I read obits. I’m sure this pastime is common among writers and non-writers alike, but I feel a little sneaky about it, because my motives are selfish.
In terms of writing, I’m interested in how a life is summarized in a few hundred or a few thousand words, depending on fame or impact.
But I’m also interested in the content. I’m spying:
How did someone manage the problem or the glory?
The question I ask myself:
Why did things turn out one way or the other?
What I like about the obits is that they indicate human behaviors — courage, selflessness, greed, devotion — while describing mostly ordinary events. A man who owned a successful vacuum franchise began by selling the cleaners door-to-door, and one of the doors opened to his future wife. Did she know, when she opened the door that day, that the man holding the vacuum would win her heart?
Was it just another annoying salesman at the door?
Was she feeling particularly lonely that day?
Had she been playing the piano — and doing a splendid job, wishing someone were listening — and then the doorbell rang?
And what was on his mind besides the hope of a sale?
The intriguing moment is when the door sweeps open and they first see one another. What do they read on each others’ faces? What shows and what remains hidden?
I usually read the obits just to exercise my imagination and spend some time in a life that isn’t mine, to conjure motives or pleasures or grief or joy as they knew it. Rarely do I actually feel inspired to take the imaginative moment into a full-blown short story. Must say, though, that the way I’ve re-imagined the moment at the door between this pair is looking more and more tempting.