The art of writ­ing with a full stop

National Post (National Edition) - - POST MOVIES - CHRIS KNIGHT

When Eli­nor Smith died, aged 98, in 2010, The New York Times de­cided to run an obit­u­ary of the aviation pi­o­neer. But when the obit writer went to the morgue (the cab­i­nets in which are stored prewrit­ten obituaries, or “ad­vances”) he found that one had al­ready been writ­ten — in 1931, when the pi­lot, then 20, was set­ting dis­tance, al­ti­tude and en­durance records, and prob­a­bly wasn’t ex­pected to live past 30.

This is one of the more un­usual tales in this fas­ci­nat­ing story of life (and death) in the obit depart­ment of the Times. Once a place to park re­porters who might not be far from their own death no­tices, it now at­tracts am­bi­tious mid-ca­reer jour­nal­ists.

Ad­vance obits tend to be of older peo­ple whose great­est achieve­ments are be­hind them; one of the writ­ers lists the still-alive Steven Sond­heim, Mort Sahl, Va­lerie Harper and Mead­owlark Lemon (a for­mer Har­lem Glo­be­trot­ter) among his works. In con­trast, an un­ex­pected death like that of Robin Wil­liams, Michael Jack­son or Philip Sey­mour Hoff­man can have the depart­ment scram­bling.

Direc­tor Vanessa Gould spends a lot of time with each mem­ber of the staff. Most are men, as are most of their sub­jects, al­though as one female writer notes, that is chang­ing slowly as death catches up to the fact more women are now in po­si­tions of author­ity.

In ad­di­tion to the nuts-and-bolts of the craft, the writ­ers re­flect on some of the odd­i­ties of the job. For one thing, it makes one more aware of one’s own mor­tal­ity; how might your own obit read? For an­other, they’re adamant that the pieces they write have next to noth­ing to do with death. They’re about the life that pre­ceded the end, and the bet­ter the life, the more the obit writer is mo­ti­vated to step up.

Facts can be the neme­sis of an obit writer on dead­line. One who got the party af­fil­i­a­tion of a con­gress­man wrong notes that if he’d just called him a con­gress­man every­thing would have been fine.

Of course, the big­gest blun­der an obit­u­ar­ist can make is that suf­fered by Mark Twain in 1897 — re­ports of a death that turn out to be ex­ag­ger­ated. In hap­pened to the Times in 2003 when the pa­per picked up news of the death of dancer and ac­tor Katharine Ser­gava, and ran an obit­u­ary — only to dis­cover the next day that not only was she alive; she was liv­ing in Man­hat­tan.

In an odd par­al­lel, Obit opens just a few weeks af­ter The Last Word, a film about an advertising ex­ec­u­tive (Shirley MacLaine) who hires an obit­u­ary writer (Amanda Seyfried) to do a flat­ter­ing ad­vance on her. It’s not a very good movie, al­though it did in­spire the Times to pub­lish an opin­ion piece by one of its own obit writ­ers, Bruce We­ber. Among his work is an obit­u­ary for MacLaine; just in case. ∂∂∂½

Obit opens March 31 at the Light­box in Toronto.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.