Don’t Live For Your Obituary

Image borrowed from here.

Via Nick Mamatas,this article about writer Colin Wilson, who passed away in the last week, which begins: 

How dismayed the late Colin Wilson would have been if, through some of the occult powers in which he believed, he had been able to read his own obituaries.

The man whose first book The Outsider caused him to be lionised in 1956 by the literary greats of the day has been remembered in several blogs for his later novel Space Vampires, which inspired a famously trashy Hollywood film. In the broadsheets, the life of a self-proclaimed genius has been given the faintly amused treatment favoured by obituarists when dealing with a life of eccentricity or failed promise.

Yet there is sort of heroism in the way that Wilson, having been abandoned by those who once praised him, remained loyal to his own talent, living a life of writing, reading and thinking –probably in that order.

The article, which you might be able to tell from the excerpt, is playing both ends of the game with regard to Wilson (which is why Nick pointed it out, I suspect — to mock it). Wilson would be dismayed, but on the other hand he did what he wanted, but on the other other hand here’s a checklist of things to avoid if you want your obits to be properly reverential.

And, I don’t know. One, I think if Mr. Wilson is still sentient after his death, he’s got other, more interesting things to think about than his obits; I suspect at that point worrying about your obits would be like worrying about the end-of-year assessment of your kindergarten teacher once you were out of college (“Nice kid. Hopefully will figure out paste is not for eating.”).

Two, if Mr. Wilson had any sense at all — or any ego, which by all indications he certainly did — then he recognized (before he passed on, obviously) that to the extent he and his work will be remembered at all, obituaries, transient news stories that they are, are insignificant. He’ll be remembered for the work, and the status of the work in the context of history is not settled at the time of the obituary.

Salient example: Gaze, if you will, on the New York Times obituary for Philip K. Dick, on March 3, 1982. It is four graphs long (the final two graphs being two and one sentences long, respectively) — which for a science fiction writer is pretty damn good, when it comes to obits in America’s Paper of Record, but which, shall we say, does not really suggest that Dick’s notability would long survive him. Now, look at the voluminous record of writing about Dick in the NYT post-obit — an index of five pages of thumbsuckers. Pre-death, I find one note about Dick in the index, and it’s one of those Arts & Leisure preview bits.

So, yes. The obit was not the final word, because the work continues — or at least, can. In Dick’s case, the majority of his fame has come after his death, alas for him. He (nor any of us) would not know that from the four paragraphs in the NYT on 3/3/82.

I noted it before and will like do so again: As a creative person (or, really, any other sort of person), you have absolutely no control how history will know you, if indeed they know you at all. For most creative people, to the extent they are remembered at all, they will be remembered for one thing, because the culture at large only has so much space for any of us. You won’t get to choose which one thing for which you are remembered. If, for Wilson, the one thing he’s remembered for is Space Vampires rather than The Outsider, then that is still one more thing for which he is remembered than the billions of us who go to our graves and are swallowed up by them. So well done him.

But even then, the culture’s memory is not infinite. Wilson’s work, one way or another, is not likely to survive the vicious cultural culling that happens over the course of time; it’s unlikely to be remembered by anyone but academics in a hundred years, or even them long after that (nor, to be clear, will mine, or the unfathomably large majority of works being created today). The good news is the judgment of the obits will have passed from this world long before then. And in any event the sun is going to swell up into a red giant in five billion years and likely swallow up the planet, so that’ll be the end of all of it.

(Obit for the sun: “A long, pedestrian life followed by a brief illness; survived by Jupiter, three other planets and numerous moons and comets. In lieu of flowers, please donate to the Orphaned Trans-Neptunian Objects Fund.”)

I don’t know Mr. Wilson to any degree — I am one of those who knew him best for creating the source material for Life Force, which was a terrible movie — but my wish for him was that he lived the sort of life where he didn’t actually care what his obits said, and instead enjoyed his life and left work that had the possibility of speaking for itself, over time. If you’re a creative (or indeed any other) person, let me suggest you don’t worry about your obits either. As well as you can, live the life you want to live and make the work you want to make. After you’re gone, it’ll all be sorted out or not. You won’t be around to worry about it. Focus on the parts you’re around for.

53 thoughts on “Don’t Live For Your Obituary

  1. Lifeforce may be a terrible movie but it was trashy in a fun sort of way, much more fun than a lot of the Syfy channel movies of the week. The ship itself was a very interesting design.

  2. In a hundred years or so, scholars will gather to frothily debate why oh why a work with the potential of “The Shadow War of the Night Dragons” was never completed by its creator.

  3. It never really occurred to me to worry about what my obit will say (with the exception of having to “worry” about it for an English class assignment where we had to write our obituaries). I’ll be dead. It’ll be someone else’s problem. Knowing my family, and how they tend to procrastinate (a genetic trait? ;-)) it’s kind of 50/50 whether I’ll even HAVE an obit. I should be lucky to get a Death Notice printed. Well, maybe they’ll put something up on Facebook…or whatever the most popular social network happens to be by then.

  4. Lifeforce makes a ton more sense if you think of it as a R-rated episode of the UNIT-era Doctor Who. The way the main character shows up and seems to always be able to figure out what insane thing is happening and how to stop it? That’s the Doctor.

  5. The New York Times writes obits for the famous well in advance of their deaths, and updates them from time to time, sometimes interviewing the future corpse for accuracy’s sake. On one occasion, while doing this with Richard Feynman, the obituarist asked him whether he’d like to see the obit. “Nah,” Feynman said, “I want it to come as a surprise.”

  6. I first came to Wilson via “The Outsider” when I was a very impressionable teen and thought he was brilliant. Not many years later I could more clearly see the various inclusions and flaws in the jewel of his intellect, and I soon found other shiny thinkers to admire, but for me, for a little while, he burned with a hard, gemlike flame.

  7. One of my uncles passed away last week, the first of my parents’ generation to die of age-related reasons, which got me thinking about my own mortality, and about what I’ll leave behind when I’m gone. I have a handful of icky health things that will likely take me out fairly early, and there’s a lot I want to do in the short time I have left. But little of it is about having a flashy obit. I want to be remembered, sure, but I want people to remember me for the way I made them feel, and what difference, if any, I made in their lives.

    That, in a nutshell, is why I write. I suppose some might decide I’m not a Real Writer for this, but I don’t write because of an all-consuming obsession to do so. It’s a huge part of my creative jones, and something I likely always will do, regardless of what sort of career I can cobble together out of it, but it’s not my primary reason for living. No, I write because I want to tell stories that matter to the people who read them, particularly people who don’t often see stories about people like them. Sure, I’d like to sell a ton of books, because that would make it easier to fund my kid’s education and give me some nice travel opportunities, but mostly, I just want my stories to mean something to someone. I don’t have a lot of power to do anything on a grand scale to leave the world a better place than the one I was born into, but I do have this one thing, and I hope I can use it for that, even if on a small scale. Will my obit reflect that? Probably not, and that doesn’t bother me. As long as I get some good feedback from readers–and I have–then I’m content.

  8. I don’t know Mr. Wilson to any degree — I am one of those who knew him best for creating the source material for Life Force, which was a terrible movie

    Ah, but it was a *good* terrible movie. Mathilda May’s wardrobe designer must have had teh laziest job in all of Hollywood.

    The book was, strangely enough, about the same, but in a more erudite fashion.

  9. And this is why I’m already assembling a burial urn, large enough to hold objects of my life and times, collected so as to provide a future archaeologist enough material for a decent paper or two and maybe even a spot in a museum.

    So far: real Roman and Greek coins, some modern coins, a bronze knife I’ve cast/made, a first gen iPod that no longer works, music and lyrics of Always Look On The Bright Side of Life inscribed on a high fire clay tablet.

    I still need to make an Omnilingual slab for music notation as well as a Rosetta Stone for English/Hebrew/Ancient Greek/Mandarin/Sindarin, a tablet with brief rundown of my life and list of my blogs, and a small sculpture or relief portrait of myself.

    Seal all this up, along with relevant DNA samples into a stout urn, coat it in a nice waterproof polymer and then encase it into a solid concrete block and bury in the desert. Just ad some radar reflective metal foil over it for identification and sit back and wait for the fun.

  10. I’ve never been moved to comment here before, but the last four sentences of this post so aptly sum up the way in which I strive to live my life that I felt I had to say thank you for putting the words together in a way I’ve never yet managed. Your words are especially resonant now– at a time when I’m in the process of making some big changes to my professional life so that it more closely resembles the life I want to live.

  11. This is nicely put (as always) and seems to sum up the idea that a writer should be principally writing for themselves, not for posterity or fame.

    Although, that said, I will happily accept a boatload of cash if anyone is handing it out.

  12. space vampires was an OK book… although I read it as a pre-teen because it had a salacious cover, not because i knew who Colin Wilson was….

  13. If you are sentient after you die, your obit is not even on the list of things at the bottom of your to-do list. There’s likely an orientation, securing afterlife digs, paperwork and whatnot. And if we’re talking reincarnation… Well, you just suddenly became “some dead person” to your new self, who has no clue who you were or cares.

    Of course, we all know that, if reincarnation is true, we were all famous people in a past life.

    Sincerely, Catherine the Great & Curly Howard

  14. Very well said. I’ve often tried to articulate what you managed in the title, “Don’t Live For Your Obituary.” I would also add not to worry about those death bed regrets we always hear warnings about. We’ll spend a limited time on our death bed and a lot more time in our life. We should spend it doing what gives us satisfaction.

    And, of course, even those who history does end up remembering, it will likely be history’s creation of a figure that meet’s future people’s needs, with only a hazy resemblance to the reality.

  15. Reblogged this on SelfAwarePatterns and commented:
    I’ve often tried to articulate what Scalzi managed in the title, “Don’t Live For Your Obituary.” I would also add not to worry about those death bed regrets we always hear warnings about. We’ll spend a limited time on our death bed and a lot more time in our life. We should spend it doing what gives us satisfaction.

    And, of course, even for those whom history does end up remembering, it will likely be history’s creation of a figure that meet’s future people’s needs, with only a hazy resemblance to the reality.

  16. The Vuldrini believed that the only way into their version of heaven was by way of the monuments, totems, and tributes made in their honor after they died.

  17. This reminds me of the story I heard once of a NY socialite. As the story goes he had a fixation on being remembered after hisk death, and was constantly in the news for this or that just to stay in the spotlight. He obsessed over what his obituary would say, but finally came to feel safely secure in his legacy.

    And, if he hadn’t died the same day Kennedy was killed in Dallas, he his death would have been front page news. However, by the time the assassination news cycle ended, the gentlemen in question was almost entirely forgotten.

    And, as is perhaps fitting, I can’t even remember his name to look him up!

  18. I actually deal with obituaries a lot, since I work at a newspaper. I’ve even written news obits for some of various communities’ more notable citizens.
    And to be honest, they all sound alike after a while – even f you changed the world, the basic forms and kinds of information included are exactly the same as if you hadn’t.
    They’re part of how our culture marks death, not how we measure lives.

  19. Greg: That hasn’t been true since the Rectification.

    You have to admit though, their large Torg was indeed moving.

  20. For most creative people, to the extent they are remembered at all, they will be remembered for one thing, because the culture at large only has so much space for any of us. You won’t get to choose which one thing for which you are remembered.

    Susan Sarandon once gave an interview where she admitted the possibility that she might be best remembered for her role in the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

    It’s hard to know what will be remembered. A hundred years after his death, JS Bach was fairly obscure. It doesn’t seem unlikely that there is another composer who ought to be as famous, but whose work wasn’t revived by Mendelssohn.

  21. Even after being hit by a truck and almost dying I’ve never thought about what my obit might say other than “daughter/sister/wife”. Life is about living. I do hope I’ve touched lives and helped people but I’ve always preferred doing most of that quietly without fanfare.

  22. Well, crap. Now I’m depressed and thinking about how everything is for nothing.

    “Nihilists! Fuck me. I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.”

  23. And, if he hadn’t died the same day Kennedy was killed in Dallas, he his death would have been front page news.

    Considering C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley died the same day, he’d have been lucky to get just New York papers.

  24. What’s really important to me is that my loved ones will remember me fondly, the rest is bonus.

    I mean, fame, notority and a permament imprint on our cultural history would be NICE (Just imagine! Schools forcing their pupils to read their works, making you forever hated by generations of school children! ;) ), but for now I’m happy with the few people that actually like what I am doing. I want to grow the ammount of them, true, but that’s clearly a “during life” goal, not a “matters for the obit” one.

  25. Colin Wilson was a believer in trying to live as much of your life in a state of peak experience, so I suspect he actively attempted to live without devoting part of his conscious to analysis of how his actions might seem to the future.

  26. So did you ever figure out paste is not for eating?

    Gene Weingarten wants his Last Words to be “I should have spent more time at the office.”

  27. The thing about culture’s harsh razor is that it doesn’t always cut clean. Unless something is excised for all time, things can wash in and out like the tides. What was the new hotness becomes obscure…what was once obscure suddenly becomes all the rage.

    Remember when S.S. Van Dine was one of the hottest writers in America? Well, you could be forgiven for that, since that was in the 20s and 30s. Why did his character of Philo Vance, star of a dozen novels and multiple movie adaptions and portrayed by actors like William Powell and Basil Rathbone? Who knows? Maybe Hercule Poirot’s longevity over time (Christie wrote him until the 1960s, iirc) stole all the air in the room. Maybe characters like the Thin Man and Nero Wolfe stole his thunder after the fact. Maybe he just simply didn’t age well.

    You can control what history will determine is the most popular choice. When I read Dan Simmons’ ‘Drood’, I knew who Charles Dickens was, but the narrator was Wilkie Collins. He’s a famous writer, but I honestly had no idea who he was at the time. But not being popular isn’t the same as being forgotten. Wilson is someone I’ve never heard of…but I saw Lifeforce as a kid, so that actually means something to me. I couldn’t tell you a dang thing about the movie other than A)Space Vampires and B)Super Naked Lady (says my 12 year-old memory of watching it on HBO).

  28. >> A long, pedestrian life

    Something about the word “pedestrian” in the Sun’s obit really tickled me.

  29. I couldn’t tell you a dang thing about the movie other than A)Space Vampires and B)Super Naked Lady (says my 12 year-old memory of watching it on HBO).

    When you think about it, the… unrelenting… nudity of the lead is a brilliant step. Yeah, not only does it get people talking and remembering the schlock movie and bring in the 12 year olds looking for fanservice, it’s also completely valid. You’re an alien space-god surrounded by creatures you think of as little more than cattle to feed on – why on Earth WOULD you be conforming to their nudity taboos?

    Consider the Goald from Stargate – they would have had a much better time of it if they had made nudity a perk of their reign, so they could see at a glance who was or was not One Of Them.

  30. I was first exposed to Wilson in the early 1990s while living in Russia. I was feverish and bedridden, and someone brought me an English-language Russian edition of his 1967 The Mind Parasites. I don’t think many have read this book–Wikipedia tells me it was kept in print almost entirely by an odd Berkeley bookshop–but let me tell you, an existentialist, explicitly Cthulhian horror story about pan-dimensional evil sucking the life force out of humanity can make a pretty massive impression on a feverish, homesick young man living through his first winter in Russia.

    I remember that book far better than any number of far better books I’ve read. (This was also before the whole Cthulhu-hipster-nerd era we’re living in now…)

  31. The Mind Parasites was a bit of a throwback to more golden era SF, except of course the actual aim was different (more to tell you about the world by allegory than to entertain)
    He had over 20,000 books, which is a good number to have collected, according to an interview I read a few years ago.
    Sometimes I think I’m the only person to read Wilson’s stuff outside whatever circles of occult interested people there are. JOhn’s comments are entirely apposite though, and as explained above, Wilson was interested in peak experiences and extending them if possible.

  32. Since I’m female, I can be fairly confident that even if I gain enough notoriety to warrant an obit of any import, said obit will focus on my cooking skills… so I don’t worry much about obits.

  33. @DonBoy – a little unkind to the Unit era of Dr Who – I’m a huge Jon Pertwee fan – but Frank Finlay has been on my “I wish they could have played the Doctor before they died” list for a long time now.

  34. @DonBoy – I like where your head’s at with LIFEFORCE as UNIT-Era DOCTOR WHO, with nudity and graphic violence.

    Or maybe the remake could be set in Torchwood – I’m sure Captain Jack banging all three of the Space Vampires would suit RTD to the ground!

  35. Scalzi, I liked reading this – and you’re right. Who knows who will be widely remembered a hundred or even fifty years after their death? When I was a kid, Harold Robbins was a hugely popular writer of steamy bestsellers who everybody either read, or condemned because everybody read them – a number of his books like THE CARPETBAGGERS, THE ADVENTURERS, THE BETSY, and THE LONELY LADY were made into movies. Is he even still in print any more…?

  36. Regarding an earlier comment I made: Well, this is rather embarrassing…turns out Frank Finlay isn’t dead. But as he’s 87 the chances of him ever playing the Doctor are still pretty slim.

  37. As far as obituaries go, I believe Jack Handey said it best: “I hope that after I die, people will say of me: ‘That guy sure owed me a lot of money’.”

  38. Colin Wilson is as revered in Japan/Russia/the Middle East – The Outsider was Col. Gadaffi’s favourite book! – as PKD was in Europe before the big hipster takeover. He is still popular in his homeland, despite the critics’ attempts to obliterate him. As an illustration of this, the author of the article you link to at the top of your piece has, because of an adverse reaction from Wilson’s friends (myself included) and readers, apologised at the timing of his rather snide piece. Colin Wilson hasn’t been forgotten, he’s very well remembered. There is a sequel to The Space Vampires which so far has only been published in Russian. We are attempting to get it published in English; it should be as it’s a lost masterpiece. Perhaps his best novel in fact.

  39. John your last couple of lines says it all. I won’t be here. I’ll at least be less than worm food. Fish food maybe. Hope I decide before the day but if not, so what. Life is too damn short to worry about the things we can’t do anything about. Enjoy what you’ve got even if it’s only a smile. Especially if it’s only a smile.

  40. There was piece in the Washington Post Magazine some 20 years ago (ack!) reporting a newsroom discussion about the best and worst particular words that could appear in your obituary. Everyone wants “beloved”, no one wants “alleged.”

    In my memory, there was a debate over the merits of “fireball.”

  41. To be clear, the movie Lifeforce and the novel Space Vampires are only tenuously related. Aside from the most basic plot situation, there is little other similarity. Having read and loved Space Vampires, it was one of those great cinematic letdowns. But at the same time, Space Vampires was a very cerebral novel, using the plot and characters to exemplify Wilson’s New Existentialist philosophy. It was a bit heavy, but he pulled it off, at least for me. I’m sure other readers might be ground to dust before completing it. But I’d just finished The Outsider and was highly inspired. it still remains a book that has influenced my life greatly. Most of Wilson’s novels were vehicles like that. There were many that put forth his sexual theories, related to living life fully and with maximum energy, which obviously were appealing to a young reader. His Spider World series was meant to by a YA novel series, and was a bit rough around the edges, but also tried to be a vehicle for his philosophical ideas.
    Hopefully Wilson will not be remembered either for Lifeforce or for some of his more odd books in his later years, about alien abductions and such. Having written over 100 books, like any artist there are going to be high and low points.

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