Writing life stories

By Jerry Bellune, Writing Coach

To their families, obituaries are final chapters in the lives of those they love.

For many, obituaries mark their loved ones’ release from pain.

For others, it is the winding down of long and fruitful lives.

For the unfortunate, they are wrenching, unwelcome nightmares, whether in war or by unanticipated accidents.

Most of the obituaries newspapers publish were written by their families with the help of funeral homes. And we should respect that. It is how their families want their loved one remembered.

But for all of the death around us, there is a dimension we can bring to readers.

It may seem a luxury to hard-pressed publishers.

Some tremble at the thought of a reporter setting aside an hour or more to devote to a skillfully written obituary. Let’s just call them “life stories.”

Here is the opening of one by Bob Hagerty of The Wall Street Journal.

It is more than an extravagant use of time.

The man in the Hawaiian shirt – sipping on a rum and soda at Bert’s Bar in Christ Church, Barbados, while watching the Ottawa Senators play ice hockey on TV – might have passed for just another middle-aged Canadian tourist living out his Jimmy Buffett fantasy. In fact, he was Eugene Melnyk, resident of Barbados and owner of Ottawa’s long-suffering NHL team.

Bob’s well-crafted obituary should inspire you to look for life stories in your own  community. It inspires me and I have been privileged to write dozens of them about people whose lives and achievements have left their communities better places to live.

As American poet, novelist, and essayist Jim Harrison wrote, “Death steals everything but our stories.” 

Don’t let it steal too many of your stories.

If our reporters wrote better it would make editing their work easier. It would make  our news and feature articles sing. But we lack the time to coach them. Here’s a secret. Help them with a copy of writing coach Jerry Bellune’s The Art of Compelling Writing, $9.99 at Amazon.com. They’re worth the investment.

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