obit actually does, which I find very telling and very moving, is that it captures the person at the precise point he or she becomes history.

Write on,

L X

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