How NOT to Write an Obituary for Fun and Profit

Like a lot of self-obsessed pundits (whoops, I mean astute marketers), I use Google Analytics to check my site’s traffic statistics, such as what search engines invite people to visit, which referral sites point an arrow to mine, and what flavor of link bait might entice Lady Gaga to go gaga over my prose. (Note to Lady G: I’ve named all my strings after you.)

One of the analytic tools displays what search keywords people use to find my site. Writers and other types of peddlers have been scolded by marketeers of every stripe that we must discover and cultivate our audience, whether we want to sell words or wombats. The keyword tool does reveal what’s on the minds of site visitors, and thus is one gauge of what people are looking for when they come to a site. Apparently my people want to learn how to write obituaries.

Running from Your Audience
The greatest number of people, by far, who visited my site—as a result of organic search (not direct visits)—over the past nine months were looking for advice on writing an obituary for a family member. The reason: my father, Sgt. Robert Bentley, died on New Years Day of this year. My sister and I collaborated on writing his obituary, and I wrote a “How to” post on that strange, sad process.

I was struck at several levels by that search-tally information: one, on an emotional key, thinking of the anonymous (to me) people who have had death enter their lives, some probably suddenly, and the weight of that loss. Thinking anew of the loss of my father. Thinking that so many issues around a family member’s death are boggling, and how we seek help for those issues—such as help with writing an obituary for our loved one. And thinking that I clearly didn’t want to go into the obituary-writing business, no matter if that’s where my audience is.

Capturing the Elements of a Life
This is an age of specialists; undoubtedly, there are writers who focus on writing obituaries, though I didn’t want to search for them—probably afraid I’d see my own site come up, and add to my totals. I don’t want to consider the commercial aspects of the trade, but I could see some appeal in helping people through the process, because the obituary’s tale is part of the grieving, the letting go—obit content, narrow as it is, can sometimes atomize the elements of a life, the cherished aspects of character, the seat of a family’s love for the lost. But I don’t want to write them; that is too close, too sad.

Ironically, this post will undoubtedly bring more souls to my site looking for a way to write about things that are in some way unwriteable. The words of broken hearts. Maybe my original “How To” did help. I hope so.

At least it’s better than the searches for “long scrotum” and its variants that brought many people to my site a while back after I’d posted an article about my vasectomy. Sigh…

Memories: The Long Arm of the Writer

A long time ago, I read an article where the writer suggested that Hemingway killed himself not because of his depression, but because of the treatment for his depression. The suggestion was that the electroshock had erased a good deal of Hemingway’s memory, and that a writer without memories is not a writer—and that that loss provoked Hemingway’s hand. However, much information has come out regarding his long-deteriorating mental and physical state prior to his suicide, and the loss-of-memory issue might have only played a minor part, if any.

The reason I bring that up is because I was down in Southern California this past weekend, spending some time with my mother to honor what would have been my father’s 94th birthday, his first birthday after his recent death. We went out to the graveside and saw the stone for the first time. My mother, in her natively collected and humorous way, remarked that it was a little odd to see her own name on the stone, which awaits what I hope is a long time to make claim to its inscription.

During the visit, my mother, sister and I shared memories of my father, a couple of which were new to me. That conversation in turn pushed me to rummage through my memory attic, blowing the dust off some crusted considerations of my boyhood long ago. It struck me that I hadn’t made good use of some of the eccentric characters I’ve known over time, many of whom are easy subjects for the kind of tales that evoke a “No way! That couldn’t have happened!” response from astonished or amused listeners.

Memories Are Writers’ Clay
It’s clear to me that most lives, whether you were raised in a dusty Ethiopian village of 100 souls or born to a gilded Manhattan penthouse, are suffused with character and incident that could fill books, if you selectively shaped the telling. And that working of the clay of character or incident needn’t be exclusive to fiction’s floor—the mad workings of the human animal are prime frameworks for engaging essays as well. (Note that libel issues can sometimes constrain a telling, though with the right makeup and hat, you can hide your pawn in plain sight on the narrative chessboard.)

I’ve seen enough peculiar and striking expression of the vagaries of our species to fill the memory banks—I’m going to start withdrawing some so the investment pays off. Poke around in your skull a bit, look at some old photographs, ask a relative about the time your great-aunt poured a drink on Maurice Chevalier’s head at a dinner party. Memories are material from which writers weave.

Bonus Bloggishness
I wrote a post of copyediting tips for the Men with Pens site last Friday. Putting the post together was fun, but it was more fun yet fielding the comments. Check it out.

How to Write an Object Poem (with Tears)

I belong to a fun writer’s site, The Write-Brained Network. There are all kinds of writers, all kinds of writing issues discussed, and occasional informal contests on the site. A recent one was to write an “object” poem, using this assignment: “Discuss how objects have lives and that they are often markers in our lives that help us recognize where we’ve been. They contain a special luminescence, connecting our past to our present.”

Though I enjoy reading some poetry (Rilke, astonishing; Billy Collins, charming), I know very little of its formal structures, and know less about writing it. That said, it’s a fun exercise to try writing out of your genre, so I thought I’d write an object poem about the humble sandwich. But instead, this came out, almost immediately after I started writing:

Sad Sandwich

Sad sandwich on the bedside tray
moved in haste, forgotten in the empty house
bedding thrown back in caught anxiety
the last sandwich

Thousands of sandwiches before
handled with his child hands
then later, workingman eager, lunchpail eager
laughing with full mouth, laughing with work friends
then later, cold sandwiches in the bomber,
cold over Berlin, cold over Korea

Then, long past being able to make his own sandwich
my father's hands, delicate, veiny, persistent
still enjoying his sandwiches
but now all slowed, a slow sandwich, eaten contemplative

Thousands of sandwiches, thousands now forgotten
the one appearing on the daybed tray forgotten in a minute, two
but still the slow pleasure of the chewing, the body's nod
yet, this last sandwich, a sad sandwich,
abandoned in the slant of afternoon light
my father, gone forever, this past New Year's Day
the plate now empty, the hunger unending

Writing That Surprises the Writer
This was one of those odd experiences as a writer, much as fiction writers say that their characters do things that surprise them as they’re written. Here, I’d intended to write a light poem, and instead, it morphed under my fingers to be a tribute to my father, who died a few months ago. Without my even intending it, the poem became “.. a special luminescence, connecting our past to our present.”

So, an object poem, written with surprise tears. It always amazes me, the weight of words.

How to Write with Emotion and Balance

The Maid of Orleans

Years ago (and long years after our relationship ended), my high school girlfriend disappeared in Colombia. She was never found. She was my first true love, a unique person whose intelligence, creativity, looks, unaffectedness and a charmingly open goofiness bowled me over. I was still in love with her when she disappeared, and am in love with her memory today.

Over the past few years, I’ve tried to shape with words that sense of appreciation, loss and regret I feel for Joyce’s life and her passing. But I have been unsatisfied with the results—I can’t hit the right marks without veering off into gloppiness, or in trying to avoid that, into some parched field of objectivity, plucked of passion’s flowers. It’s frustrating, because pulling up the bucket from the deep well of emotion can produce the sweetest water. When done skillfully, opening the flesh of an old wound is when the blood pours most red, most true.

Mark Twain considered Joan of Arc to be one of history’s most extraordinary figures, as indeed she is. His biography of her, though praised in some circles, was widely panned for its sentimentality and reverential, plodding, un-Twainlike style. Yet he thought it one of his greatest works. Perhaps the Joan-besotted Twain was unable to write with the same sharpness in his pen because of his admiration for one of history’s legends. His love clouded his writerly craft.

Emotional, Yes, Emoting, No
The reason I’m mulling these things is because of my father’s recent death. I wrote a short piece on him just hours after I’d learned of his passing. Though it’s in the same room with the thoughts and feelings I wanted to convey, it’s not actually at the bedside, touching the man, relating that touch.

It’s funny about writing and writers: I was crying when I wrote that piece, but yet I was in my writer’s mind as well: weighing words, syntax, rhythms, as you should for any piece of writing. I very much wanted to pull from my own well, but not so that the bucket overflowed, making the results sloppy, the expression mushy. That writing didn’t do what I wanted it to do, but at least it served as a purge for overflowing feeling, and its sense of love for my father was true.

Fact, Fiction and Feeling
I’m thinking now that I’ll try again to write both about my father and about Joyce, using the essay form I admire. However, it might make sense to make them fictional characters at some point, twist some facts and details, layer some composites. Fictionalizing people and events might provide a conscious perspective, without losing that quickening, the essence of the models, the breathing people as you perceived them.

It’s strange to deliberate over how to write about people you love. It sounds too calculated. You might think the best way is simply to let it out, to gush, to let the sobs show in the lines. There is emotional value there, surely, but here I’m talking about the finer construction: to get at your honest feelings—past the first juddering of shock, despair, loss—you need to probe, to ponder, to position and reposition your points. I think we owe that care to the memory of our subjects, whatever the cost of the honesty.

How to Write an Obituary

Sgt. Bentley reenacting the good (and bad) old days

Writing specialties, where the writer addresses a narrow niche or fixed focus, are interesting in several ways. Some copywriters do a single thing: write white papers for the oil industry, or technical documentation for telephony applications, or sales letters for Fortune 500 clients. Early in my writing career, I was employed by Kennan Ward, a photographer for whom I wrote the backs of his nature-oriented postcards and notecards.

At first writing within the card’s restrictions seemed like a clumsy, scattered means of expressing information, but in time I developed a structure and flow for the short pieces that still afforded creativity, while delivering the mandated facts about the depicted scenes and animals. But the reason I’m writing about writing cubbyholes is because I wrote an obituary (with my sister Colleen’s help) yesterday for my father—and obituary writing is peculiar unto itself.

It’s very necessary to deliver dates and numbers in an obituary: marriages, births, number of children, date of death, and a passel of facts as well: interests, significant jobs, milestones, avocations. But mixed in the orderly stone columns of a life’s spreadsheet, you must attest to the blooming flowers in a tangled field, a comical toy under a towel, a mysterious box that makes you wonder what’s inside, a whisper of pain, pleasure—something of that indefinable stuff that separates us from the insects.

Wrestling with a Word Count
In writing my father’s obituary, I tried to put in the columns and the toys, because a person’s life is so much more than a numbered row of facts. But then my sister, long a reporter, reminded me that placing eulogies in various papers is damn pricey—Tom’s tendency to bound across word-fields needed a leash. The person who places the obits told my sister “Too bad you and your brother aren’t mathematicians instead of writers, because then you’d see how much it costs!”

Today I’m taking a shot at writing a eulogy as well, for the rosary service. That writing should be easier, in that no mathematicians will tamper with the word count; my father was an eccentric character, and when telling stories, you don’t want to clamp down hard on the words. I want to write the eulogy, and want to do it well for my father, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want this death-based writing to become my specialty—it takes a bite out of you.

Here’s what my sis and I came up with, after several rounds of hacking:

Robert K. Bentley, 1917-2011
Robert K. Bentley, beloved husband and cherished father, left this world for the next on New Year’s Day. Despite suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for the past 10 years, “Sarge” Bentley remained a cheerful, steady presence in his family home, up to the end showing the warmth and humor that characterized his life. His “glad you got to see me” always drew quizzical looks and then laughs from people who met him for the first time.

Sarge was born on May 14, 1917, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Despite living more than 60 years in Southern California, he maintained that Colorado had it over any spot in the world. He brought back a large glass jar from one of our annual summer trips, full of clean Colorado air, and every so often he would take it off the fireplace mantel and grab a whiff of it, careful to leave enough to savor another day. Quarterback of his high-school football team, he never admitted that he managed to break his knee on purpose during a big game to win the affections of concerned cheerleaders.

Sarge was a waist gunner on B-17s in WWII, flying 35 missions primarily over Germany. He listed every mission in a small, 3x6 inch leather-bound notebook. After WWII, he was drafted out of the Army reserves and served in the Korean War, spending much time in Japan. He earned the stripes and the nickname that stayed with him until the end of his days from those years in the service of his country.

Sarge met his bride-to-be, Eileen O’Brien, while stationed in Long Beach, CA in 1945. She worked at the old Manning’s Restaurant on Pine Avenue, and when he came in to eat one day, she elbowed aside the other waitresses so she could carry the tray of that handsome man. They married on May 30, 1947.

Sarge worked at the Ford Motor plants in Long Beach and Pico Rivera City for 39 years—and in those years, the number of days he missed work could be counted on one hand. That kind of steady, old-fashioned perseverance was a mark of his character, a character defined by consistent warmth and fellowship. After his retirement, he became a congenial nuisance around the house, golfing occasionally, and traveling to Alaska, Ireland and Las Vegas, where he was a good friend of the casino craps tables, occasionally winning but sometimes not, so the drive back to Long Beach could seem awfully long. He was known in the neighborhood for his warm welcomes and his zany front-yard signs, boosting his Colorado sports teams, especially the Denver Broncos, and commenting on the times.

He is survived by his wife Eileen, his four children, Colleen Bentley, Kathleen Bentley, Rick Bentley and Tom Bentley, his grandson Zach King and several nieces and nephews and grandnieces and nephews. Despite him living a full, rich 93 years, they wish he could have lived forever.

Touching the Essence
I wanted it to say more. Not more words, but more essence—but that’s the challenge, always the crucible of trying to write. This obit is what we have, and this will do. Dad, I hope you like it.