Creative Writing – The Master Writer

The Master Writer

W. James Jonas III

May 2006

“John Smith (not a real person) went to be with the Lord on Thursday evening (not the real date) concluding a legacy of caring service to this community that has been unmatched by any political leader of the last century.”  With the first sentence out of the way, Jason could stretch and get his first cup of coffee.

It was just another day in the Pre-Obituary Department of the Atlanta Tribune.  Jason Justice is not just any obituary writer; he is the Master Writer – a title he earns and defends each day with words praising the lives of the recently departed.  While most papers, including the Tribune, allow the most inexperienced writers to populate the ranks of the traditional obituary writing section, that is not appropriate staffing for the signature “Tribune Tributes” written for the noteworthy of the community, nation, and world.

What began as a way to compete with the other local paper, when this was a two paper town, has now become a signature strength of Atlanta’s only surviving daily newspaper.  Neither CNN nor any form of cyber-news will be able to displace the Tribune as the premier source of the final word on a great man or woman.  More often than not, the Tribune’s Tributes are taken as the national version of obituaries commemorating the passing of notables far beyond those that are from the Atlanta area.  The secret is more than exhaustive research; it is pre-written content authored by Master Writer Jason Justice.

I spend the first half of each day writing tributes for imaginary characters with very specific traits.  My first one this morning will be honoring a famous statesman.  Yesterday, it was a  nurse who was also a decorated veteran of two wars.  By mid-morning, I will begin a piece for the passing of a beloved mother and leader in the charitable community.  Each of these tributes becomes part of my library of material for the work of the afternoon.

Every day after lunch, there is an email message, from my editor, for me.  The email replaces the sealed envelope of my earlier times in this same position.  The message contains a list of names, of real people, and a brief description of their activity of note.  On most days, I recognize a large number of the names, but some of the individuals I will not recognize.  An afternoon list in 1980s still captures a great sample of what I see each day: Mike Wallace – Journalist, David Lee Roth – Singer, Hunter S. Thompson – Author, Horace Beverly – Minister; you probably recognize the first three, but everyone on the eastside of Atlanta would know Brother Beverly as does his very large congregation and television audience throughout the Southeastern United States.  On that afternoon, none of those people were dead or even thought to be terminally ill; that is the same for the individuals on my list this afternoon.

Each afternoon, I create the tributes of the future.  I believe extraordinary eloquence is never completely spontaneous, and in the case of Tribune Tributes, it is never allowed.  A truly great man or woman can only be captured in an obituary written in advance, periodically reviewed, and maintained with care until it is time to publish in the future.

Throughout the day, we receive electronic notifications of the death certificates issued or statements of passing that are provided from countless recognized medical facilities, law enforcement, and news sources.  Those notifications authorize access to whatever is in our database on that individual.  Our collection of pre-obituaries is vast and the index is highly confidential.  Prior to a death notice, no one, other than me, has access to this database; it is job security for me and asset security for the Tribune.  Further, it follows the most simple rule on how to keep a secret – only one living person knows.

In my business, updating is a necessary fact, so the final hour of my day is dedicated to updating the Tributes I had completed by mid-afternoon a few years, or months, earlier.  Sometimes, this requires an entire new version (a constant issue with television evangelists and political leaders).  Other times, a minor update is all that is necessary (as I did for George Burns, Eubie Blake, and Vladimir Horowitz for many many years).

How does my editor select the afternoon names?  Only once was I mildly interested in knowing, and in fact, today I do not know the name of my editor; the originating email address, for the afternoon messages I receive, relates to the editorial position – not a specific name.  For all I know, my editor, today, may not be a person but is some type of editorial software package that selects names and sends them to me.  My only contact is the afternoon messages and the Tributes I forward when there is a death of someone in my database.  The last time I knew the first name of my editor was over 20 years ago; the assignment was still new, and there was a level of curiosity in me that is long gone.

The editor (now, his first name escapes me too) explained his selections for my afternoon list in terms of a portfolio of four categories of investments: 1. Nationally recognized blue chip stocks – famous people who reached their 70th birthday, 2. Stocks on the watch list – individuals of note that were rumored to be having medical tests (anyone reported going to the Mayo or other leading diagnostic clinic) or were prone to dangerous conduct (usually rock stars, motorcyclists, and, starting in 1984 up until a few years ago, any male performer with an alternative life style), 3. Stocks of local interest – blue chips for the region, and 4. Venture Capital – no one expects them to die but if they did, it would be news – big news (Anyone who has had their wedding covered by the international media, won a major golf tournament, or been successful in reaching any number of real or figurative summits established by western culture is certainly part of this group.) .  It is not always easy for me to identify all four categories on any given day, but there is no reason to believe the approach has changed.

In the afternoon, facts, where I have them, are important, but the critical factor is to tell a great story.  How would those that knew this person want to read about him or her in the first few hours or days after such a passing?  How can I make readers, who did not directly know this person, feel like it was worth reading my tribute?  How can I do a better job, in 500 words, of summarizing a life than was possible in a lifetime of accomplishment?  The burden is real, but often ignored by other papers.  That is why our Tribune Tributes dominate death announcements throughout the country.

Long ago, we stopped limiting ourselves to writing about individuals of strictly national recognition or of note in Atlanta.  Today, we seek to be the source for honoring the home town and home state heroes throughout the country as well.  Our inventory includes tributes for every person who has served, but not yet died, as a governor for any state, as a member of the United States Congress or Senate,  and CEOs and Presidents for the Fortune 500.

In recent years, I have begun adding others, to the database, in my spare time.  Without an editor controlling what is in the database, it is easy to add to the inventory as I please.  In a world where bits of data take up almost no space, there is little objection to my additions.  I have no reason to expect that these will ever be used as Tribune Tributes, but when a person (famous or not) dies that is in the database, the material becomes available for the traditional obituary, written by our youngest writers, as well as our acclaimed Tributes.

On certain days, the additions I have made are a form of personal therapy.  The initial version of my mother’s tribute reflected our most recent argument more than her nationally recognized work with the Red Cross.  It has given me hours of amusement to think about the families and friends of the few people I consider enemies (and who enjoy national or regional recognition) when they read, some day in the future that their “well loved and brilliant” dearly departed “was periodically haunted by private passions of the most imaginative nature”  or “was called honey cakes by a select group of friends” (please know, I paid a great deal of money for first tier legal opinions that confirm such passages are not slander).

Perhaps some would see these little private passages as unprofessional, but I would ask them to help define, for me, … my profession.  It is not news reporting.  Perhaps it is pre-news.  I am not sure it is anything more than creative writing and am quite relieved that obituaries and our Tribune Tributes are located in the Food and Amusements section of the paper.

My additions are not exclusively petty or vengeful.  There are Tributes that may never be published, but my tribute to them is catalogued and ready, because they have made a difference – even when others may not know it.  My garage attendant Joe Armstrong, my High School English teacher that decided smoking pot on the day before Christmas vacation was a mistake she would ignore and not a criminal violation of the laws of the time, my first employer, and my mother are all subjects of written yet unpublished tributes, part of the Tribune’s database, and listed in alphabetical order.

Tonight, I am staying late.  For some reason, my writing day does not feel complete.  The individuals on the afternoon list were completed hours ago, but the writing continues – tribute, after tribute, after tribute.  The process ends for each piece with the file being saved under the person’s name.  Tributes to my neighbor, to my uncles (both Korean War heroes), my dad, my brother, and it seems like I will write all night.   Finally, the last tribute is completed, spell checked, and the “Save File As – Jason Justice” command is entered.  Time to go home.

The office was filled with more tension and less noise than anyone could remember.  Josie just graduated from Georgia Tech and had not completed her internship, but someone needed to take over the Master Writer position.  Late last night, one taxi cab became an unnecessary and unfortunate addition to what could have been a very targeted dispute between two urban gangs firing assault weapons at each other.  That unfortunate circumstance has created a vacancy and an immediate assignment – a Tribune Tribute for the fallen Master Writer.

Josie’s education at Journalism School had taught her to seek first person sources, so she got the phone numbers of family members.  The call to the mother was a mistake, but the call to the brother was helpful.  “What do you remember most fondly about Jason?”  “Look kid, his name was not Jason, it was Erik Fishman; that Jason Justice junk was an invention of the newspaper.”  A more productive dialogue followed, and by the time the Tribune’s technology section had provided her with the log-in and password for the previous Master Writer, she had two pages of notes.

She had one hour until deadline, the paper had decided that the Master Writer deserved a Tribune Tribute but it must be published now.  She felt totally ill-equipped for such a task, but she did have her notes, from visiting with the family, and now had access to his computer files.  Searching the files generated zero.  Now that Josie knew the Master Writer’s real name, it never occurred to her that she should check under the name he had used in the paper, Jason Justice; after all, these were his private files – would Superman list personal information under Clark Kent?  Such is the logic of a cub reporter working on deadline, but there is always the luck of youth.

Her luck was finding a passage the Master Writer had printed and left on the desk …” the critical factor is to tell a great story.  How would those that knew this person want to read about him or her in the first few hours or days after such a passing?  How can I make readers, who did not directly know this person, feel like it was worth reading my tribute?  How can I do a better job, in 500 words, of summarizing a life than was possible in a lifetime of accomplishment?”  She stopped looking in his computer files and started writing.


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