Six years…and that’s not counting the revisions. Entire residential subdivisions have sprung up around you in less time. New sections of interstate have been constructed. National monuments refaced. Six years ago, you helped elect a new President and have since come to regret it. Six years ago you had no children. Now, you have two. In six years, the few wily strands of gray hair you once had have spread across your head like tundra. Dictators have been deposed. Big-name celebrities have died. And all along, you’ve sat right there at that chair, staring out past the blinking cursor of your computer screen through a window as the seasons have paraded past.
It took some time, along with an impossible-to-overstate amount of dedication and commitment, but six years, 2,917 cigarettes, 22,310 cups of coffee and one or two near-divorces later, you’ve finally done it. You’ve written your book.
Let me be the first to congratulate you. It couldn’t have been easy. All that time spent thinking and being alone and waiting for inspiration to strike. You do know there are any number of other hobbies that would have been far less taxing on the psyche and more conducive to a social life, right? Like golfing. Or bowling. But that’s just it…it’s not a hobby. The tale you’ve told, and the voice by which it’s been rendered, is something that’s been with you for a very long time. Something that needed to be expressed. An idea, or a memory, or an experience from the long-ago that you’ve slowly managed to dredge to the surface and put into words. You’ve breathed life into characters and situations that may or may not be manifestations of your own fears and desires. If you really had to, you could spend the next 20 years making revisions and changes since you’ll never be completely satisfied with what you’ve written. So, you’ve just learned not to obsess so much over it, taking small comfort in the thought that in the quiet moments of their fictional lives, you are the one your characters ponder. The one they silently pray to. To them, you are God.
And so, with the story’s climax now comfortably behind you and your tale all but told, you need a place to set it down; a good stretch of runway to land this literary 747 you’ve been flying all these years. After all, the trick isn’t starting the revolution, it’s knowing how to end it.
How many times have you quantum-leaped to the back page of a book to read its final sentence? The better question might be why? Was it impatience? Curiosity? Or, were you expecting some final string of words to give you an assurance that the conflict and the drama you’ve invested yourself in will ultimately lead to some satisfying and meaningful disclosure? Kinda like asking mid-film a friend, who already knows the ending, whether the dog lives. In The Broom of the System, David Foster Wallace seemed to sabotage this temptation by not just ending the book mid-plot, but also mid-sentence. Surely we must concede that DFW was an exception to the rule. His genius earned him this pass.
Unlike writers of commercial fiction, a writer of serious novels might try to avoid at all costs the saccharine tone of a tidy ending. As humans, we’re wired to ponder the what-ifs. The alternate, exploratory path of darkness we consider every now-and-then is what allows us to gauge the level of our contentment in life.
When writing a story, I tend to stay away from ‘happy’ endings in the traditional sense. Although I always strive to reward the reader with something satisfactory for their investment, I can’t, in good conscience, let the character off so easily. That’s not to say each character I write is doomed to live out their days in sorrow and torture. I’ve written characters who were far better off at the conclusion of the story than they were at its beginning. I’m simply inclined more to provide an ending that works for the character – a compromise, more or less – that might still keep the object of their true salvation just out of reach. We see this in the conclusion of David Long’s hauntingly beautiful novel, The Inhabited World, in which it is nothing more than hope that the character, Evan Molloy, is willing to accept. Yet, Long concludes with a brilliant, if not slightly abrupt, sentence that, quite literally, captures the essence of life, itself.
Admittedly, I believe there’s a certain providence that comes with an embedded and nicely-worded ending – be it on page or in life – though I vow never to rely solely on it to prove the worth of a story or the veracity of its author. Think about it: would Walden have had such an important cultural impact if all anyone knew about Henry David Thoreau was that his final words in life were actually “moose…indian…”?