All about you: Telling your life story

Everyone has a story to tell.  No one can tell your life story as well as you, so why leave it up to someone else?

James R. “Bob” Hagerty, Jefferson Drive, is a reporter and editor for the Wall Street Journal who’s been telling other people’s stories as the Journal’s only full-time obituary writer.

In his new book Yours Truly: An Obituary Writer’s Guide to Telling Your Story, he offers advice on telling your story your way. “Ninety percent of obituaries are dull. Names, dates, survivors and details about the funeral home,” he said. “They give zero sense of the person’s personality, the joys and the sorrows, what they learned, what they’d like people to know about them, so it’s totally inadequate, I think.”

Released in December 2022, Yours Truly was listed by the Washington Post as one of the 10 “noteworthy” books published that month.

Writing your own story isn’t as difficult as it might seem. Hagerty suggests starting at the beginning. Talk a little bit about your family, then discuss when you were born and how you grew up. Why did you go down a particular career path? “How people got into a career is a good story of influences, coincidences, mistakes made and corrected,” he pointed out.

Hagerty recommends creating two versions of your life story—one brief version to be used as an obituary for your family to send to a newspaper or website, and a longer version for your friends and loved ones. “Someday, that story is going to be precious to somebody. And another person is not going to get it right. You can get it right,” he said.

As for Hagerty’s life story, he grew up in North Dakota, the son of two journalists. Before moving to Mt. Lebanon 17 years ago, he and his family lived in the New York suburbs, but he hated the commute.

Someone suggested he move to Pittsburgh, where the Wall Street Journal had a bureau. He had never been to Pittsburgh, but heard it’s a good place to raise a family.

Hagerty knew he wanted a walkable community with excellent schools within a train ride to downtown Pittsburgh. Voila! He landed in Mt. Lebanon, where you might recognize him from beer-tasting fundraisers at Mt. Lebanon Public Library, or the Scrabble club he directs.

The idea for a book grew out of a 2019 story he wrote in the Wall Street Journal titled “An Obituary Writer Writes One for Himself.” The article got a good response, which led to interest from book agents and eventually a book deal.

“I think my book is the perfect gift for anyone who has a story to tell,” he added. “Telling your story your way can be the best gift you ever give to friends and loved ones—and yourself.”

“Yours Truly: An Obituary Writer’s Guide to Telling Your Story” is available in bookstores and online.