The art of writing with a full stop
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.