Sunday, January 31, 2010

Life: Stories

Sandra Martin is the chief obituary writer for the Globe and Mail newspaper and right now is also a visiting journalism lecturer at the University of Victoria, where she gave a public talk on Thursday night.

I invited a bunch of people to go with me to “From Last Rites to the Blog of Death” and each of them said, “I’ll pass.”

I thought, Well, of course you will. Everyone does.

So the evening wasn’t a dead loss for those who didn’t attend, here are a few tidbits I picked up:

Obituaries encompass all the other newspaper beats: crime, politics, fashion…. Depending on what the subject did with her life, what circles he moved in, any of these and more can form the context of a posthumous profile.

Unlike other kinds of journalism, when you write obituaries you never repeat yourself. (My thought: It’s a good thing that you don’t have to interview Paul Gross, yet again, about his latest movie?)

The immediacy and finality of the task of writing an obituary are terrifying. (I can totally see this, but my take on it is that, much as writers deny it, some part of us secretly loves this kind of pressure: having mere hours to create, craft and polish the story of someone’s life. It’s an easier adrenaline rush than, say, kayaking Hell’s Gate, and certainly safer – for the writer, anyway.)

My facetiousness aside, Sandra Martin was articulate and funny and made very good points about the value of a good last word for everyone involved.

In fact, I’ve used The Economist obits as examples of great storytelling in my magazine-writing course and here’s a bonus for you dear readers who stayed with me through this post: Sandra also taught me that the venerable English magazine has published a whole book of its favourites!

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