Monday, October 31, 2016
Are Writers Challenged By Their Tombstone?
When I found out that Kevin Meaney died suddenly at age 60, I emailed two friends I’ve known for a long time and got surprising responses. One said he didn’t know who he was; the other knew but summarized his life as “he really didn’t have a great career.” It makes me wonder how writers who die are viewed by others.
Meaney, for the record, was a talented comedian who probably did better than 95% of all comedians in his day. He just didn’t make it into elite territory, but that’s far from being seen as an unknown or a nobody. The truth is, we all contribute something to this world. We impact others along the way but sometimes we forget or remain unaware of how we influence others.
I remember seeing Meaney perform several times in the mid 80’s at NYC comedy clubs. The New York Times, in its obituary, said he was “a headliner on the stand-up comedy circuit for more than 30 years.” I would say that’s an impressive epitaph.
Meaney made numerous appearances on late-night TV, including The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. He had several HBO specials, appeared in a Broadway play and starred in a failed TV series based on a John Candy movie, Uncle Buck. He appeared on Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock, 2 Broke Girls, and other shows. He just didn’t have a signature event, a memorable book or movie, or a singular moment that defined his career. He was a quality comedian who was a steady performer for decades.
My father died earlier this year and it was hard to summarize a life that was far less public or accomplished as the one Meaney lived, but I knew that his life, if for anything else, meant something to me. If I could impact others and contribute to the world, it would be in part, because of his influence on me. Perhaps that’s the best thing you can say about another human being, that they made a difference in the lives of others – and hopefully those people made a positive impact on others.
For writers, their tombstone could never reflect who they were. Their own writing should do that. It speaks for itself. The lasting impact of those words on others is what becomes the eulogy or obituary.
Writers always wonder how others will view them and their work upon their death. What you write goes a long way to influencing what they will say. So if you want to help define how you’ll be seen upon your demise, work hard now at penning the words that could define your legacy.
I saw an advertisement for Book of the Dead: 320 Print and 10,000 Digital Obituaries of Extraordinary People by William McDonald, published by The New York Times. I don’t know that I could read them without feeling either envy for their success or sadness that I no longer could meet them. Besides, obituaries are written in a certain one-sided way that make them incomplete, if not dishonest.
I guess if you just play a numbers game, you’d say that most lives are unimportant. In the scheme of things, only the top 1% of the 1% really matter. They are the powerful, successful, wealthy, talented, educated, leaders, politicians, doctors, writers, teachers, and members of every profession who rose above all others. But if you are the other 999 in 1,000, did your life not matter or mean something?
Of course it did.
The same is true with writers. You don’t need a best-seller, an award, or an avalanche of favorable critical reviews to know that your books are of value, that your writings are worthwhile. If you feel differently, prove me wrong. Be a more prolific writer, an improved writer, an activist writer whose words change things, who gives back to others, and who strives to inform, inspire, educate, or entertain with the written word. Look death down and rise up to write your best book yet. Become who you want to be, whom you hope others will see and talk about. Celebrate your life and writing today and let your words tell your story upon your death.
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