Monday, October 1, 2012

Not Ready for Her Ending

Barbara Kerley’s Sept 13 blog about strong opening paragraphs, Balloons, got me thinking about what makes a good closing. Typically writers and teachers reason that the last sentence needs to sum up, tie together, or provide closure to a narrative. But science, history, and other subjects such as human rights [a personal favorite] change, grow, and evolve without an end in sight, or a clear trajectory from the past. So the last paragraph is not necessarily end of story.

Years ago I wrote and photographed a book about the life and times of an eight-year-old dwarf. Her name is Jaime. This was the second book I authored and illustrated, and the first children’s book about dwarfism. I wanted it to be perfect. After spending months and months with Jaime, her family, and her friends, I had a large body of material to easily pare down to a thirty-two-page picture book. But I didn’t have an ending. Over and over I returned to Jaime’s home in New Jersey, trying to uncover that impeccable final phrase that would tie everything together. No luck.

Why couldn’t I get Jaime to say something like this: “Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.” Well, Virginia Woolf had already ended To the Lighthouse with that stunner. But my Jaime was so smart, so wise; she could have come up with something like that. I kept pushing, taping, waiting for a Virginia Woolf moment.
            Finally in exasperation because I was driving him and this wonderful child crazy, my husband said, “She’s eight years old, for goodness sake! [He used stronger language.] She’s not ready for an ending.” Then he closed his eyes and pointed to a group of sentences on the storyboard mess of text and photos strewn across the floor. “There’s your ending.” Lo and behold, the last line was right there patiently waiting for its close up: "I’m like everybody else, just little.” 

In my view the reader does need some kind of closure, but it need not be detailed, complete. I like books that allow the reader a little breathing space, space to wonder. My favorites are the ones where I wistfully reread the last lines before closing the cover.
There are gazillions of great endings in literature. One that particularly moves me is from Oliver Sacks’s Musicophila:But to those who are lost in dementia, the situation is different. Music is no luxury to them, but a necessity, and can have a power beyond anything else to restore them to themselves, and to others, at least for a while.” 
And you? When do you know your book, article or essay is complete? Please share your favorite endings – the ones you have written, and ones you wish you had written?

And Jaime? She’s become a beloved first grade teacher, who continues to think big, and is not nearly ready for her ending.


Deborah Heiligman said...

Well, Susan, what a great way to start October, with tears in my eyes. Thank you for this post. I love thinking about endings. I struggled over the ending of my novel (sorry, I know it's not nonfiction), but when I got it, I smiled and then cried. I am so happy to know what Jamie is doing now, and I just love how you get into your subjects so thoroughly. I will be using YOU and this blog in a talk this weekend. Thank you!

Unknown said...

The most powerful lesson in writing came from my first husband's high school English teacher whom I never met. I wrote a post about his lesson back in March, 2009, "Begin with a Bang, End with a Snap." I've found that often, the close is a huge generalization that is powerful because it is at the close. The last sentence of my book Lots of Rot is "Rotting is a part of the circle of living things." If that sentence had been the first in the book it would have been a huge yawn. I think the same thing could be said of Susan's closing sentence. A powerful closing sentence is usually a weak opening one. Flat, uninteresting writing begins with the generalized conclusion, and preempts the suspense that comes from building the case and making it the point of the book.

Susan E. Goodman said...

Can't remember who said this, but I typed it out and pinned it on my bulletin board: "The first scene shines like a flashlight throughout the story, and the last scene will be haunting, something to chew on."

Susan Kuklin said...

Susan, your quote is perfect. I'm going to put it up on my bulletin board, too, next to "Life Is Huge Reclaim the Awe.

Vicki, your closing sentence is so evocative it would be great anywhere. Rot! What an interesting subject.

And dear Deborah, thanks for the tears, smiles and struggles. Can you take me with you this weekend?

Susanna Reich said...

You're right, Susan, endings are so important. As both a writer and a reader, I feel a great sense of satisfaction when the ending hits just the right note. My favorite quote about endings comes from modern dance choreographer Doris Humphrey. She said "The ending is 40% of the dance." She knew the right ending makes a huge difference to the effectiveness of the entire composition--and it's equally true for piece of music, a dance, a poem, a movie or a book.

Barbara Kerley said...

Great post, Susan.

My favorite endings are the ones that make me want to flip back to page one and read the book again :)

Sandy Brehl said...

A NF book that eventually shaped my life is Karen, by her mother, Marie Killilea, telling the early life of her daughter and their struggles and advocacy for equal opportunities and experiences (long before IDEA). The last line of that has never left me:
I can walk, I can talk, I can read, I can write- I can do anything.

Melissa Stewart said...

Great post, Susan.

I think a good ending often brings the reader full circle, back to the beginning of the book. There is something very satisfying about that.

Susan Kuklin said...

Thank you all for your comments. I'm so glad Susanna mentioned the great choreographer Doris Humphrey. Sandy's last line made me want to read KAREN. And Melissa and Barbara's comments bring us full circle. What a pleasure it is to share this blog with you all.

Elizabeth Levy said...

Great Susan. My favorite ending is "only connect" and this so connects-- and I am thrilled with reading about Jamie. It is such a struggle....