Reading between hardcovers: On Matt Schudel, storytelling and why English prose is still so relevant

Matt Schudel, 61, is one of the Washington Post’s resident obituary writers, and longtime veteran of journalism. (Photo Credit: Meg Maclean)

The metal dots on his glasses almost make his eyes light up a little more than usual. His smooth hair fell almost perfectly on both sides of his head, paired with a perfectly matched black and charcoal grey suit with gold buttons. He resembles a figure plucked straight from London, behind a typewriter. Well dressed, well spoken, almost as if he chose his words prior to the conversation you’re having with him; he never skips a beat. Except his desk, cluttered with newspapers with headlines from weeks past, coffee cups and dictionaries of both language and film, which fill in the spaces where Schudel does his daily work. This extra clutter might signify he’s had a busy week.

“Sorry, it’s kind of a mess right now,” says Schudel, 61, trailing off a bit with a sheepish tone as he rolls up his sleeves and reshuffles his newspapers.

Schudel works at his desk on a typical Wednesday morning at the Washington Post. (Photo Credit: Meg Maclean)

Schudel, long-time veteran writer for the Washington Post and native Nebraskan, has been in the writing business for more than 25 years. Starting out at the US News and World Report book section, and working jobs everywhere from Raleigh, North Carolina to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Schudel has gained a vast knowledge of multiple subjects, an expertise in English prose and a love of language and life. He and his wife currently reside in the Washington D.C. area, and are the “parents” of two young cats.

In his current position as one of the Washington Post’s obituary writers, Schudel finds that his expansive expertise in music, art, sports and literature come in handy in many instances. Even his bio on the Washington Post website credits Schudel as an experienced writer who has covered everything from murder cases, to wild armadillos and the space program.

In his current professional career, he is praised for writing the obituaries and narratives of many towering figures such as Muhammad Ali, in Schudel’s book “Muhammad Ali: The Birth of a Legend” which was published in 1999, and even some as recent as Frank Sinatra Jr. He has written multiple pieces on everyone from Junko Tabei, the first women to summit Mount Everest, to Bob Cranshaw, a jazz bassist who spent five decades with Sonny Rollins.

“It’s one of the few jobs in journalism where being older and more experienced is actually an advantage because you have a memory of these things,” Schudel says, reflecting on his time spent in a myriad of writing positions and lightly tapping his fingers on his coffee mug. “Plus, I’ve always been more writer-ly than I am a reporter — my favorite stories were always profiles on people.”

Schudel also notes that his position is an extremely specialized one, with a very sparse population of journalists interested in writing obituaries. He says there are usually never more than 25 full-time obituary writers in the country, with papers like the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times cutting their obit staff some years ago. But he’ll tell you any day that it’s rewarding work.

“To me, there’s nothing more interesting than a human life and what people do…that is what really captivates me,” Schudel said.

But all people get their beginnings somewhere. Schudel grew up in North Loup, Nebraska. The current population is 297, and the last graduating class of Schudel’s high school had a whopping three kids cross the commencement stage, upon which the school closed for lack of funding and student population. The community is 100 percent white, and 100 percent rural. Most kids grew up on farms and were accustomed to the rugged, isolated lifestyle farm-areas commonly offer. His parents, both of whom grew up in the North Loup area as well, came from a long line of Swiss immigrants. He notes that his great-grandfather never spoke a word of English, even though he lived in North Loup for nearly 50 years. Although an unconventional upbringing, Schudel says his humble beginnings set the stage for his outlook on life.

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but I grew up in this very practical world — you have to know how to fix things,” Schudel said. “And in some ways, rural people are considered gullible…The fast-talking city slicker comes by and soon enough, you’re fleeced of your money and hopes and dreams. But on the other hand, there’s a certain practicality that you learn and a certain skepticism toward people, which I think is useful.”

With a soft laugh, Schudel also concluded that the hard-and-fast description for the lesson he learned from his upbringing could be summed up one way.

“It basically means I’ve got a pretty good bullshit detector,” he said.

After Schudel graduated high school at North Loup, he attended college at the University of Nebraska. He notes that, as a young farm kid from a rural community, he hadn’t a clue in the world about what he wanted to be.

“The only two professions I knew in life were that I could be a doctor or a lawyer. And I didn’t know anything else existed,” Schudel shrugged.

The only things he knew was his love of music was strong, and his English teacher in high school had advised him to stay in the arts. But, once he started college, he chose to major in Political Science. Schudel stuck to that major for almost two years, until his world was revolutionized.

Journalist Tom Wolfe came to speak on campus one afternoon, and little did Schudel know, this would alter the course of his career. He was required to attend Wolfe’s lecture for what was called an “Introduction to Expository Writing” class, but Schudel also points out that that would now be considered a Literary Non-Fiction course.

“This was the first time I had really been — except by music — deeply moved by an artistic expression,” Schudel recollects, sitting up in his chair and looking out the window. “I realized later that [Wolfe] was quoting from his own books, and he was re-creating them as a spoken monologue. It was just his power of language.”

After witnessing the “power of language” that Wolfe seemed to harness for this group of young undergraduates at the University of Nebraska, Schudel would go on to change his major to English and become an expert of prose and fine writing. The funny thing is, is it was all started by a seemingly random lecture assigned by a professor.

“I probably wouldn’t have gone on my own,” Schudel said lightheartedly, gazing out the window. “It changed my life… It was his use of the language not just to convey information, but to create this personal world filled with detail — that’s what struck me so much.”

After he finished undergrad, Schudel moved on to attend graduate school at the University of Virginia, and earn a master’s degree in English. He held a myriad of positions, starting at the now-defunct Washington Star’s book section, and the US News and World Report Book wing, all the way to Fort Lauderdale’s Sunday magazine, the Sunset Magazine, and finally, the Washington Post as a copy editor and obituary writer. This is just a sample of the experience Schudel has if you were to glance at his resume. Schudel is an extremely humble man, and if you ask his colleagues, they will readily explain that Schudel has written on just about everything.

Washington Post Obituary editor Adam Bernstein has worked alongside and overseen Schudel for almost 7 years. He says that Schudel’s arsenal of intellect and knowledge have served him well in his role as a writer for those who have passed.

“It’s incredibly useful in this kind of job that requires him to be an expert on jazz one day, and sports on the next,” Bernstein said. “It’s one thing after another, and his work is consistently of high-quality…He grew up on a pig farm, and yet is very learned when it comes to towering figures in the arts, details in sports, so he’s an all-around expert on everything. His knowledge is deep, as well as broad.”

Bernstein chuckles when he remembers one of Schudel’s most memorable obituaries he’s written. When the literary giant John Updike died in 2009, the obituary staff had absolutely no warning, and had nothing prepared.

“[Updike is] a towering figure in letters, and it’s a very intimidating story to have to write, and we were not prepared to write an obit, to say the least…Matt had three hours — maybe three and a half — and he pulled it off and got it on the front page,” Bernstein said.

Of course, Bernstein added, a man with the stature of Updike would have made the front page in almost any circumstance. But he firmly explained that there are “artless ways of writing things off the front page,” but “Matt wrote an exemplary piece that sailed right onto the front page,” despite major time constraints.

“And I always hold it against him now if he doesn’t file things on time. ‘Hey pal, you wrote John Updike in three hours…’” Bernstein joked.

Longtime friend and former editor John Dolen says he and Schudel were jazz buddies, but Dolen also adds that he too immediately noticed how Schudel’s worldly knowledge shone through in his work and how he lived his life.

“He was very much a stylist and I learned a lot about fine writing from him” Dolen describes, recollecting their time spent together at piano bars and other jazz venues. “We pretty much shared a love of life, you know? He is a gentleman. A true gentleman in the classic sense of the word.”

But despite Schudel’s expanse of writing experience with vouches from distinguished colleagues, when asked about a writer’s proverbial “voice”, something many writers seem to fantasize about finding, Schudel dismisses that you can never truly find that voice. He quotes New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell on the topic of experience, and stands by Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule”, in which to become proficient in any profession, one must dedicate 10,000 hours to it. Although Schudel has well over 10,000 hours worth of experience, he believes that there is always something to learn.

“Practice and repetition make you better, and if it’s something you actually like, then you’re more engaged in it and will want to improve,” Schudel says, reflecting on his career and adjusting his glasses. “The “voice” comes organically and it’s not something you can impose…to me it’s a process…To me, every paragraph has one sentence too many, and every sentence has one or two words too many. And my goal is to eliminate everything that’s unnecessary.”

Schudel emphasizes that his process when he writes is to use ultimate clarity, and varying sentence and paragraph lengths. In a teacher-like fashion, he explains that if you have too many short sentences in a paragraph, it can become incredibly tedious to read, but if you use just the right amount of long and short sentences, the ebb and flow of ideas will effectively keep the reader’s focus. But there’s nothing better than ending a paragraph on a one-syllable word to wrap up any piece, he says.

“It’s almost like a well-made cabinet that clicks when you put everything together.”

But as for Schudel’s ultimate goal, he’s still working on it. But he also says he still finds immense pleasure and happiness in his time outside of the office. He and his wife have been married 16 years. They met in response to a story Schudel wrote in Florida about dating mishaps and calamities, coincidentally. He notes that he got tons of email responses after the story was published. But one email stuck out to him.

“One was very funny, and particularly literate. We struck up a correspondence, we met up some weeks later, and we’ve been together ever since.”

But beyond his love of his wife, his cats, jazz and reading, Shudel has always had an ultimate goal. His original dream was to write a book, but he begrudgingly admits that that hasn’t made a headway yet.

“For a long time I was disappointed in myself,” Schudel said, furrowing his brow slightly. “I used to keep a journal — which I’ve sort of abandoned — But every year at my birthday I’d sort of look back and say well this is another year of failure. ‘You haven’t written your book, you should be writing great literature,’ [I’d say to myself.] My goal when I started all of this was to write the best non-fiction prose in American English. That’s always sort of been my craft; creating beautiful sentences. But you have to have something to write about…There’s still a certain yearning there for me. But I’m too lazy. I really can’t do anything without a deadline. “

Although, it must not be overlooked that his long career has served a purpose, and he has a lot of learning and writing left to do.

“I’m fairly content with where I am, although I want to continue doing great work for as long as I can,” Schudel said, walking back to his desk, coffee mug in hand.

Schudel stands in front of one of the Post’s newsrooms walls, featuring a quote from former publisher Ben Bradlee which reads: “The truth, no matter how bad, is never as dangerous as a lie in the long run.” (Photo Credit: Meg Maclean)

“One piece of advice I’d give someone moving forward though, is this,” Schudel says, summarizing both lessons he had learned through life and writing. “Don’t focus so much on what is coming now out on your Twitter feed. Read something between hardcovers that’s existed since before you were born. Try to understand how things are put together, and how writers construct sentences and paragraphs, and it will make you a better writer. And possibly a better person.”