Posted by: Mark Wollemann: On the move | October 23, 2014

I’m still here!!

Living the good life -- until the end, whenever that is.

Living the good life — until the end, whenever that is.

My students have killed me off the past couple of semesters, but I keep coming back for more. Let me explain.

For my Writing and Reporting class at the American University in Bulgaria, I’ve introduced students to the art of obituary writing. It’s an alien concept in this part of the world. I think mostly because it’s considered bad luck to talk about death. I’m not entirely sure about that, but let’s go with it.

The first time I taught this class, back in the fall of 2011, I forced students to find real dead people to write about. They had to identify someone who had lost a loved one, interview them and others, and produce a thoughtful and artful obit. I made that assignment the “midterm.” It counted for a lot. Students didn’t love it, but once they finished, they wanted to make sure everyone had to do the same. They also did produce some memorable pieces.

I took a year off from that class and reintroduced the “obit” last fall — (and made it worth less; it wasn’t the midterm anymore). I added a twist, though. The students had to write about the death of their professor. I allowed them to interview me, to probe for detail (I made it an exercise in interviewing for detail, for facts, for anecdotes.). Some students still didn’t like the idea of writing about death — but for two semesters now, they’ve done it.

My favorite part about the assignment is how they put me away. This year, I’ve “died” from ischemic heart disease, circulatory collapse and heart attack. I fell off the Caucasus Mountains during an earthquake in Georgia, I was hit by a car, I collapsed from over indulgence during a brewery tour, suffered kidney failure (perhaps related), and I passed from this earth after a huge wave of satisfaction from, again, over-consumption after a long bike ride. I know what you’re thinking: they know me so well!

Additionally, I make the students reach out to family and friends for more detail. (Perhaps you’re one of the lucky ones who have been approached?) They first have to assure folks this is a test, this is only a test. Then they do what reporters do: They get good quotes. Let me just say: It’s nice to be a guest at your own funeral. I’ve enjoyed reading the nice things people say about me, even if they aren’t true. You guys are swell.

Anyway, thanks for playing along. And remember to be nice to your friends and family. They always say such nice things about you, as far as you know.

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Responses

  1. I remember when you gave that assignment for the first time and how difficult the students found it, culturally. I have to say that I do find it a bit ghoulish to know they’re now writing about you. Because you and Tune are a world away, you’re in that magic category of people who exist for me but are untouchable, hopefully for only the moment. To have an obit written, faux or not, makes the strands just a bit more ephemeral. That said, I have to add that when I moved to Iowa and read the Des Moines Register obit section, I was impressed with the quality of the writing and felt as though I got a true glimpse of the departed’s life and personality. Kudos to you for continuing an important writing exercise.

  2. Did the drunken permanent marker body coloring episode make it into one of them?

    • I haven’t read them all closely, but I do believe I saw mention of that. I told them all they’d get extra credit if they learned something obscure about me. That certainly qualifies.

  3. Wonderful post! More than any other assignment at the Strib, I enjoyed writing obits because they were the ultimate storytelling challenge: Which anecdotes do you include ā€“ and which do you omit ā€“ to best sum up a person’s life? I’m glad your students are getting over the cultural death-related willies to undertake this valuable exercise. (Pardon the horrible pun.)
    PS: Your students have certainly killed you off in some creative ways. But what manner of death would YOU choose, if you had the option? Me, I’d like to be swashbuckled to death by Johnny Depp. šŸ™‚

    • Swashbuckled to death by Johnny Depp? That’s a bold choice. As always, Heather, thanks for reading.

  4. From reading the replies I see that writing an obit is a valuable exercise for journalists. I do wish, though, that one of your students would have gotten in touch with me. I would have had some good stories to tell!!!


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