Monday, December 27, 2010

How Not to Write an Obituary: Lessons on Death, Loss and Writing

By Kathi Diamant

My wonderful father died six weeks ago. On the day he died, my sister asked me, as the published biographer in the family, to write his obituary. You’d think I’d be prepared. I’ve been a professional writer since 1990, and my father was my mentor and best friend. He was 88 years old and had been in failing health for almost a decade. For the past 40 years, since I was 18, I cried every time I said good bye to him, thinking I might never see him again. But in all that time, for all he meant to me, I never began to write anything about him, certainly nothing I could use for his obituary.

I spent the rest of that day in front of my laptop, staring at the blank screen underneath his name and the dates he lived on earth. There was too much to say, and I realized, too much I didn’t know. Grateful for the opportunity to do some research, I went online and looked up how the local papers presented their obits. I was relieved to find that each paper had a clear formula and style I could follow. No matter which newspaper I researched, I was directed to a website,, where people can write memorials, testimonials and send condolences to the family. In Dad’s file cabinet, I found an old resume with his professional accomplishments, and some achievements I didn’t know about.

Armed with answers, I started to write. I wrote all that afternoon and evening on the handy site, which offered a template to remember your loved ones. I filled in all the blanks, dutifully, in detail. And then, in the box offered for “your special memory of the deceased” I poured my heart out. As I always do with my writing, I saved it, on this occasion on the website, to let it steep for a few hours, and returned to it the next morning. I wrote all the next day. I was writing not just about my own relationship with my father, but about his relationship with the world, how he lived and how he died. I was writing for the whole family, about how we all experienced him as “The Father.”

When I finally finished, I read it to my mother and asked for her comments. I directed my sisters and brother to the site, to see if they had any suggestions or could catch any errors. When everyone had signed off, I checked the box to make William “Bill” Diamant’s Memorial page live. For the free trial period of two weeks. I was proud of the webpage as a memorial to my father, and wanted others to know what he had meant to us, so I signed up to keep the site live for a year—only $36, a deal, as I discovered.

I was shocked—shocked!—when I contacted the newspapers by phone, since their rates were unavailable online, and learned just how much it would cost to place the obituary Dad deserved.
Most obits are now processed at newspapers through the Classified Advertising department. To place an obituary, one must now pay. The cost has risen from a free listing, apparently more than a few years ago, to exorbitant realms, available only to those with lots of money, or lots of unresolved sadness or guilt. The two community papers on Anna Maria Island were still free, but the major daily in Bradenton charged $100 dollars for each 50 words, after the first 60. The newspaper in the city in which I live charges 7 cents a character, including spaces. Because Dad was a veteran of WWII, all said they would add the flag icon for free.

I counted the words on my obit for Dad. About 1200 words. The UT obit would cost hundreds, even thousands of dollars. If I wanted to add a photograph it would run another $150 to $250, depending on the size. Obviously, I was going to have to cut my carefully crafted essay. So I cut. And cut and cut some more. Finally, for the most expensive obit, all that was left was his name, his dates on earth and the names of his survivors, and the mortuary handling his remains. It didn’t seem worth it, or worthy of him. I placed the reduced ads, I mean, obits, in the local Florida papers, and was about to let my friends and acquaintances in San Diego read about his passing in our local paper.

At the end of each mini-obit, I included the link to my father’s Memorial page, where anyone could read the entire essay that said it all. I went back online to and made a couple of minor corrections to the text. Dad’s grandchildren called him Papa, not Poppa. I then pressed SAVE and SHARE.

The next day, I went back to Dad’s online Memorial, to see who might have visited and left new memories of him for us. To my dismay, my essay, all 1200 lovingly chosen words about my father, was gone. All the thoughts and summations written in the emotion- and spirit-soaked days following after his death had disappeared. I had lost not only my father, but my writing about him.

Every writer I know has lost work. You push the save button on the final edit of say, a 2,500 word piece, and somehow, it vanishes into the ether, never to be found or recovered. It’s devastating. We learn to deal with it. We learn to print out and otherwise back up our writing, so it never happens again.

My father’s death was a staggering loss. But I reacted more badly to losing my writing about him. Days later, when I was able to put it in perspective, I saw that the writing of his obituary had been a healing. We write, many of us, to make things better. To create meaning from our experience, to let happy endings occur where they might not have otherwise. Although we like to think that our written words help make us and those we love immortal, it isn’t true. As the Roman poet and scientist Lucretius noted: “No single thing abides, but all things flow. Fragment to fragment clings, the things thus grow until we know and name them. By degrees they melt, and are no more the things we know.”

My writing, like my father, had gone back to the eternal drift, not lost but disunited. In time I will write another essay about my father. I have learned (once, again) to back up, save, and print. But this was important lesson in dealing with loss. I know that my next writing on him will also be a healing, hopefully one less ephemeral than the first, but if not, it will again have done its job. To our San Diego Writing Women motto (We live, therefore we write) I’d like to add that we write to heal our earthly wounds, to make the world a better place. The act of writing, not the finished product, is the healing.

Kathi Diamant is the author of "Kafka's Last Love,"an award-winning biography of Dora Diamant, published in the US, UK, and in translation in France, Spain, Russia, and soon to be released in China, Brazil and Germany. She is the director of the SDSU Kafka Project, the international search for Kafka's missing writings, and an adjunct professor at San Diego State University.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Achievement for All

By Caitlin Rother

One thing I've learned in my career as a full-time author is that it’s crucial to try to break up my daily routine – working at the computer, doing research and conducting phone interviews in isolation at home – with intermittent human contact and a variety of mental and physical activity. In other words, balance.

A couple weeks ago, I was celebrating the joy of hearing my editor finally utter the welcome phrase, "I'm putting the book into production" – the first step to getting my final advance payment – with a spontaneous outing at my neighborhood bar and grill. There, I met Kirsten, a fifth-grade teacher from the largely Latino community of National City, and later that evening, she emailed me to ask if I had time to help her students put out a newspaper at Biztown, a Junior Achievement program here in San Diego.

“Not really,” I wrote, “but it seems like a good idea, so I'm going to do it anyway.”

I said yes partly because I was still amazed at how only 90 minutes of chatting at the bar with Kirsten and Barbarella, a columnist for the San Diego Reader, had really brightened my day, all of which brought home my original points about human contact and striving for balance. But I also predicted it would be an important and gratifying experience to inspire young minds to think about journalism as a career choice. Our society NEEDS watchdog reporters to function properly even though most young people today don't want to pay for news content they’re used to getting for free on the Internet.

That Monday morning, I met the seven youngsters who would put out a newspaper called The San Diego U-T, which, by no coincidence, is the name of the paper I left in 2006 after 13 years to write books full-time. Two of the boys were impressively wearing ties – one of them even sporting a dark suit with his tennis shoes – when they walked in to greet me and Stephanie, the other adult volunteer at our business. She and I split up oversight duties, with her taking the business side and me handling the two reporters, one editor and one photographer. Kirsten stopped in at times and helped, too.

As the morning went on, our job became more challenging because the kids were given progressively longer breaks to spend their two enormous $8 paychecks, which they first had to cash at the pretend bank around the corner. I had to chuckle at the irony when our CEO forgot to sign one batch of paychecks, then managed to bounce his own, forgetting that he’d already been given $2 in cash (green play money) when he wrote a check for his entire $8.

Unfortunately, our instructions weren't very specific, so I didn't learn that my small staff needed to write a total of six stories until we were only 30 or 40 minutes away from deadline – and fifth graders aren't the fastest writers let alone typists. I have no children myself, so I have little experience with kids this age, but these ones seemed easily distracted by all the activity going on around them. I didn't want to do their thinking for them, however we also had a deadline to meet and it came upon us like a tidal wave. At that very moment, I knew exactly how one of my former bosses must have felt in the late afternoon when he asked me to step in for other reporters to finish their stories as well as my own.

As the minutes clicked by, I had only one reporter to work with who wasn't on a break, and she became my lifeline. With me at the keyboard – there was no other way to get this done in time if I let her do the typing – little Carolina Ocanas, thankfully my best and fastest writer, and I whipped out the rest of the stories. I tried to let her do as much on her own as I could, and she wrote two stories under her byline, we finished one each that our editor, Mario Rodriguez, and reporter Karla Herrera had started, and I typed in the one that Karla had written by herself.

Like Carolina and our CFO Alexandra, many of the Biztown kids worked hard and took their jobs seriously, some not so much, just like in the real world. Our team got the paper out and managed to coordinate photos with story content, just like at a real newspaper. We overcame a few other mishaps – also no different from a real paper: the printer toner ran out and one computer kept printing one of the wrong pages so our staff guy had to keep reproducing the double-sided page. The kids made advertising posters with crayons and construction paper, but failed to notice that the tape to display them was right there on the table, so they hand-carried them around, then later hand-delivered the papers as they came out of the printer in two sets (pre- and post-toner problems).

The kids decided to charge two dollars per paper (most products at Biztown sold for $3 to $5) and we managed to sell nearly 25 of them to the group of 99 students. Given the problems the newspaper industry is experiencing nationwide, it was heartwarming to see 25 percent of the children line up to buy a paper for 25 percent of a single paycheck.

My volunteer stint was exhausting but rewarding, and I hope that I was able to impart some of my enthusiasm to my young mentees the same way I've done for some of my adult students at UCSD Extension, where I teach journalism and creative writing classes. As I tell my older students, journalism is harder than it looks and it does take a while to learn how to write a good story. But based on the number of papers we sold, it was evident that kids do see their value, so maybe there is hope for journalism yet.

Caitlin Rother, a Pulitzer-nominee who worked as a investigativer reporter for nearly 20 years, is the author of five books, including Body Parts, Twisted Triangle, Naked Addiction, and Poisoned Love, and is the co-author of Where Hope Begins and My Life, Deleted. Her next book, Dead Reckoning, the story behind the murder of Tom and Jackie Hawks by Skylar Deleon and his clan of outlaws, including his wife Jennifer will be out in February. She is currently working on a book about the John Gardner murder case. For more information, check out her Web site,

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Sixty Percent Rule

by Laurel Corona

I finished my fourth novel, THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD, in September (that's me on my summer research trip, outside a tiny synagogue in Tomar, Portugal). I finished it again in October, and again in November.  Now it’s December and I am finishing it again.  Getting a book to the point where you can say, “I’m really, truly done now” (as in not needing to take another look or add another detail), feels like an endless process.
 I have something I call the 60 percent rule, which says that once you have written the last words of a book you are about 60 percent done with the work. First, there are massive amounts of revision that need to be done even to a manuscript you have been revising constantly as you go along.  This late-stage revising, believe it or not, is in some respects more exhausting and demands more of the author than the writing did.  After the revisions are done, there are several more as the book goes through the publishing process.  

The work after the sale I’ll discuss another time. In this post, I'll illustrate that 60 percent point and a little beyond, by collecting up my Facebook posts between late August and now on the subject of “finishing” THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD.
8/29 Fingers are smoking. I am careening to the end of THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD. Don't care how good it is, don't care if there are typos and deadwood, I just can't tell the story fast enough. Time for all the fixing later.
9/13 Today I dig into the final chapter.... Writing the last chapter of any novel is emotional--like seeing a child leave home.... I'm already a bit of a basket case, and I haven't started writing yet.
9/15 Not much sleep last night, but I see the way now into the last few scenes of my novel in progress. Worth a few yawns today,
9/21 I just wrote the last words of my novel. Turned out I really didn't know how it was going to end... but I knew when I got there. Now the familiar emptiness, nausea, dazed stagger, and then, by tonight, the champagne.
10/7 I am eager to get back to my novel. I guess I have taken enough of a break. Just a few more days of miscellany, then it's back to the excitement of seeing it through.
10/10 Back into revising THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD this morning. Really liking the book--always a good thing! 
10/13 Kicking butt on the ms of Shape of the World. Only 120 pages left to revise before sending it out to my great team of advisors, then another revision after they get done with it, and the ms is off to my agent! Still on track for finishing in 2010!
10/14 The last pages of any book never get as many layers of revision over as long a period of time as the rest of the book, so I decided not to worry about getting the last 70 done with one pass. I've gotten to the end now, and it's quite a bit better, but I am going to go through it several times more to get it as good as the rest. Still, I'm very close!
10/17 Looking at my last ten pages, I see the problem is that I have an ending but don't have the nuances and meaning down yet. I need to imagine the setting and the characters a bit more vividly and then the ending will come to life. It's complicated by the fact that emotionally I both do and don't want something I have been so deeply and intimately involved with to end. It's hard to focus and equally hard to stay away.
10/19 Just hit "send" on THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD. Agent Meg Ruley has it now. Hope she loves it!
11/2 Thinking about taking a peek at THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD, to start revising. I lasted two weeks on hiatus. Well, I haven't actually opened the file yet, so the clock is still ticking.
11/18 Hubba, hubba--the first 90 pages (part one) of THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD are truly finished now, as in the best I can do. 500 more to go.
11/22 Almost at the halfway mark in the final revision of THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD. This is the easier half. The further you get into a book, the fewer times you have gone back over and revised it already. Still, right now I am VERY HAPPY with this book.
12/2 Whoopee! I am finished with the back matter (afterword, Q&A, acknowledgments, readers' guide) except for the glossary, which is really best done in connection with going through the whole thing again for yet another revision. I'm getting there, though, and it feels pretty good!
12/4 Glossary and Q&A finished. Now ready to bear down on making the last 100 pages as intense as they deserve to be.
12/ 5 Doing well incorporating revisions and ratcheting up some of the scenes. 70 pages to go, but these are the pages that need the most work. Maybe by the end of the week...
12/6  35 hard pages to go, but of course, I 'll probably just start at the beginning again. ;-)
I hope this gives a sense for what the seemingly endless cycle of “finishing” is like.  Where am I now?  As of today, I am finished again.  I’d better call it quits before it finishes me.  My friend, author Susanne Dunlap has counseled me thus: “It's hard to make yourself get to the point where you say, ‘I'm not going to start at the beginning again. Someone else needs to have a go!’”
She’s absolutely right, and I’m there. I really am!!  Except maybe for one last peek....
Follow Laurel’s life as a writer at her Facebook page, Laurel Corona Author

Sunday, December 5, 2010

South of the Border, Mexicali Way

By Judith Liu

“What makes this class so different?” was the student’s query. Innocent enough as it sounds, it was a great question. Seventeen of us (fourteen students, two instructors, and one coordinator) had just returned from a two-night, three-day class excursion to Mexicali, and we were sitting in the classroom debriefing the experience. It was a magical moment, and the simple answer was “Chemistry.” This particular class has that elusive quality of “chemistry” where all of the students and instructors have “clicked”. Let me go back to explain.

The course is an upper-division Sociology course entitled, Social Change: Global Perspectives and its primary focus is globalization and its impact. We live 20 minutes from an international border, and when I thought about teaching this course, it made no sense NOT to try and incorporate some form of border experience. The University of San Diego has a Transborder Institute that focuses on U.S./Mexico border issues. Each year, it offers funding opportunities for faculty and students to either conduct research or provide students with an international experience. I chose to write a grant to bring students to Tijuana for a weekend experience. Since I also work at the Center for Community Service-Learning (CCSL), I decided to also incorporate a service-learning component. Working with CCSL staff, I connected with the great organization Via International (formerly known as Los NiƱos) who offer transborder experiences. My main contact was Cara who worked at CCSL and now works/consults with Via International.

When the travel grant was awarded, the real work began. The plan was simple: take students enrolled in the course to Tijuana. Execution of the plan, however, was an entirely different story. First, passports are now required for all citizens traveling to Tijuana. Second, the recent violence in Tijuana and Mexico was such that when I sent a letter to students enrolled in the class prior to start of the semester, some students dropped the course. On the first day of class, additional students had to withdraw because of schedule conflicts or the inability to participate in a trip to Mexico. A surprising number of students were uncertain as to whether their parents would allow them to travel to Mexico. Some chose to talk with their parents; some chose to simply not mention this aspect of the course to them (a fact that I did not learn about until AFTER the trip.) Third, it was simply the question of logistics. How do you manage fourteen students on a “field trip”?

After two months of preparation, the weekend arrived. Most of the students did not realize that the two instructors were, in fact, a husband and wife team (different last names always throw people), so the first observation students made were: “We figured it out that you were married when you arrived in one car, had one suitcase, matching pillows, and matching sleeping bags.” We were pleasantly surprised that ALL of the students were at the designated meeting spot at the designated time—off to an auspicious start. Instead of Tijuana, our trip would take us to Mexicali, and the students, luggage, and food loaded into two vans, we caravanned to Mexicali.

On that first afternoon, students witnessed the return of undocumented workers who were deported back to Mexico and learned that deportees are sent to cities other than where they entered. Thus, this group contained individuals who had come from Arizona. We traveled to Casa de Migrante—a haven where deportees can stay for three nights while they adjust to their situation. Again, it was another eye-opening experience. That evening, as we ate a Chinese meal ordered by me by having someone read the Spanish memo and speaking Mandarin to the owners, we all had a transnational experience.

The next two days were equally illuminating and once again, the students were the stars. Water is a scarce resource; we had worked during the day, and when we arrived back at Via International’s house on the second night, the students limited themselves to 3-5 minute showers so that everyone would have a hot shower while simultaneously conserving water. By day three, we were no longer a group of individuals connected through a course requirement, but a “community” bonded by a shared experience.

The “chemistry” that has made this class “so different” was created through this experience. Now, in the classroom, there is an informality that is refreshing. We can joke with the students; they can make “snarky” statements without fear that it will “affect their grade”; we can challenge and be challenged without fear that such risks will “affect our evaluations.” A level of trust has emerged that is truly refreshing. I truly will miss this class and the students who are in it.

Much has been written about members of the so-called “Millennial Generation,” and much of it has been negative—their disaffection with the political realm resulting in low voting patterns; their social network addiction; their inability to effectively communicate face-to-face. Yet, that has not been my experience. I have great faith and hope in this generation. When we debriefed the Mexicali experience, it was not the usual, “Thank God I was born in America,” or “How can those people live like that?” Instead, it was more of what Lenin wrote, “What then must we do?” and a sense of co-intentionality. Perhaps the challenge for all of us in education is to create opportunities to connect students with what they are learning in the classroom. Only then can we create the “chemistry” of community that can lead to genuine social action to address social injustices.