Reading the Obits

When Jane Friedman recommends a book about the writing business, I often read it. So I’m reading Show Your Work by Austin Kleon, whose essential message to writers and other artists is that by engaging in the larger artistic community, your talent will get you noticed. I get that—I didn’t start and run a literary journal for three years because I’m into reading slush for no pay.

I’ve just completed the chapter titled “Read Obituaries.” In it, Kleon says, “Reading about people who are dead now and did things with their lives makes me want to get up and do something decent with mine.” He suggests we all try it: “Take inspiration from the people who muddled through life before you.” BTW, his is a somewhat populist view of the artistic life: it’s all about how everyone, even an experienced professional, is really an amateur who kept learning and trying, or as he puts it, muddling.

I’m intrigued by the paradoxes inherent in this obituary reading advice. The book is a primer on fame for the unconnected—after all, if you don’t care about fame, why worry about getting noticed and connected? So if you want to be famous, then become inspired by people who lived lives of sufficient fame to warrant obituaries that other people care to read—even if they’re now dead.

But if the ultimate end is death, what difference does it make if you wind up famous or not? Like money, you can’t take fame with you into the grave. When you’re ready to cross that divide, St. Peter or Charon or whoever happens to be on next-world gate monitor duty that day, is not going to care if you were a CEO or a day laborer. You will not “feel” the living reading about you. (Even if you could, why would you want to?) You shall not eternally bask in the adulation of those left behind. Fame, for its own sake, is therefore an illusion.

If there’s one thing we can appreciate about a life, it’s that a good one is devoted to improving other people’s lives, even at the expense of one’s own. That’s really where the inspiration comes from (and at least Kleon included a phrase about doing “something decent” with his, although that’s still pretty vague). He talks about the near-death experiences that awakened some people to the notion of the brevity of life and the importance of accomplishment within that short window. What does this mean for an artist, though, since even with accomplishment most of us do not have the power to provide political or economic change for others (or even ourselves)?

Is this the purpose of fame? Can we help others without achieving fame?

And this: if fame for its own sake is an illusion, and one lives to achieve fame, then isn’t that life is an illusion?

Every discussion of death brings me back to the question of life and its apparent reality.

This is from the old TV show Kung Fu, and I suspect it has its roots in Buddhist philosophy, although I’ve been so far unable to find it. But sometimes even popular culture gives us another paradox worth considering:

Before we wake, we cannot know that what we dreamed does not exist. Before we die, we cannot know that death is not the greatest joy.

If our lives are dreams from which we wake into reality, then perhaps art is a dream within the dream. I used to worry about getting noticed—and still do a little—but not nearly as much now. Instead I write my conscience, and my heart, and if what I’ve learned is helpful to someone else, that becomes a small joy to make the muddling more bearable.


Speaking of fame, just for the hell of it here’s a mock interview I wrote about the subject that was published in Oyster River Pages.