Death of the Writer

It was a perfectly normal day for a funeral viewing.

The skies were as overcast as ever they were when the steel mills of northwest Indiana were spewing full employment and vibrant economies in the many towns assembled to supply their workers.

On the main line to the funeral home, I passed through six towns, borders unmarked and distinguishable, as I have taught my daughters, only by looking at the color of the signs announcing side streets, as each town has its own motif.

As I wheeled into the parking lot, the crowd was growing even as the viewing began.

This was for an old acquaintance, old, yet still two years younger than myself. We had first met at Indiana University in the wonderful whirl of the ’70s at the fabulous student newspaper. Then again, he was the Hammond paper when I arrived for a short stay and had proclaimed my coming with a solid reputation builder.

He had married another former coworker of mine. They have two children and had not stayed married.

Strangely, she was the only person at the viewing (besides the guy asleep at the front) that I knew. We exchanged hellos and some quick catching up and I signed the book. I was heading away with 15 minutes of arriving, having stayed half as long as it took to get there.

I never know what to think when a contemporary dies and I haven’t. The same about someone younger.

He was also a writer, eventually ascending, as we writers do, to the columnist of the hold newsstand. He was decent enough to hit a homer every once in awhile and did produce the expected number of columns each week to justify the paycheck.

The trick of writing has always been to not make it look so easy. If you have been gifted with the ability, the truth, of course, is that it is that easy. Long ago, in my first paying job watching a succession of mediocre writers try to own the best beat in sports, I realized it was all about access.

If you are granted access to the playing field, the locker room, the practices and can even just report what you see as a human tape recorder, you will have a readership guaranteed. Some will think you are all that. Unless you can write, you are not.

If you remember what you have seen and can bring back salient points at the right time, you are above average. If you last long enough, you are remembered for that. You get to be a part of the paper that is expected to be there, revered and dissed in equal parts.

When you die first while still active, you get to be remembered by your friends.

I am never comfortable with us in the business over-honoring our recently departed. The death of a writer is no more important than that of the retired steelworker who died the same day, or the child of the city who lost his last drug argument.

The writer gets headlines.

Viewings are for the survivors, for his two teenage sons in this case. We feel better, all of us, because we are not dead and we all wonder what our own viewings will be like. As long-serving writers do, he had touched thousands of lives and yet there were not thousands of attendees. Not even a lot of former associates.

And I guess I went to honor the body of work and the workers who made it happen.

And I wondered how he would have written this up.