Why I read the obituaries

Why I Read the Obits 3x

[In this post, Kickstart Your Writing student Michael Cannarella reveals his fondness for reading obituaries. He then takes his interest one step further and suggests that writing fictional obituaries gives writers an opportunity to hone their craft, especially when it comes to character development and capturing a life in an anecdote, a few words.]

By Michael Cannarella

Many years ago I rented a room in Marquette, Michigan in a large house overlooking Lake Superior. The house originally belonged to a judge and his wife. Only the judge’s old wife was left in the house. (I shoveled the drive as part of my room rent obligation). I usually saw her when the local newspaper was delivered in the evening. She picked it up and immediately turned to the obituaries in the newspaper.

At the time I thought her behavior was notable and strange. Now for me, many years later, I understand. I read the obituaries. Like listening to a good piece of music, they are something I can read more than once and enjoy. Here is a person’s life encapsulated in a few paragraphs. I know these few paragraphs capturing a life have a tendency to “pretty things up” but heck they may be the last words written about a person. If we “pretty things up,” it’s like giving another human being the benefit of the doubt, no more than what we would wish for ourselves. So each obituary goes: Here lies a human, washed, dressed, hair combed, warts removed.

Obituaries also often display great economy by highlighting just a few events that illustrate a character’s long life. Of course there is an art to good obituary writing. The writer must find a way to capture the character. Does the story tell more about the obituary writer than the departed? It’s a fact, few people write their own obituary.

For me, reading obituaries is also like a correspondence course for mortality awareness. Like the stop sign at the end of a road. A mantra to mortality. It is no secret that often our grief at a loved one’s death is a shared awareness of our own mortality.  The obituary is a short, simple recognition, a notation on the terminal nature of life. It provides the end piece for a life. The obituary syllabus: No more enjoyable meals with friends, the limits of the body, memories of the departed, remembered deeds, a life has ended, show over, as it is for all of us.

Obituaries are concise encyclopedic entries for people that lived here, the great and famous and the neighbor down the street. Whether it is about the eye doctor you knew years ago and saw periodically or a composer you have admired for thirty or forty years but never met, the obituary is the short story of a life that yields for me, when well written, some intimacy with that person and the life lived. And of course with an obituary there is never, or almost never, a surprise ending. From the beginning we know what an obituary is about.

One thing I sometimes find irritating about obituaries is when the cause of death is not noted. This is particularly irritating when the obituary is about a younger person. Why?  There should be some transparency about the cause of death when one dies young.  Okay, I’m prepared to make an exception for rock stars until after the autopsy, but it is not morbid to want to know why or how a young person died. The cause of death should not be a secret.

And yes, I do notice the age of the person in the obituary. The scale for me: Are they older or younger than me? Different feelings run through me depending upon the age of the person in the obituary.

Passed away or dead? I prefer dead. Passed away seems to skirt the issue in a fundamental way. Dead carries the finality of the event so much better. We know from life experience what dead means. Passed away seems to subtly postpone the reckoning or breathes into it some little bit of life or hope. Passed away—it is what you might say to a child so as not to upset them. Passed away.

So I suppose you could write fictional obituaries, view it as a writer’s exercise for character development, the challenge of capturing a life in an anecdote, a few words.  Amazon offers books on writing nonfiction obituaries:

There are books extolling the idea of creative obituaries. That leads to the thought of creating an after-death memorial to oneself. Why not write your own obituary? Why not have the last word? You can take the lead on this. It presents the possibility for a whole new genre, the fictional obituary. The challenge for the writer would be to see how good, how creditable a character you can create via this genre.

Which brings me full circle because, of course, all obituaries are fiction, but fiction based upon a life, honoring a human being who lived and died. For me the obituary is a word sacrament, a ritual, a story of a life lived well or not. In that sense, the obituary honors all life.

 

 

Our changing language: Snap. Bam. Awesomesauce.

Very Cool Eyewear sign 4x

I first noticed the communication problem when a woman told me she planned to “hook up”¹ with a man.

“What does ‘hook up’ mean?” I asked, confused while trying to be tactful. “To get together for a cup of coffee, a drink or…?” Does it mean “to date” or “have sex,” I wondered.

The woman didn’t answer, just got a blank look on her face.

Another day, another language barrier. One of the writers I work with turned in an article with the word “piehole”² in it. “Is that an obscene term?” I asked. The publication I edit is “family friendly,” so no obscenities are allowed. The reporter looked at me as if I were crazy.

Around that same time, I sent out an email in which I used the word “cool.” The recipient emailed me back: “I learned that word in 1967 from Donovan. Haha.” So “cool” was no longer cool? Had I made a linguistic blunder?

Everywhere I looked, the English language was changing. I either didn’t understand what was being said or I was being labeled outdated.

It wasn’t just a case of my not being familiar with pop-culture references. True, I’ve been known to say “Star Wars” instead of “Star Trek,” and I’ve confused a basketball team with one that plays football. But what I was experiencing wasn’t just a case of not having watched “Game of Thrones” or of being unfamiliar with the new dance moves, Nae Nae³ and dabbing.⁴

No, the changes were in the language itself. I just didn’t get it.

I signed up for an online class only to have the instructor explain she would be sending the “deets”⁵ to her “peeps.”⁶ Huh? In the local newspaper, a concert was described as a “listening event.” Online, people used “adorbs” instead of “adorable.” Everywhere, “amazing” had morphed into “amazeballs” or “awesomesauce.” “Maybe” and “perhaps” had collapsed into “mayhaps,” “babe” had become “bae,” “bam” was an expression of excitement and “snap” was an expression that meant expression. “Netflix and chill” was a euphemism for sex.

According to Jessica Weiss, author of the article “The Secret Linguistic Life of Girls: Why Girl Speak Gibberish,” teenage girls are the source for much of the change in language. Girls create secret languages, Weiss believes, to create social bonds with each other while excluding other people.

I used to do that. When I was a teen, my friends and I talked pig Latin, which involves taking the initial consonant or consonant group of each word and moving it to the end. That way we could talk in private. “School is boring” became “Oolskay is oringbay” and “dumb parents” became “umbday arentspay.”

Today, as a writer, I don’t have the luxury of ignoring changes in my language. English is my currency. It’s what I use to communicate. So I need to make sure my vocabulary is up-to-date.

Some words, however, do withstand the test of time.

“Is ‘cool’ still cool?” a writer friend recently asked me. Actually, it is. Young people still use the word to mean hip and current. How awesomesauce is that?

Note: Definitions listed below came from urbandictionary.com.

¹A purposely ambiguous, equivocal word to describe almost any sexual action.

²The human mouth.

³A dance from Atlanta where you dance in a way that resembles Sha-Nae-Nae (a character in the 1990s sitcom “Martin”). Typically males participate in this dance, which makes it funny.

⁴To give a sharp nod to your raised forearm. It looks like you are sneezing.

⁵Details, usually details of gossip.

⁶Short for “people.”

Author’s bio: Nancy Woods is an author and writing coach.

https://nancy-woods.com/

nancy@nancy-woods.com

Born funny

(What follows is an excerpt from Under the Influence of Tall Trees: Humorous Tales From a Pacific Northwest Writer.)

Some of us are born funny. Some of us aren’t. I have a relative (Let’s call her Ms. Grim) who once told me she’d lost her sense of humor Where? Along the side of the road? She was wrong. How can you lose something you never had?

My mother didn’t have a sense of humor, either, bless her serious heart. Why? Because she was a genuinely nice person who always had a smile on her face. In contrast, humorists can be just a little bit mean, whether they’re making fun of the government, a friend or themselves. Me, I’m an equal-opportunity insulter. I make fun of myself and everyone else.

When I was a kid, I was always cracking myself up. I’d make silly jokes at the dinner table until I snorted milk out my nose or I’d jump up and perform a silly sketch, then end up rolling on the floor. My mother, a gentile woman who deserved better, would look down at me with a How-did-I-give-birth-to-this person? look on her face.

I don’t know where I got my sense of humor. Like I said, I don’t come from particularly funny folks. My mom’s side of the family is rife with responsible adults — highly paid professionals (accountants, attorneys and airline pilots). Not people you want to be cutting up.

My father’s side of the family is a bit of a mystery, which gives me hope. Other people may dream about being rich and famous. I dream about being Jewish. Some of the best humorists are or were Jewish (Think Dorothy Parker and Jerry Seinfeld), although there are plenty of non-Jewish humorists, too (including Mark Twain and E. B. White).

All I know is that I enjoy being funny, whether I’m telling a ridiculous story or writing a silly rant. It just feels so good to let it all out, like a sneeze, only less wet. To me, being funny is part of being human, and telling jokes is a high art — one that deserves federal support.

Author’s bio: Nancy Woods is an author and writing coach.

https://nancy-woods.com/m

nancy@nancy-woods.com

http://www.amazon.com/Under-Influence-Trees-Nancy-Woods/dp/1312256427

http://www.amazon.com/Hooked-Antifreeze-Nancy-Wilbur-Woods/dp/1304334708

Hooked on Antifreeze front cover only from amazonUnder the Influence front cover only from amazon

 

 

 

Tales from the Hallmark: It’s not a brain tumor

Hallmark Building 4- 8-16 wm

Hallmark Building

From what they tell me, most non-writers think writers spend their days sitting in a calm, quiet room where they twiddle their pen when they aren’t tapping on their keyboard or staring thoughtfully into distant corners.

My reality isn’t that calm or quiet. In fact, instead of writing the Great American Novel, I spend most of my time dealing with the blown fuses, nonfunctioning furnace and real-life stories of the other inhabitants of the 101-year-old office building in which I try to write.

The other renters of the Hallmark Building include Dani, owner of Black Sheep Salon; Matt, Christopher, Igor and their team of other artists at TigerLily Tattoo; and Katie, owner of Hollywood Lux Boutique, the downstairs shop that specializes in antique, used and vintage household items. Ron, the mild-mannered landlord, can usually be found a few blocks down the street at The Hobby Smith (“Your Source for Model Trains”), which he also owns.

Over the years, the Hallmark has housed everything from a jewelry store and insurance office to a medical marijuana distribution center and a one-room office where a woman sold baby portraits over the phone.

Anyway, one day last month, coffee cup in hand, I took the few steps from my office to Black Sheep across the hall so Dani could do her magic on my hair. When I walked in, Dani was sitting in the hair dryer chair, typing into her phone.

“Just a minute,” she said. “I have a long email to write and want to get it just right.”

I nodded, set my coffee cup on the counter and took a minute to look out the window with its view of the power station, also known as Poo Corner because that’s where dog owners takes their dogs to poop. After donning a black wrap, I took a seat in front of the mirror.

One thing I like about Dani’s salon, in addition to our talks about the latest events in the building, is that it’s a one-chair salon, which means when I get my hair done, Dani and I have the space to ourselves.

“I had to be careful,” Dani said that day, after setting down her phone and walking over to me.

Turns out, the email she was so carefully crafting was not only going to her mother-in-law, a ticklish-enough business, but addressed the topic of childcare. Dani is a multi-tasking mother with two jobs and a part-time nanny. She and her husband recently bought a discount grocery store, just about the time she gave birth to their daughter Sloane, now seven months old.

“I had to get the details and the tone of voice right,” Dani explained, while checking out my hair.

Even for non-writers, life involves writing, a search for the right word, a subtle touch or gentle approach. Over the next few minutes, Dani explained how her mother-in-law would offer to help with childcare, only to cancel at the last minute.

“Undependable childcare is worse than no childcare at all,” I said, remembering the days.

A month later, I was once again sitting inside Black Sheep when Dani said, “My nanny quit.”

“What!?” I said, giving Dani a poke.

When Dani was pregnant she’d planned months ahead to make sure she had a nanny. She eventually found a 48-year-old woman, with grown children of her own, who lived in nearby Vancouver, Washington. Things started out okay, but, as Dani explained while cutting my hair, the woman eventually revealed she was afraid of Portland and didn’t like Dani’s two dogs. Then the nanny’s excuses began. Her phone calls started with “I have a doctor’s appointment” and “I don’t feel well” and led up to “I’m getting migraines and can’t sleep” and “I have an appointment with a neurologist” before culminating with “I think I have a brain tumor.”

“Brain tumor?!” I shouted.

Dani and I looked at each other for a minute before bursting into laughter.

“She must have felt bad quitting, to come up with that,” I said.

“Yes,” Dani said. “She felt horrible. She felt like she let us down and she loves us.”
Still, it was funny, so we laughed even more. At which point Dani said

“There’s another story,” Dani said. “Do you want to hear it?”

“Of course.”

Just the other day, Dani said, the nanny asked her “Do you want my 20-year-old daughter to fill in until she moves to Italy?”

“Italy?!” I asked.

We laughed even harder about the bizarre nature of her trying to find dependable daycare. At that very moment, Dani then said, the ex-nanny’s daughter was “sitting in my living room watching TV while pretending she’s taking care of my child.”

So much for reasonable childcare. So much for the Hallmark being a place where I get away from everything in order to write. The next morning I checked my email and found that Dani had send me a link to a YouTube video called “It’s Not a Tumor.” https://youtu.be/Tb5IZ8Mni3I

 

Think Small to Reach Big Writing Goals

Think Small to Reach Big Writing Goals

How the Stepping Stone System Can Get You Where You Want to Go

Someday, you tell yourself, I’m going to write that novel, finish that screenplay and complete that essay. Of course you are. Who wouldn’t want to do that? Oh, that’s right. There are non-writers in the world.

But we’re not talking about them. We’re talking about us. We’re writers who want to die happy. We want to complete our writing goals before we kick the literary bucket. We want our tombstone to read “Novelist—Screenplay Writer—Essayist Who Died in Peace at Her Desk.”

Whatever your writing goals are — maybe poems or short stories are your shtick — achieving them requires one thing: completing a string of small, specific tasks.

Yes, it’s time to think small and specific, not big and vague. That doesn’t meant there’s anything wrong with having big writing goals. In fact, knowing what you want to write is important (and not necessarily easy to determine), but it isn’t enough. After deciding what you want to accomplish, you have to make it happen.

Hoping it will happen or talking about it happening or complaining about it not happening aren’t going to cut it. You have to have a plan—a plan that includes a series of small, specific tasks.

Experienced writers know how to convert a big goal — such as writing a memoir — into a series of tasks that can be completed in one sitting. One day the memoirist might research the history of her hometown. Another day she might draft that anecdote about the day her brother brought home a mouse.

Each day writers need look no further than that. It’s like walking across a stream one stepping stone at a time. To arrive safely on the other bank, the walker need only keep his eyes focused on the rock ahead. True, some rocks may be slippery (how am I going to show the character’s meanness?), or even dangerous (how much should I reveal about myself?). But who said writing is easy or safe?

Say you want to write a novel. What might a small, specific task look like?

What it wouldn’t look like is this: Write Chapter One. That task is too big and vague.

Instead, a more helpful task would be: Draft the opening scene of Chapter One.

If you’re working on an essay, a small, specific task might be: Make sure verb tenses are consistent. Or Find and remove passive voice.

Confession time. I need to be honest. After completing one self-assigned task, you may end up completing additional tasks that same day. But giving yourself one small, specific task serves two purposes: (1) It keeps you focused so you’re not overwhelmed by your project, and (2) because the task is doable, you’ll approach your writing feeling relaxed, which will improve the quality of your output. Tense writers produce tense copy. Now forget what you just read and continue to assign yourself individual, small tasks.

As you may have guessed, I’m not a big fan of binge writing (think National Novel Writing Month), although that approach might work for some writers. A putzer and chipper by nature, I find that binge writing smacks of trendy diets and New Year’s goals that never pan out. In my experience, it’s more helpful to find a way to write a little bit all the time. Be a tortoise. Be a putzer. Chip away at your writing projects. If you do, before you know it, you’ll have arrived.

More examples of specific writing tasks:

  • Find a strong opening scene.
  • Draft the main character’s backstory.
  • Finalize the ending.
  • Re-read what you wrote yesterday.
  • Use a pen to mark up a print-out of your story.
  • Enter handwritten edits into computer.
  • Research markets.

To increase the chances that the stepping stone system will work for you, consider these additional tips:

Don’t talk. If you’ve just started a new writing project, keep it to yourself. Don’t talk about it except in a class in which the instructor facilitates any feedback. Why keep a new project to yourself? Because in its early stages it’s like an egg, an embryo. It’s vulnerable, susceptible and easily affected. The tiniest little comment can stop it cold or throw it off course. Until it’s more mature and can defend itself, it needs the protection of privacy. Only later, when the writer is sure she knows what the project is about will it be ready to face the world.

Check in with yourself. Each day, take a few minutes to ask yourself “Am I on track with my writing? What specific task do I need to complete today to move toward my goal?”

Focus on what you can control. You may not have control over whether your poem gets published but you do have control over whether you complete that day’s task.

Use passwords as reminders/mantras. We all have to come up with multiple computer passwords. So annoying. Unless you use them to remind yourself of your literary goals. Some examples: TitleofYourNovel342277, Essayist!*457.

Expect the worst. I don’t expect the world to move out of the way so I can write uninterrupted. I realize stuff happens. Good stuff and bad stuff. We’re not isolated machines. We’re real people living real lives. One day the cat throws up on the rug, requiring a trip to the vet. Another day a spouse wants to have “a talk.” Or an out-of-town relative shows up unannounced at the front door. Some days it may seem as if life is a sinister novel plotted to prevent you from writing.

The solution isn’t to move to a desert island. The solution is to bounce back. Be resilient. Laugh. Cry. Fail up. (To “fail up” means to try and fail, over and over again, until you get what you want.)

Lighten up: Figure out what you enjoy about writing and use it to your advantage. If you like to write in noisy coffee shops, go for it. If you like to write alone in your car or late at night when the rest of the household is asleep, do that.

Remember that writing matters. Don’t forget that writers have value. They add to society and culture. Don’t hide your gift. Bring it out. You’ll benefit from doing so and so will the rest of the world.

Own it. Whatever you write, stand firm. Readers don’t want hesitant. They don’t buy confused. They’re attracted to writers who convey a sense of calm confidence without being obnoxious. In short, be yourself.

Write first thing in the morning. If time goes by and you’re not completing your writing tasks, try doing them first thing in the morning before the rest of the world presses in.

Reward yourself. Creating a new habit is hardest at the beginning, so reward yourself for each completed task. Choose healthy, affordable rewards: a special cup of coffee, an issue of a favorite magazine, or a walk through a park with a friend.

Where do you write?

This is where I write. -- Photo by Nancy Woods

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Some writers enjoy writing in busy coffee shops. Others work at a kitchen table or in a spare bedroom. I write in an office near my home.  The space works for me because it’s orderly without being fussy and functional without being too formal. 
 
Is your work space serving you well? If not, how could you improve it? If you’re not producing as much writing as you would like, take a look at your writing space. Changing it, can make a big difference. 

The magic of music

Carry the Gift by R. Carlos Nakai and William Eaton

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

I’m listening to Carry the Gift,” a CD featuring music by Native American flutist R. Carlos Nakai with William Eaton on guitar, harp guitar and lyre. Nakai, of Navajo-Ute heritage, originally was trained in classical trumpet and music theory. Later, when he was given a traditional cedar wood flute as a gift, he decided to find out what he could do with it.

His music evokes feelings of relaxation and openess, as if he were saying “Everything is okay. Relax.” The names of the songs − “On Painted Wing,” “Feather River Lullaby,” “Unsung Myths,” “Old Voices Heard” and “Sandy Hills Speak,” − sound like musical essays.

iCloud: Digital wave of the future?

Non-digital cloud. -- Photo by Nancy Woods

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

In her Technorati article “How iCloud will Change the Process of Writing,” Maria-Louise Overgaard says she’s looking forward to being able to save her writing in iCloud because it will mean she no longer has to e-mail copies of her writing to herself to make sure she has access to it from whatever device she’s working on.

What is iCloud? According to SearchCloudComputing.com, it’s a computer service that provides online storage and applications, with the following advantages:

  • Easy and inexpensive set-up because hardware, application and bandwidth costs are covered by the provider.
  • Scalability to meet needs.
  • No wasted resources because you pay for what you use.

That kind of computer storage sure sounds handy, but what about security? Can iCloud files be hacked? And, if I understand it correctly, iCloud isn’t going to work when I’m working away from my office in a location that doesn’t have Internet access. Which means, for now at least, I’m sticking with my portable hard drive.

Writing process: Four things that guarantee success

 

In his book A Writer’s Time: A Guide to the Creative Process, from Vision through Revision, literary agent/film producer Ken Atchity says a writer needs only four things to be successful:

 

  • Perseverance (or determination or stamina)
  • Connections
  • Being fun to work with
  • Talent

 

Do you have the above attributes? If not, how can you improve your situation?