Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Wednesday Writing Workout: RIP and LIVELY Writing!

I confess: I read obituary notices.
And I’ve been doing so since I was ten.
Somewhat morbid, right?
And me, a happy-go-lucky Sagittarius.

But I so love learning any person’s story, who they are and what makes them tick, and that’s what a beautifully-crafted death notice offers: a mini-biography that tells the world a certain someone was indeed here.

I first read obituaries in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Next in the Chicago Daily News.
Now in the Chicago Tribune.
And I learned to write them – which is no easy task, I might add, while earning my Journalism Degree in the Annenberg School of Communication.

A successful obit shares the necessary and expected details: the deceased’s name, hometown, birth date, place of birth, family members (including pets), education, professional affiliations; often the cause of death is included.  The named recipients of any donations speak loudly. I treasure the occasional closing phrase that asks the world to remember and honor the deceased’s spirit by paying kindness forward, or wearing a smile, or never giving up.

One of my long-ago favorite obits bore the headline “Walter Thomas: Worked Hard All His Life.”
Another referred to the deceased as a true Woman of Valor.
I love when adjectives such as cherished, devoted, adored, special modify nouns such as wife, father, grandmother, sister, cousin, friend.

Kiddos laugh when I tell them I found my character Howie Fingerhut’s name in the obits.
Or that I discovered the hero of the picture book biography I’m revising while reading the description of a certain woman’s great-great-great grandfather and the town he built in Illinois.
I’ve been known to share an obit photo and the deceased’s name with workshop students as a brainstorming exercise:  “Who might this person have been?” I ask them.  “Why was his death noted in the newspaper?”

I was already working up this Wednesday Writing Workout when I read how last week’s colorful Sun Herald obit of 80-year-old Harry Weathersby Stamps of Long Beach, Mississippi went viral and captured the world.
Readers agreed: it was his daughters’ lively writing.

“He had a life-long love affair with deviled eggs, Lane cakes, boiled peanuts, Vienna (Vi-e-na) sausages on saltines, his homemade canned fig preserves, pork chops, turnip greens, and buttermilk served in martini glasses garnished with cornbread.”

“He excelled at growing camellias, rebuilding houses after hurricanes, rocking, eradicating mole crickets from his front yard, composting pine needles, living within his means, outsmarting squirrels, never losing a game of competitive sickness, and reading any history book he could get his hands on.”

“Harry took fashion cues from no one. His signature every day look was all his: a plain pocketed T-shirt designed by the fashion house Fruit of the Loom, his black-label elastic waist shorts worn above the navel and sold exclusively at the Sam's on Highway 49, and a pair of old school Wallabees (who can even remember where he got those?)..."

Whether you knew him or not, there Harry was, in all his splendor, alive on the page.
The words oozed grace, honor, respect, love.

Read the obituary in its entirety, as it appeared in the Sun Herald.
Note the nouns, the verbs and the well-chosen concrete details and how they define this man, encapsulate his life, capture his essence and celebrate his uniqueness.

Of course, Harry Stamps’ daughters knew and loved him.  They were privy to his story.

Which brings me to today’s Wednesday Writing Workout.


Writing an Obituary Notice

     (1)   Choose your obit’s subject

The Hero/Heroine from your current novel, picture book or biography?
The character who stands in your Hero’s/Heroine's way?

Someone you love, living or dead?

                                                  A pet?
                                                  A favorite toy?
                                                  An imaginary friend?
                                                Even yourself! (See @Legacy)

(2)  Think about your subject, from birth to death (real or imagined).
Who and what defined him/her/it?
What was in his/her/its heart, gut, soul, head?
Who was in your subject's life – daily, long-ago, every now-and-then?
How would you encapsulate his/her/its life?
What nouns, verbs and details convey your subject’s essence?

In other words:
How do you want the world to remember him/her/it?
How would your subject want to be remembered?

Think traits, adventures, hopes and dreams,
accomplishments, victories,
successes and failures,
loves and hates,
the people in their lives.
(3)  Include the requisite details – birth, hometown, career(s), family, etc. (again, real or imagined), even burial plans.

(4)   Order your details however you choose.

(5)  Visit @Legacy for even more ideas and sample obits.

(6)   Remember: you’re telling someone’s story in an abbreviated fashion – someone you know, likely someone you care about.  
What Five to Ten Things must be included so the World comes to know and remember your subject?

Happy lively writing!

Esther Hershenhorn

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The Pen and Ink Blogspot said...

Wow. Loved the obituary and what a fabulous exercise. Thanks.

April Halprin Wayland said...

Love-love-LOVE this habit of yours, Esther! I occasionally read obits and somehow feel guilty about doing so. Guilt no more! Now I will do it with gusto!

Anonymous said...

I thought I was alone in practicing this rather morbid habit--I also visit graveyards to record epitaphs and photograph unique monuments! Thanks for the great post and exercise, Esther.

Esther Hershenhorn said...

Oh, so good to know I'm not alone in my daily reading practices, April and Leanne. :)
And glad you loved the WWW, Susan.
Epitaphs intrigue me too.
FYI: Life Coaches often ask clients to write the obituaries they'd want the world to read.

Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford said...

Esther, I loved this more than I can say. I've written many obituaries in my day (alas), and it is rare that an obits editor will allow something that is a true living, breathing tribute to a person's life. It was a true privilege to read this.