Reading one’s own obituary: P. T. Barnum

P. T. Barnum

I’ve written in the past about the profession of obituary writing. My interest is rather simple: I wrote a story years ago about an obituarist (kindly published by North American Review) and I’ve remain interested in the vocation since. It strikes me as a unique field of work to compress a person of note’s life down to six or seven informative paragraphs without simply being encyclopedic.

More interesting to me is that most obituaries are written while the subject is still alive. If newspapers are going to stay in the business of publishing timely work, they have to be. Who wants to read the obituary of a one-hit wonder or has-been star six weeks after their death? The magic of the obituary is to be at once timely and timeless.

One danger in the obituary business is premature publication. It turns out there’s a history of notables who had the pleasure of reading their own obituaries, from Axl Rose to Abe Vigoda to Alfred Nobel. I won’t bother quoting Twain about exaggerated reports, but Rudyard Kipling may have topped it with his letter to an editor: “I’ve just read that I am dead. Don’t forget to delete me from your list of subscribers.”

Mindful of current events in the United States, I found myself reading over Wikipedia’s entry on P. T. Barnum. The man’s life was surprisingly varied. While he’s most famous as a huckster and a showman, I didn’t know one of his first ventures was publishing a crusading newspaper (which might explain his later skill of manipulating the press) or that he didn’t get into the circus business until age sixty, when his greatest exploits and promotions were well behind him.

And then there’s this tidbit about his life and death, as told in the New York Times:

In ill health in 1891, he persuaded a New York newspaper, The Evening Sun, to publish his obituary while he was still alive so he could read it; he died days later at the age of 81.

In my short story, the obituarist remarks that writing one’s own death notice stands outside the bounds of professional decorum. But to bless one’s obituary be published while on death’s door, all for the pleasure of reading it before you pass—P. T. Barnum was quite a man.

Externalizing inspiration


Last time I wrote about keeping a writing notebook. Let’s say you started one, or have been keeping a notebook for some time. What do you do with it? Once you’ve filled a notebook with all these ideas, how do you transfer that inspiration to a short story or novel?

From an essay I wrote for North American Review regarding a short story of mine, I discussed how I used a writing notebook:

On occasion I revisit my writing notebooks for inspiration…Many of my stories evolve from my own (sometimes misplaced) attempts to wire two or three bits of disparate inspiration together and see if sparks fly.

The inspiration for the story they published (“The Obituarist”) came from three lines scribbled into my notebook years ago:

“The Obituarist – Dying, old age, writes obits for living ppl. Also writes fiction—short stories?—and has come to realize that man is reliant on conflict, tension, etc. because all our stories rely on them, and they are not stories otherwise. Speaking to a young person writing his obit. (Or he writes book reviews.)”

That was it. I had a title alright, and some idea of a character and his situation, but nothing further. As I explained for NAR, about a year after writing this in my notebook I began working on the story itself, which is now collected in A Concordance of One’s Life.

This is the true value of a free-form writing notebook. For some people, a writing notebook is to prevent forgetting something. For others, a notebook is a journal, a way to talk to one’s self, a method of getting down pent-up emotions, ideas, or even a fleeting notion that may or may not be useful later.

I keep a writing notebook to externalize my thoughts. Externalizing inspiration, no matter how crazy or random the inspiration may seem, is itself an act of creation. Writing an idea in a notebook is as important as sitting down before the computer and formally typing the story. Those erratic sentences I scribbled about the obituarist were not subsidiary or tangential to writing the story. Those words were the genesis. The story started with me scratching those erratic lines into my notebook, not a year later when I typed the opening sentence in my word processor.

By committing some scattered notions to the page, I’m getting them out of my skull—where they’re fluid, malleable, and insubstantial—and forcing them into the physical world, where they take shape and harden into form. It’s important to judge my ideas objectively in the bald daylight to determine if they’re worth expanding upon.

Plenty of my inspirations go no further than the notebook. That’s not a bad thing. Most do not age well. When I return to my notebook, I often blanch upon reading these old inspirations. I will hurry to turn the page—a sure indication I made the best decision not to pursue them.

Wiring sources of inspiration together

A Concordance of One's Life by Jim Nelson

In my NAR essay, I wrote that “The Obituarist” grew from a single idea. More often I find success in combining ideas, “to wire two or three bits of disparate inspiration together and see if sparks fly.”

I hold a pet theory that true inspiration is rarely, if ever, a single atomic idea. Inspiration is more often multiple ideas coalescing into one. These balls of inspiration accrete mass over time until a tipping point is reached, and the creator feels the urgent need to get the accumulation down on the page in the form of a story. (Or on the canvas, or modeled in clay, and so on.)

For an example of wiring disparate bits of inspiration together, I point to another story in the collection, “A Concordance of One’s Life.” The elements from my notebook contributing to the story include:

  1. Man writes a concordance of his own memoirs (but why?)
  2. Adult feels cheated about something that happened when he was young
  3. Small town becomes a literary tourist attraction (a la Hemingway’s house in Key West)
  4. A man with a name no one can pronounce

When I began writing “Concordance”, the early drafts only involved points 1 and 2. I thought pairing them answered that first question (“but why?”). I was wrong; the early drafts of the story went nowhere. I’d noted the second two bits of inspiration in my notebook before starting the first draft but failed to make a connection. I thought they were for a separate story, if I used them at all.

In a later draft, I added the third inspiration and sparks began to fire. The quiet mountain town as a tourist attraction added a quirky backdrop to my drafts, odd scenes of faceless people going from location to location with their well-worn concordances in hand. Still, the story was shiftless and moody and failed to progress.

The final bit of inspiration came from waking one Saturday morning and, hazy-headed, realizing the cheated man was not the concordance’s author. Rather, the narrator was a friend or an acquaintance who went unmentioned in the concordance (even though everyone else in town is described within it).

I’d given up on the story several times over a span of nearly two years. Patience and focus on the story’s needs led to plenty of sparks that Saturday morning. The draft I wrote became more-or-less what was published by Watchword later that year.

(Somewhere in this is a moral about not giving up on stories, but I must confess it’s sometimes good to cut anchor and move on. Some stories simply cannot be salvaged.)

The fourth point on inspiration—”man with a name no one can pronounce”—found its way into the story during the Saturday morning writing session. It was a last-minute addition. I’d been thinking about the man with the unpronounceable name as the basis for another story, but it had no feet. At the computer Saturday morning, I included it as a gag, a side bit of detail. As the story came to fruition, I realized it was one of the most salient aspects of “A Concordance of One’s Life.”

The Gray Lady dances with The Obituarist: “Obituaries for the Pre-Dead”

A Concordance of One's Life by Jim NelsonI now owe Eric Zassenhaus twofold, both times in relation to my short story “The Obituarist”. (Shameless plug: “The Obituarist” is in my in new short story collection A Concordance of One’s Life, now available as an e-book at Amazon, soon to be available at Kobo and Apple’s iBook store.)

The second time Eric came through was this morning. He alerted me to a New York Times Insider story that went up on August 29th, two days ago. “Obituaries for the Pre-Dead”, penned by Times staff obituary writer Margalit Fox, is an insider’s view of researching and writing obituaries. This is an amazing bit of synchronicity for me, as August 29th was the same day North American Review posted my essay “Origins of The Obituarist” regarding my struggles five to six years ago to write a short story about a Times staff obituary writer. (A selection from the story can be found here, where I first announced the NAR essay.)

In the conclusion of my NAR essay sits the first time Eric helped me in regards to “The Obituarist”. In April, Eric posted on Twitter a link to Mickey Rooney’s AP obituary and noted that it was partially written by a now-deceased staff reporter. As insensitive as this sounds, I chuckled when I read it, as this strange situation in journalism is prominent in “The Obituarist” and something I pondered a great deal while drafting it. To handcraft and polishing story after story fretting they’ll only make it to print after one has perished is just one phylum of neuroses endemic to the writing profession. I made a mental note of Rooney’s obit and, months later, included it in my NAR essay as the concluding flourish.

Now flash ahead to this morning, when Eric again sent me a link, this time to Margalit Fox’s Times piece on obituary writing. That’s two I owe you, Eric.

I’m agog reading Margalit Fox‘s wonderful essay. I dearly wish I’d had access to it years ago when I was researching and drafting my story. As I wrote for NAR, the sundry details of the obituary-writing profession is underdocumented (and is crying out for a nonfiction or New Journalism tell-all, if one hasn’t already been published). Day in and day out, to research and write these miniature biographies of the living in preparation for their deaths (as well as the responsibility of selecting your subjects, a journalistic dead pool), I have to believe this is the kind of writing life few aspire toward. It’s certainly something newspapers don’t appear to discuss much. Perhaps I didn’t dig deep enough in my research six years ago, but what little I’ve read about obituary writing (obituarism?) since then appears as a trickle compared to the discourse on other aspects of journalism, like investigative reporting or sports writing.

The synchronicity of the timing is one thing, but Maraglit Fox’s writing voice mirrors my own obituarist’s voice so much, I shuddered reading her piece. Here’s Fox on her profession:

For my colleagues and me, the world cleaves, portmanteau-style, into two neat compartments: the dead and the pre-dead. In the singular view of human existence that we obituary writers come to hold, it is the only truly meaningful taxonomy.

And my obituarist:

My editors and my fellow obituarists have a little list, The Nearly Departed we call it, celebrities and politicians and artists and authors whom we agree are not long for this world. The unlucky are crossed off the list the same day their obit hits the back pages of the Times. The unluckier are those added when that slot opens.

It was also a relief to see so much of what I’d guessed at verified by Fox. On obituary research:

One of the most stressful aspects of reporting an advance entails, when feasible, telephoning its pre-dead subject for an interview. This is one of the stranger social predicaments in human experience and, trust me, there is nothing in Emily Post to cover it.

My obituarist on the same:

I interview their colleagues and relatives under a variety of pretenses. Ethically I’m bound to supply my name and the name of my publisher, but beyond that, ethics take on a certain…plasticity. When I say I need a quote for the Sunday supplement, which Sunday? Which supplement?

…I maintain and revise obituaries for three, eight, sometimes twelve years. Maintenance consumes much of my time, for the type of elderly I follow are forever hunting up one more notable achievement to stuff and mount. The fire that drove them into the public sphere decades ago burns on.

Fox on the eventual publication of her toil:

Then, when the time comes, a writer or editor has only to drop in the when, the where and the how of the death, an act known in obituary parlance as “putting the top on the story.”

(How I wish I’d known of this parlance!) Here’s my obituarist with some of my own invented argot:

Publication awaits a heart attack, a drug overdose, a plane crash. A missed step on an icy set of stairs outside a packed Georgetown auditorium, a broken neck twisted gruesomely in the snow, the limousine driver aghast at the fall he’s witnessed, a double-click of my mouse, and the politico’s obituary arises from The Freezer, ready for its final revision and publication. … A heartbeat ceasing is tacit permission to publish. Death seals an obituary.

And Fox on subjects outliving their obituarist:

Subjects can live so long, in fact, that they survive the writer. When that happens, if the byline is celebrated enough — and the writing too good to consign to the dustbin — our editors may decide to publish the obit, as if from beyond the grave, once its subject has joined its author. The result is a vivid journalistic status symbol the author will never see.

As mentioned. this was the central issue my own obituarist faced:

Most of the stories in The Freezer will be published after my death. There is irony in that somewhere. When I understand that irony, perhaps I will then accept my mortality. It has not happened yet.

If I had given my obituarist a name, it should have been Robert McFadden. As Fox explains:

The most vigilant among us is undoubtedly Robert McFadden, our Pulitzer Prize-winning obit-writing colleague at the paper, whose job is devoted entirely to advances and who, as of this writing, has 235 of them on file.

In my story I goofed the numbers (my obituarist has written thousands, not hundreds, of obits) and my character never won a prize, let alone a Pulitzer, but this devotion to the form is exactly what I’d hoped to capture. My character’s initial reluctance to pursue obituary-writing as his chosen profession was followed by eventual bittersweet acceptance, finally topped off by him announcing his retirement and requesting his own obituary:

I told [my editor] to conjure up a replacement and send him over so he could begin my entry. There are flexibilities with and within my profession, but writing one’s own obituary is bending the reeds too far.

It doesn’t sound like McFadden and Fox ever questioned their decision to write obituaries, and they may have well looked forward to it when they first begun. I wanted to write about someone less eager, someone with their eyes on a different literary career who discovered, in the thick of it, that their calling was penning the death notices of the celebrated and famous.

At the bottom of it all, I remain amazed people like Fox and McFadden exist, although rationally I knew they did before I even started my first draft. Fox also gave me the opportunity to relive the questions I had about their line of work and, lacking much primary source material, the answers I ultimately (and delicately) chose. Part of the creative process for “The Obituarist” was putting the logic of the pieces I had in my hands together and, with a bit of guesswork, surmising the experience of a lifetime of quiet and unrecognized authorship, of anonymously writing about the living as though they were dead.

“The Obituarist” is available in my new collection of short stories, A Concordance of One’s Life, available as a Kindle e-book at Amazon (and coming soon to Kobo and Apple’s iBook store).


North American Review: “Origins of The Obituarist”

A Concordance of One's Life by Jim Nelson

The North American Review blog has posted a piece I wrote for them, “Origins of The Obituarist”. In it I detail the inspiration and creative process I worked through to write my short story “The Obituarist”, which NAR accepted and published in their Summer/Fall 2009 issue. A sample from the original short story:

My editors and my fellow obituarists have a little list, The Nearly Departed we call it, celebrities and politicians and artists and authors whom we agree are not long for this world. The unlucky are crossed off the list the same day their obit hits the back pages of the Times. The unluckier are those added when that slot opens. There is no announcement, no press release of their addition. My subjects are not informed privately. We guard The Nearly Departed, not even speaking of it around lower staffers. Is it out of etiquette or some nobler purpose we do not make public our little deal pool? Or is the reason as crass and self-serving as the embarrassment of admitting we’re little more than vultures circling for the first moment we can unlock the work we’ve invested dearly in? Ah, there is one aspect to this game I am unsure of.

I interview their colleagues and relatives under a variety of pretenses. Ethically I’m bound to supply my name and the name of my publisher, but beyond that, ethics take on a certain…plasticity. When I say I need a quote for the Sunday supplement, which Sunday? Which supplement? And my name means little to anyone outside of the Times. Of the thousands of obituaries I’ve choreographed into print, not once have I enjoyed credit. It takes a peculiar modesty to pen the death notices of the famous and infamous. It takes even slimmer pride to gallop down to the newsstand and slap through the pages to locate the twelve column inches of your painfully sculpted prose. When someone particularly famous dies, there’s whole milk in my morning cappuccino.

There are others like me at the Times, but none with as much experience. I’ve written five thousand obits but my colleagues are developing thousands more as well. The Times is prepared for at least ten thousand celebrated lives to expire. Of the glitterati and politicos that fell within my sphere, only thirty-five hundred or so have expired. Those remaining fifteen hundred obituaries are on ice in The Freezer waiting for that special phone call from my editor. The liver transplant didn’t take. Or, Dropped dead on the back nine. Or, The pack-a-day finally caught up with him. Fifteen hundred unpublished obituaries is a sweet chunk of intellectual property, as the Times‘ retained lawyers say. My legacy.

Here’s what I wrote about this character and his odd profession for North American Review:

I wanted to know if this grim duty was a primary occupation or one-off work for idle journalists. I wondered if anyone would actually aspire to join the ranks of obituarists, or if junior journalists were lassoed into the role because more senior writers could take a pass on such bleak work. I did a bit of research, online and at the city library, and discovered that this particular field of journalism is remarkably underdocumented. Obituaries are a perverse and morbid obligation, one newspapers are obviously reluctant to discuss. In fiction voids can be filled in with imagination, like spackle covering up a crack in a wall, but with so little to work with I fretted I would muff the basic facts of my story’s subject matter.

A. O. Scott said “a great obituary is like a novel in miniature.” What would a writer learn after penning these miniature novels for thirty years? Compressing lives into column inches, never receiving a byline, not even being a full-fledged member of the newsroom, merely earning a check when someone famous died?

Read the whole thing here.

(Update: A follow-up on a NY Times story on obituarists published the same day as my NAR essay can be found here, “The Gray Lady dances with The Obituarist: ‘Obituaries for the Pre-dead'”.)

“The Obituarist” is available in my new collection of short stories, A Concordance of One’s Life, available as a Kindle e-book at Amazon (and coming soon to Kobo and Apple’s iBook store).