Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Obituaries and You!

Despite the subject matter at hand, I swear this will not be a morbid post. That’s why I put the exclamation point up there in the title. To make it seem more cheery. 

See the difference there:

(Admittedly, kind of gloomy.)


(Not so bad really. Might even be kind of fun! Let’s see what Kristen has to say about them!)

So. Obituaries. I read them nearly every day because I’m curious about people’s lives generally, of course, but I’m also curious from a writerly perspective about what information gets included in them, either because the writer thought it was important or because the deceased person’s family did. Or maybe the deceased person him or herself would have wanted these facts to be generally known.

And OK, confession time, when I’m scanning the obits page trying to decide which ones to read, I’m mostly attracted to the obits with the really weird photos.

I assume – especially with the really bad pictures, where the person’s got one eye closed or they’re sitting on a bar stool with no shirt on, next to a three-legged dog -- that the person who is the subject of the obituary did not pick the picture that accompanied it. And we’ll give the person who did make the selection the benefit of the doubt that they meant well or perhaps cut them some slack because of their grief. They might have just stuck their hand in a photo-filled shoe box and said, “Here. Use this one. I simply don’t care!” Of course it’s always possible that no better picture of their deceased loved one existed. But whatever. There are some doozies in there on almost a daily basis and they always make me wonder if the deceased person would have been pleased that this photo was printed in the paper along with the summary of his or her life.

Like today. There was a woman my age who died of who knows what. Sometimes I think obits are the only remaining thing in society where we use euphemism to the point of obfuscation (OK, maybe obits, Pentagon press releases, and election materials), but whatever she died of is not the issue. I noticed her because, like I said, she’s my age -- 43, for those scoring at home -- and they used what looks like might have been her high school yearbook photo for her obit picture. Like, with the totally 80s hair – yeah, she had the big, flippy-fluffy-teased thing going on -- and those horrible feather earrings that were so popular back when Bon Jovi roamed free across the American plain like an apatosaurus in tight leather pants.

What can we, as writers, learn from this?

One, I’d like to go on the record now and say that I do not ever, ever, ever want my high school yearbook photo used in conjunction with my obituary in the event of my untimely death. You got that? I mean it.

Two, I realized that for storytelling purposes, so much interesting, useful information exists in that intersection between how characters see themselves and how they are ultimately seen by others. The question is how to include this in ways that are meaningful, but it’s a good starting point when you’re trying to introduce conflict and depth into a story.

Three, given the short, just-hit-the-highlights format of obituaries, they can be a useful tool for you when you’re planning, plotting, and sketching out a novel. For example, if you wrote an obit for one of your characters, what would you include? This seems like a great writing exercise and by golly, if I weren’t so lazy, I might try it next time I started a new project before jumping in and belatedly discovering my main character plays the spoons, likes kale, and once killed a man in a bar fight in Mexico City.

See? This hasn’t been a gloomy post at all, right? I hope I’ve turned your attitude around about obits. They can truly be helpful and useful.

I'd just like to conclude by reiterating the main take-away from today’s post and that is this: if I see one picture of myself with my 80s-era sausage curl hair appear next to my obit, I’m gonna seriously kick somebody’s ass.