Years ago I belonged to a small writing group, and the leader of our group, a woman called Gwen Reidman, advised us to read obituaries because they carry, like genes packed tight in their separate chromosomes, tiny kernels of narrative. These little yelps of activity — Gwen always referred to them as putty — are so personal and authentic and odd that they are able to reinforce the thin tissue of predictable fiction and bend it into unlikely shapes.
Carol Shields – Unless
My friend and colleague Victoria Fenner sent me this quoted excerpt yesterday, a few sentences tucked in among her holiday readings. She and Shields rode the rails together on Victoria’s annual Christmas visit northern home–home to the land of snow. They express a lovely sentiment about obituaries and so true.
A while back I wrote an obituary on the writer Arthur Motyer. He had developed a touching correspondence with Carol Shields, letters detailing her experience of cancer, how she described frequent dips into deep memory while slowly stepping down the stairs in her fine Prairie home. His book based on this correspondence was called The Staircase Letters.
Victoria and I work together on my memoir business Rampant with Memory. Last month we interviewed civil rights activist Lee Lorch and will soon have a completed podcast from these hours with him eating sumptuous chocolate cake in his Toronto distillery home. Lee told us about his afternoon similarly poised on the edge of his seat. He was a much, much younger man and he was chatting with Albert Einstein.
Victoria credits me and my work as an obituary writer with helping ease her beyond a death-fear that gripped her. She couldn’t spend any moments at all considering this particular abyss. I don’t mean her own fear of dying but rather the encroaching avalanche of grief that strikes those of us in our early fifties.
Like me, Victoria still has parents and siblings, aunts and uncles to share a meal with at Christmas. It is precious and she fears losing these people. As do I, regarding my own family. But these “tiny kernels of narrative,” provide us with opportunities to slow it down and really take a look at life and at lives. We do great work, Victoria and I, with the quickly leaping rampant memories such as the kind that joined Carol Shields as she stepped thoughtfully down her stairs.