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Telling the stories of our lives
James R. Hagerty | Journalist
BY PETER BOWES | WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 1, 2023
Telling the stories of long, healthy and productive lives is what we do here. We share insights into how people conduct themselves – the habits, hacks, lessons and learning curves that evolve over time. We hear about relationships, athletic adventures and career achievements – the highs and the lows of a life well-lived.
One day, hopefully in the distant future, it will be obituary-time. A few paragraphs politely mentioning some of our milestones along with funeral arrangements and options for flowers. But before it comes to that, have you ever thought about telling your own story?
James R. Hagerty writes obituaries for The Wall Street Journal, but his new book focusses on the living. In Yours Truly: An Obituary Writer’s Guide to Telling Your Story, James shares his skills and insight into how to record the pivotal moments of our lives. He also explains how the process could prove life-enhancing or enlightening and a valuable resource for our loved-ones.
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In this interview we cover:
- The value of having a life story preserved.
- The difference between an obituary and telling your own story
- James’ story as a career obituary writer and journalist
- But I’m not famous or infamous – do I have a story to tell?
- How open do I need to be about every high and low in my life?
- When discretion is the better part of valor
- Saving stories – from letter-writing to social media posts
- Is the process therapeutic?
- How do others benefit from you writing your story?
- The skill of asking questions
- Realizing how little we know about each others’ lives
- Enjoying a long life and career and staying engaged
Connect with James R. Hagerty: The Wall Street Journal | LinkedIn | Twitter | Book: Yours Truly: An Obituary Writer’s Guide to Telling Your Story
“There are so many ways that you can enhance your later years. The fact that you’re dealing with aging means that you’re having new experiences every day. And actually, it wouldn’t hurt to talk about those a little bit. The younger people could learn from those.”James Hagerty
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Peter Bowes: James Hagerty, Welcome to the Live Long and Master Aging podcast.
James Hagerty: Thank you. Pleased to be here.
Peter Bowes: It’s really good to talk to you. We focus very much on the living here and telling people’s stories as they relate to their health and their longevity. So it might seem a little curious that we’re going to focus here on obituaries, but maybe it isn’t so curious and unusual, because what I get certainly from your book is that we live lives and we experience a long running story that is worth telling. And my sense is that just the process of telling the story can be life enhancing for the person writing the story.
James Hagerty: Definitely, yeah. As an obituary writer, I’m always struck by the reactions of family members when somebody dies. I often talk to the adult children of people who have died and they are so eager to have that story preserved. But often they know so little about that story. And so that made me think people really have to, you know, take the narrative into their own hands and start telling their story when they’re young and keep telling it and find ways to preserve the most important parts of their story.
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Peter Bowes: What is the difference between telling your own story that is meant as an obituary as opposed to an autobiography? I guess the difference is the publication date one is oftentimes published while you’re still alive. An obituary clearly is once you’ve died.
James Hagerty: Right. Yeah. I think the word obituary is a problem here because people have most people have the idea that the obituary is just a short note that has a few names and dates and achievements and maybe a flowery quote from somebody and then details about the funeral service. But that’s not what I have in mind when I try when I say, let’s preserve your life story. I think people should just think of it as I want to save some of my best stories, the ones that will be meaningful to my friends and family and maybe my grandchildren and great grandchildren rather than thinking I’m going to write my obituary. Now, if you do that. Certainly some of those stories might find a place in a well written obituary someday, but I don’t think people should really worry about the obituary. I think they should worry about what do I want to be remembered about me? What do I want people to understand about me? What did I go through here on Earth and why? And what did I learn from it?
Peter Bowes: Well, we’re going to delve into that in a second. Maybe we could start this by, as you say in your book. Let’s start at the beginning and maybe tell me a little bit about yourself and how you came to specialize in this area of storytelling.
James Hagerty: Sure. Well, I’ve been a journalist since I was about five years old and had my own neighborhood papers. So I’ve always been a journalist. And I began my professional career when I was in college. I joined the Wall Street Journal full time at age 22, and I’ve now been there for more than 40 years. And at the beginning of my career, if somebody had told me, You’re going to be an obituary writer, I said, Oh, no, because obituaries were thought to be, Oh, this is something that you give to somebody who’s just been hired or somebody who’s too, too old and tired to do anything serious. And I always thought of obituaries just as a brief note. But when I was based in London in the eighties and then again in the early 2000s, I noticed that I was reading obituaries in some of the British papers about people I’d never heard of. And I found these stories so interesting that I wanted to go back to them every day. And I began to think, you know, obituaries are really interesting, their history, and they’ve got lessons about what people went through. They’re often very inspiring. They’re often amusing. They should be amusing. And I thought, you know, one day I wouldn’t mind doing this. At the time, The Wall Street Journal wasn’t at all interested in obituaries, but eventually they came around and about eight years ago, they said they asked if anybody on the staff wanted to write obituaries full time. And I think out of over 1000 journalists, only two people volunteered. I was one of them, and I got the job. That was seven years ago that I started. I’ve probably written 900 or more obituaries since then, and it’s really the best job I’ve ever had.
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Peter Bowes: It’s fascinating to me because in my day job for the BBC, I often have to do obituaries, broadcast obituaries. These are not long form written obituaries. And very often it’s something that you have to use the term, you’ve got to turn the story around pretty quickly. Maybe I have a couple of hours in terms of the deadline. So it’s a lot of fast work. And oftentimes my frustration is that once getting into it, I wish I’d had months to really delve into that person’s lifestyle, to talk about, to talk to their friends, to talk to the people that really knew them. The time in broadcasting just doesn’t allow you that. But it seems to me to do the job properly. And you’ve kind of indicated this to do the job properly, you really need to nurture the script and really get under the skin of that person.
James Hagerty: Yes. Every time I write an obituary, a, I wish I had more time to do research, but, I really wish I could talk to this person. Now, on rare occasions I actually have, but usually I haven’t. And so I’m relying on what friends say, what family members say, interviews that they may have given any scrap of information I can find. But I mean, way better shape when people have written down something or recorded an oral history because that’s where they try to explain themselves and they know much better than anybody else.
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Peter Bowes: So how do we approach that process? You go into this in quite some detail in the book, and obviously starting from the beginning, my first thought was writing my own story. Am I going to be inclined to kind of sugarcoat it to to skirt around the bits that weren’t particularly pleasant or memorable about my life?
James Hagerty: Well, you might, but I don’t think you would. You know, what I find is that more people than you would expect actually do write their life stories, often just for the benefit of their family and a few friends perhaps, and themselves. And quite often they are much more frank about the mistakes they’ve made than family members or friends are. You know, when somebody dies, it’s our natural instinct. We want to say nice things about them. That’s part of the grieving process. And a lot of people think, well, an obituary should just be a tribute or a eulogy, and there’s a place for tributes and eulogies. But that’s not a life story. That’s not really the essence of the person usually. And they also had quite a bit the same, you know, if you read obituaries, they were all devoted to their family and they were all kind and generous and wise. And usually life is a bit more complicated than that. And most people, I think, are willing to admit that most people, I think, are almost eager to talk about some of the mistakes they’ve made, maybe not all of them, but some of them and what they learn from them because they see that, you know, this could be helpful to my children. My grandchildren to anybody.
Peter Bowes: Some people, I suspect, might say at least approaching this process, they might say, well, I don’t really have a story to tell. I’m just an ordinary person. I’ve lived my life. I’m not famous. I’m not infamous. And therefore, what should I write about?
James Hagerty: Right. That is a huge stumbling block for people. What I would say is Samuel Pepys wasn’t famous. Anne Frank wasn’t famous. We’re lucky that they saw fit to write down a few things they observed in their lives. And everybody has interesting stories to tell. Some may be more interesting than others. I mean, some people might need a long book to describe the life. Other people may find just a few pages, but whatever you can put down will be useful. I think starting to start with it would be useful to yourself to look back and and think about what you did and why and how it turned out. It’s especially useful if you start that when you’re young and repeat the process regularly because it helps you have a sense of whether you’re really on the right path to achieving what you want to achieve. And it gives you an incentive to try to improve the narrative. I know when I sketched out an obituary for myself as part of writing this book and I thought, Gee, I’m going to have to do a few more good deeds because I want to have more of those to talk about, along with all of the mistakes I made.
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Peter Bowes: And you say start young. And that to me seems obvious that you want to try to capture those memories and then work on it throughout your life. But in reality, practically speaking, how many younger people are inclined to do this when you are at that stage in your life, when you think everything is ahead of you?
James Hagerty: I think you can do it. In my case, when I was going away from home to work, my mom told me, civilized people write home once a week. And so I wrote home once a week every day, every week for over 30 years. So I’ve got quite a bit of a record there of what I did. Today, people don’t write many letters, but they do put a lot of stuff on social media. And it seems to me that if you saved the best of your postings and got rid of 98% of them, which are just trivia, those would be valuable records to have for yourself and for others. You know, when you post something about something important that happened to you. Not just what you ate for lunch, but you know how you finally decided what you were going to major in in college or when you got your first job or when you lost your first job. Any kind of interesting life experience that you find yourself explaining to your friends. It’s good to keep a copy of that for yourself and put it in a little file called Life Story or My Life. Save it for later. Those things add up.
Peter Bowes: It’s interesting, isn’t it? How times have changed. When I read in your book about writing letters when you were younger. It’s exactly what I did with my parents. I moved away from home and I wrote letters and it would come with a stamp on every week from my mom and I would read it and I kept those letters. Times have changed. You mentioned really social media has replaced that. I’m just wondering whether people are more or less inclined to share certain things about themselves in new media. Clearly, the audience is wider for social media and perhaps although some people are very open about what they say, others might not be inclined to share the kind of thoughts that they might have put down using pen and paper. And also the other element to this, of course, is a personal diary, something that isn’t published or even shared with anyone else during your life. Clearly, that’s going to be a big resource?
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James Hagerty: Right. Well, I think on social media, people are pretty used to sharing a lot, very often too much. Not everybody, but many people. And I’d say to people, you know, share what you feel comfortable sharing and you can supplement that. You could write some extra notes about, you know, what you really thought or some of the more disturbing things you had to go through. But it’s good to save that. You know, it becomes a kind of a journal or diary. You can also do a journal or a diary, but that takes quite a bit of discipline. And not too many people will keep that up. If you saved a few stories a year about things that happen to you, that would be very valuable.
Peter Bowes: Is this do you find almost a therapeutic process for some people that clearly the end goal is, is to leave something about your life, but you’re still living? And I’m just wondering if it’s almost cathartic for some people to write about and to relive some of those experiences and actually enhance your life while you’re living.
James Hagerty: Definitely. I mean, there’s been quite a bit of psychological research about people writing down stories about themselves, particularly about bad things that happened. And the findings were that usually afterwards people felt better about it. They felt better about themselves. They felt better in general. And I think it’s probably partly because in thinking about things that went wrong and sorting them out into an explanation, you can sometimes sort of put away some of the pain and resentment and understand, well, it happened. It wasn’t all my fault. It wasn’t all anybody’s fault. And here’s what I learned from it. And then you kind of gone through a healing process. So, you know, I don’t think there’s anything magical about it, but I think it is helpful to think about what you’ve done and why and what you should maybe be doing differently.
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Peter Bowes: You’re listening to the Live Long and Master Aging podcast. My guest is James R. Hagerty, who is the author of a new book, Yours Truly: An Obituary Writer’s Guide to Telling Your Story. I guess, James, the other or perhaps even the main benefit of this is other people. It’s your relatives, it’s your descendants, maybe even descendants that you’re not aware of while you’re alive. It’s leaving your story. To what extent does a work like this benefit other people? What do they get out of it?
James Hagerty: Well, I think partly they get out of it just an understanding of where they came from and. What they’re. For instance, what their parents were doing with their lives. I realize this after my dad died because we wrote an obituary about him and it was accurate. It summarized the jobs he’d held, the awards he’d won, the survivors, some other names and dates. But we didn’t reflect anything about his personality, which I would like to remember, and which maybe his grandchildren would like to know because they never met him. And we didn’t even explain why he became a journalist. Which is a pretty important question for me. And I kick myself for not asking him that. And I find it it’s very common when I talk to children, adult children of people who have died. They really have no idea why mom or dad chose a particular path. They just have accepted that as a given. To me, that’s interesting. A life story shouldn’t be just what you have done. It should be why and how. Those are the interesting parts of the story to me.
Peter Bowes: What advice do you give to people? Clearly, as a journalist, you’re used to doing this. You’re used to asking the questions of people who are very close to others to learn more about their lives. But when it’s within your own family, I can see that for some people that could be perhaps a little awkward that they want to raise the subject, maybe subjects that they’ve never raised with those people who are very close to them. But there are issues that are clearly relevant to their lives and they want to delve into them.
James Hagerty: That’s a very good point. I mean, as a journalist, I’m so used to asking people questions. I ask questions of everybody I meet. I think I drive a lot of them crazy, but I know how to ask questions and most people don’t really know how to ask questions in the sense of interviewing somebody. And so a lot of people will sit down with mom or dad at some point and say, I’m going to ask you some questions. We’re going to record this. And that’s a great idea. The problem is they ask a question. They get the answer and then they just move on to the next question. But a journalist knows that if you ask somebody a question, they rarely answer it completely on the first attempt, and often they completely talk around it. So you need to come back and say, Well, yes, but exactly why did you do that? And could you explain a little bit more clearly this and that. And so it takes a little bit of. Patience and learning about interviewing techniques, which I do discuss in my book. Another problem is that people often will make a recording, but then they’ll just put it in a drawer somewhere, and 30 or 40 years from now it’s on some device that doesn’t exist anymore and can’t be used. So people should think ahead and when they make a recording, make a transcript of it right away, and then go through that transcript and annotate it. Put in the explanations that will be needed for people reading at 20 or 30 years from now, because you might mention Bill or Joe and you and Dad know who Bill and Joe are, of course, but your great grandchildren will not know who they are.
Peter Bowes: You’ve hit a nerve there because I’m in a studio surrounded by cassettes, and I’ve even got some old quarter inch reel to reel tape recordings of the interviews I’ve done during my long career. And it’s a real issue, isn’t it, that the technology is changing so quickly. And even if you have something, as, let’s say, an MP3 file on a computer, it’s corruptible. And so absolutely, I totally agree with you about getting a transcript and getting it immediately to to save those words. One thing that intrigues me is I wonder if some people find out things that they perhaps didn’t want to know, things that are upsetting, things that are a negative, that are maybe, yes, part of the story, but they would have rather left that on a shelf somewhere and not had to deal with it. Does it can it actually create more problems than it resolves in that interview process?
James Hagerty: I think there is a risk of that. And if you’re telling your own life story, you have to be aware of that, that how will this affect other people if I reveal it. And sometimes discretion is the better part of valor. And sometimes, but usually there are ways to admit to mistakes or talk about bad things that happen without really pointing the finger finger at anybody else or without revealing names or places that might cause problems. But. Just admitting what you got wrong, what you learned from it. You tell as much or as little as you want, but it’s something to think about. And I think it’s especially important to think about it. If there are things that you believe your family or friends may not understand about you or things that they should understand better about you. Things that could trouble them if they don’t know more of the story. But I don’t think nobody should feel obliged to reveal everything.
Peter Bowes: And is it a process? Clearly, this is going to appeal to people who have lived a significant chunk of their lives and have stories to tell. Is it a process that you would advise people to complete and basically put a full stop final chapter? That is it. But then obviously they’re going to continue living and we don’t know how long we’re going to continue living for. But I think there’s maybe a human nature in is that wants to complete the project even though the life isn’t complete.
James Hagerty: Right. Yeah. I think it’s never complete, but sometimes people do. They want to make a book. Quite a few people will privately publish something and of course, that’s not going to be complete. But maybe it will be mostly complete. Maybe you do that and then you supplement it and you put in a few more pages later on, a few more notes. When my mom was 79 years old, I sat her down and we talked for several hours and I asked her a lot of questions. And I wrote her life story in about 25 or 30 pages. I did it for her because I knew she wasn’t going to do it, although she was happy to talk to me. And I figured she’s 79 years old. It’s time. How much more can really happen to her? Well, my mom’s now 96 and a lot more happen to her. Very surprising things happen to her that resulted in her appearing on television and getting a book contract. And so I just have to supplement her story a bit. But I’m glad I sat down with her at 79 and got the first 79 years anyway.
Peter Bowes: I’m wondering from your career in terms of writing obituaries and also this project, did something surprise you as you were doing the research for this book? Were you struck by something that is beneficial from this process that you hadn’t realized? You’ve been doing sort of journalistic obituaries, formal obituaries to be published in newspapers, but you’re widening out that idea and that skill for everyone here. Was there something that occurred to you during the process that you hadn’t realized before?
James Hagerty: Well, two things have occurred to me since I became an obituary writer. Well, three things, I guess I would say. First thing we mentioned was how little people know about family members and close friends often. The second thing is this possibility that by thinking about your what’s happened in your life periodically, instead of waiting till you’re on your deathbed, you could actually improve your life. And the third thing is that people very often want to talk about things that you might think are too sensitive. Because when I write obituaries, I’m often dealing with a public relations person to try to find a family member. And the public relations person almost always says, Well, Mr. Hagerty, you understand the family is grieving and they need some space and some time. And I say I know they’re grieving. But please just tell them that I requested to talk with them that would welcome that opportunity. And more than nine times out of ten, they do want to talk to me. And they seem to find it therapeutic. They want to make sure that the story is as accurate as possible, for one thing. And they just want to talk about their loved one. And that made me realize that I’ve been handling grieving people in general in the wrong way. I always used to think, you know, if a friend’s father or mother had died or spouse had died, the next time I saw that person, I didn’t want to bring that up because I thought, oh, I don’t want to reopen those wounds. But often that’s exactly what they do want to talk about. They want to talk about the person they’ve lost. And so I think we have to be open to that without being intrusive, but just not be afraid to ask about somebody who has departed.
Peter Bowes: I’ve found exactly the same thing. I’m based in Los Angeles. Often times have to talk to Hollywood figures about other Hollywood figures who have recently died. And you find yourself talking to people who during normal times you would never get even close to in terms of doing an interview. But for exactly the reasons that you describe, people are keen to talk about their friends, their loved ones, people that were close to them, people who meant a lot to them during their lives. The other thing that I’ve noticed that’s changed dramatically in recent years and we’ve talked about social media is the and this probably proves your point, and that is the inclination of people to go straight onto social media within minutes sometimes of the death of an individual being announced. They want to pay tributes. So you find yourself getting a musician or an actor who’s just died and their very closest collaborators are out there with the long, very intimate sometimes recollections of what that person was like.
James Hagerty: Right. We just had an example of that with David Crosby. Social media lit up with stories about him from famous people.
Peter Bowes: Yeah. Going back to the point that you made about this process, enhancing our lives, literally just writing about our lives, talking to others about our lives that particularly interests me with this podcast. This is a podcast about living. It’s not a podcast about about death. It’s a podcast about enhancing life, physical, mental life, and extending what we call healthspan or healthy lifespan. So living as long as we can with our physical health, our mental capacity. And it occurs to me that what you’re talking about could actually encourage us to think about the time that we have left in a different way and perhaps a more positive way if we’ve maybe reconciled some of the issues from our past and discuss them and find out more that we might approach what’s left of our lives in a slightly different way.
James Hagerty: Yeah, I think I mean, there are so many ways that you can enhance your later years, but one of them, I think, is by thinking about your life, finding ways to share lessons with other people and realizing that things are still happening to you that are of interest. The fact that you’re dealing with aging means that you’re having new experiences every day. And actually it wouldn’t hurt to talk about those a little bit. Younger people could learn from those.
Peter Bowes: And more generally, often a question that I asked people during these interviews in terms of your own longevity. So looking forward in your life, is it something that you actually think about what your life will be like in ten years time, maybe a couple of decades time? And does your work help you think about that? Do you have a certain vision of what it will be like in a few decades time to be living your life?
James Hagerty: I do think about that. I think about how I will spend my time. I’m really a workaholic and have been for forever, and but I now think more about how I can gradually Transition to a period where I won’t be working as much and I shouldn’t be working as much because my abilities, some of my abilities are going to decline and my energy will decline. So I have to think of ways to stay engaged without necessarily working 50 or 60 hours a week. And. I do think that my sort of vocation and hobby of asking people about their lives and writing about their lives and also asking myself about my life and writing about it, that these are things that I can continue to do that will be useful for me and perhaps for a few others as well.
Peter Bowes: We are lucky enough. We’re privileged enough to be doing a job where it is actually quite easy to keep on going. There isn’t. I mean, clearly there’s a certain element of physical stamina, but a lot of this is actually quite easy just to keep on going, providing there are the hours in the day.
James Hagerty: Yeah, I think you can go a long, long time as a journalist. My mom is 96 years old. She’s still writing two newspaper columns a week in North Dakota. So she shows that the fact that she has stayed active, although at a somewhat slower pace, I think has really helped her in her old age because she stayed very connected with a lot of people. And she has a mission every day when she gets up.
Peter Bowes: What response have you had from people since you published this book? Clearly, many people are aware of the kind of work that you do, but just opening this door, opening this window of opportunity, as you do to a lot of people, explaining the value of personal stories. What response have you had?
James Hagerty: Very positive. I think it’s remarkable how many people have thought about telling their stories. Want to do it? Many have tried. Some are still just thinking about it. But a lot of people want to know more about it and want to know how they could do it better. And you notice in the market place, there are an ever increasing number of programs and apps and services that will help you tell your life story. So obviously, entrepreneurs have seen this as a big growth area and they’ve noticed that some some modern technology actually makes it easier. So I think overall that’s a positive thing. You can get an app that will send you or your loved one a question every week and they answer the question about their life. And then this can be assembled into a book that can be a good thing for somebody who needs a prompt. And there are many other types of services, anything you can imagine almost to help you, or you can do it yourself and follow my methods. But for everybody, it’s going to work a little bit differently. So I don’t think there’s a formula for it. I think it’s something that people should think about. You know, what do I want to save? How do I want this? What, from my life story do I want to save? Now, just as you write a will to determine what will happen to your money after you die. You should think about, well, what will happen to my best stories? You know, I can’t leave it to my son to tell because he’s going to get half the details wrong. So if I want to save this story, I better write it down or record it.
Peter Bowes: Well, James, I think it’s a fascinating area. Thoroughly enjoyed your book. I hope it does inspire lots of people to do exactly what we’ve been talking about. Thank you very much indeed.
James Hagerty: Thank you.
Peter Bowes: And I’ll put details of James’s book into the show notes for this episode. You’ll find them at our website, LLAMApodcast.com and the various platforms where we publish, including YouTube for video and the audio version at Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and many more. Thank you so much for listening.
The Live Long and Master Aging podcast, a HealthSpan Media LLC production, shares ideas but does not offer medical advice. If you have health concerns of any kind, or you are considering adopting a new diet or exercise regime, you should consult your doctor.