ObitCon VI


Grimmys Winners: Harrison Smith, Hillel Italie, Maureen O’Donnell, Tom Hawthorn

I went to the sixth conference of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers in Washington, DC. Below are some highlights. I’ve left a lot out, but must record this: it was the best conference I’ve ever attended.


The kicker is to an obit what the punch line is to a joke. Matt Schudel discussed how to write them. As he put it, “You don’t want to end with a board fade.” An obit should have an emotional core, and the kicker should be the resonating echo. His obit of Vincent Scully shows how both are done.

Obit Lab

Emily Langer talked about her project with Georgetown medical students, writing obituaries for those who’ve donated their bodies to the anatomy lab. She also highlighted a guiding question: How is the world different because this person was here? Her obit of German industrialist Berthold Beitz is a moving example.

The Bad and the Ugly

Double Grimmy winner Tom Hawthorn offered counsel on writing obits for the unsavory: tell the truth and hold them accountable. During the discussion, Adam Bernstein recounted getting to know Edward von Kloberg III, who was – even by the standards of DC lobbying – depraved.

Tribute to Jim Nicholson

Jim Nicholson earned renown for his obituaries of everyday people. This obit gives a sense of the man, who “lived at least four different lifetimes.” Andrew Meacham spoke about some of his more remarkable qualities. Mr. Nicholson, who served in Iraq at age 69, was adamant about not wanting his Bronze Star listed on his tombstone: “Awards from bosses go in a box in the shed.” And when his divorce was almost finalized, he learned his wife had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. So he stopped the proceedings and took care of her for over a decade.


Read the obits written by the award winners here.

Post Script

Maria Sánchez Díez, during her presentation on practical measures for increasing readership, noted a comment posted on Don Rickles’ obituary.  Do yourself a favor and check it out (it’s the one from Mimbres). Moral: Don’t run into Don Rickles if you’re working undercover.




Image result for facepalm


Last week I posted individual sentences from books read over the summer. Now I’m going to share with you the one I’ve thought about the most. It’s from Wilderness at Dawn: The Settling of the North American Continent, by Ted Morgan:

Both were shot, and Captain Gregg played dead while an Indian removed his scalp, leaving a bad cut on his forehead.


Forget Captain Gregg: did Captain Obvious write that sentence? I’ve been trying to come up with an equivalent, and it’s provided some amusement:

The arsonist burned down the house, leaving ashes on the ground.

The barroom erupted in a brawl, leaving drinks spilled on tables.

The reserve chute failed to deploy, leaving the skydiver’s rate of descent accelerated.


Here, you try it!




PS Reading the book I realized I’d read, years before, the author’s memoir My Battle of Algiers, about his wartime service as a French conscript. If I recall correctly, at his army induction the intake officer, upon learning Morgan had a university education, stamped his file “Illiterate.” [I bet ol’ Ted said touché, eh, Jeff? – ed.]


Master and Command Module Pilot



Michael Collins, who went to the moon with Neil Armstrong, is also a first-rate prose stylist with a natural feel for detail and a light touch for humor; his book sounds a lot like what you would expect if E.B. White had qualified as an astronaut and flown to the moon.

 – Margaret Lazarus Dean, Leaving Orbit


I’m only halfway through Collins’ memoir Carrying the Fire, but I’m here to tell you he writes better than lots of people for whom the pen is the day job.

E.g. on being the new guy thusly assigned the unwanted task of testing devices to slow jets upon landing:

Arriving at the appointed spot, a deserted runway ending at the lake bed’s edge, the new test pilot is quickly strapped into the oldest, most dilapidated jet he has ever seen, a model long since abandoned by even the South American air forces. Peering down through cobwebs and birds’ nests, he is shown the one and only shiny new gauge in the cockpit – the airspeed indicator, all-important in delivering a precise reading of the amount of kinetic energy (one half the mass times velocity squared) the engineer demands for a given test run. The engineer has consulted his slide rule, charts, computer, and astrologer, and screams up to the cockpit over the whine of the engine, which the sweating pilot has finally managed to start with laconic advice from a disgusted mechanic who obviously feels personally insulted by having been sent this imbecile. “Say… er… er… is it Collins? O.K., Collins, we need eight-two knots on this one, no faster please, Collins.” They need the name to put on the accident form.


Speaking of laconic, here’s what he has to say about the mortality rate of pilots during training (NB his prior stateside training for combat in Korea, not to be a test pilot):

Continue reading “Master and Command Module Pilot”

Pretty Little Liars


When deep night fell, the fishermen paddled out and we watched the horizon slowly fill with little orange lights, kerosene lamps swinging from the bows of their boats. It soon looked like a whole city out there, or like a constellation of stars that had fallen lightly on the surface of the water. It was a pretty lie the fishermen were telling the fish. The fish liked to feed on nights with a full moon; the light of the lanterns drew them from the depths.

That’s Jeffrey Gettleman’s description of night fishing on Lake Kivu from his memoir, Love, Africa. I like it.*

The above marvel is also described in this literary masterpiece:

During my third month on the job, on a cloudless, moonless evening with delicate astral illumination, I discovered night fishing. I left the residence to walk down to the office, and saw that the lake was speckled with faintly glowing dots. Abdoulaye explained that the army had lifted the curfew and permitted fishermen once again to go out at night. The lights were from their canoes. I can’t remember if he said they were from actual fires built in the vessels, or from lanterns, but the resulting effect was dramatic: the blackness of the lake was an inverted sky filled with stars. Viewed from the hillside, it was as if the heavens lay above and below.

Smitten with this discovery, I spent the next few evenings seeking the best vantage for the spectacle. I found an excellent location not far from our house, on the dirt road that zigzagged down the hill to the main road by the lake. In order to get the optimal view, I tried sitting on the hood, and then on the roof, but the slope of the hill made for a precarious perch. Finally I settled on the driver’s seat. Now and then I would try to pick up a shortwave broadcast, but mostly I’d just sit in silence, sip my beer, and contemplate the parallel galaxies.

It really is the most beautiful sight. Apparently now you can go out with the fishermen as a tourist, although it sounds far preferable to regard from a hill.


*The description, that is. The book, yes and no. In obedience to this site’s strict No Book Reviews policy, I’ll only say that Love, Africa oddly reminds me of A Bit of a Blur by Alex James.

(Photo credit: MONUSCO / Myriam Asmani)

Dahl’s Tiger


Years ago I had to read an assigned novel with 5th graders. The book – which I refuse to name, but will allow was written by a famous children’s author – began excellently. On the very first page, two children find a tiger in a cage.

Pause to imagine what Roald Dahl would have done with the next hundred pages.


Well, here’s what the unnamed author did with the next hundred pages: the two kids dwell on personal problems while the tiger remains caged. The tiger is finally set free (p. 102) only to be shot dead three pages later. The book takes eleven more pages to expire.

I bet if I told Roald Dahl “Hey, I’ve got an idea for a story! Two kids find a caged tiger, but the caged tiger will just be a metaphor for their feelings!” he’d tell me to walk to an open field and stand still while he fetched his Hawker Hurricane.


He recently turned one hundred. Eat a piece of cake, skaal your Bestemama, and please, for Boy’s sake:

If you say in the first chapter that there is a tiger in a cage, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must be set free. If it’s not going to be freed, it shouldn’t be there.



American Cheese


I just finished The Possessed by the estimable Elif Batuman. I really like it, especially what she says about craft:

I realized that I would greatly prefer to think of literature as a profession, an art, a science, or pretty much anything else, rather than a craft. What did craft ever try to say about the world, the human condition, or the search for meaning?


This reminds me of Guernica’s interview with Etgar Keret, a writer I really admire from hearing him on radio programs. Have I actually read his work? Er, not yet – I certainly intend to, of course – but you’re missing the point here, which is this:

In America, where writers are preoccupied with the craft of writing, I always try to introduce this concept of the badly written good story. Turning the hierarchy around and putting passion on top and not craft, because when you just focus on craft, you can write something that is very sterile. It looks beautiful, but soulless. So I warn them that, often in writing programs, articulation and clarity are more important than what you actually say. Sometimes you have, like, New Yorker stories—there’s a couple, they’re on a cruise, he’s becoming senile, he doesn’t want to acknowledge it, when the woman mentions it to him, he becomes really angry, but in the end he admits it and they sit on the deck, she closes her eyes. And you say, “It’s so well-written, but who [cares]?” For certain, the guy who wrote it doesn’t [care]. It’s not something that has to do with his life; it’s just something well-written and illuminating, and writing is not about that. The best stories you usually hear are stories that people feel some type of urgency about.*

Which in turn reminds me of going to see Richard Price do a reading many years ago. He said something to this effect: “You don’t write to write, you write because you’ve got a story you’re dying to tell.”

*Coincidentally, if I may talk shop for a moment, creating a sense of urgency is a desired practice in classroom teaching. If you’ve ever sat through a boring class, you may have an inkling as to why.


The Verdured Margarita


I was once offered a ticket to go see Jimmy Buffett. My reply: “Buddy, I don’t sing along about margaritas, I drink ’em.” Then I blew imaginary smoke off my bepistoled fingers. Yippee Ki Yay, my good fellow!

I’ve got somewhat of that attitude toward reading books about books, or books about writing.

However, at the urging of someone whose opinion I esteem, I read Pen of Iron by Robert Alter. It’s about the influence of the King James Bible on American writers, namely Melville, Faulkner, Bellow, and Hemingway.

It’s one of those books that makes me realize that, when I read, I grasp insufficiently what there is to be grasped. Given the amount of my life I’ve spent reading… well, it would sober a Parrothead.

(And you know what else? I’ve never read a lick of Faulkner. And I tried The Adventures of Augie March, and, uh, didn’t get it. But I have read books by the writer Hemingway and they were good books and he wrote them well.)

Now then. I wish to talk about Something They Say, and I’ve resigned myself to Their Wisdom: if you’re reading a translation, you’re reading a different book.

Here’s what Alter has to say about Moby-Dick:

What is robustly odd in the English is regularized in the French: “Hindoo” becomes l’indienne; “wide-slaughtering” is simply destructeur,  and “unverdured” is interpretively translated and sadly flattened as infertile.

Alter’s unhappy verdict on translation:

What usually happens… is that a dutiful, more or less semantically faithful version of the original, employing a rather conventional set of stylistic procedures, erases a good deal of what is most compelling in the original text.

So if you haven’t yet read War and Peace, don’t sweat it. Go learn Russian first.


It’s Time Is Now.


I was putting up a set of posters on common misuses (to vs too, etc), and when I came to the it’s vs its one, I hesitated.

Between you and me – not in front of the children – can we just abolish “its”? My objections are twofold:

  1. I don’t see how “it’s” shouldn’t always be valid
  2. “Its” just looks stupid

Also, there’s my reflexive examination of either for misuse (oh, the undeserving brainpower), my unseemly glee when I spot an error (often accompanied by ungracious inklings of superiority), and the annihilating shame when the error is mine (you have no idea).

Can we just accept the possessive apostrophe in all it’s situations? Its’s just not for me.


PS Yes, I put the poster up. Yes, I’ll teach… it.