March 1st, 2010

Endings

I’m off to Waterloo tomorrow to do a reading for and have discussion with a group of high-school students who have been studying one of my stories, “Fruit Factory.” Doing such a talk is a rare honour and a treat for various reasons, many obvious, I’m sure (what human doesn’t like it when people pay close attention to something that that human has worked very hard on?) One that might be less obvious is that, since the teacher can guarantee that (at least most of) the students have read the entire story, I can read and discuss the ending.

Endings are very very difficult to write–Sam Shephard said in the New Yorker that, “I hate endings… Just detest them. Beginnings are definitely the most exciting, middles are perplexing, and endings are a disaster.” And he’s been writing for 30 or so years and is thought to be one of the foremost playwrights of… Oh, despair. What hope is there for the rest of us?

Obviously, the rest of us struggle on, and when we hit on an ending that we think is good and resonant and true to the rest of the story while also surprising and maybe even illuminating in some way, we are damn proud of ourselves–it doesn’t happen very often. It’d be nice to get to share it your own self occasionally.

Of course, I’m not kidding myself that my stories are rife with suspense, nor am I of the opinion that knowing the ending of something “ruins” the pleasure of reading the rest. But structuring a story, arranging what happens when, is hard too–almost as hard as writing an ending. In separate places, I’ve seen story experts as impressive as Alice Munro and John Metcalf say they don’t necessarily read stories from beginning to end in sequence, but rather jump around, like moving from room to room in a house (that’s Munro being paraphrased there–I’m sorry but I’m not going to be able to find these citations).

That makes me sad, although it makes some sense, too. Certainly I can gauge the emotional tension and intensity, the sense of humour, the clarity and poetry of language if I start in the middle, but I don’t get the events as the writer lived them with the characters, and how he or she wanted to place them in my imagination. You can take someone’s temperature in lots of places on their bodies, but if you want to know how that person is actually feeling, it’s best to just let them tell you (hmmm, is that metaphor working?)

I put a lot of deliberation into making the order of the story make sense to the characters and their worlds–so that’s how I want it to make sense to the reader too. There’s no reason why a story won’t be enjoyable or interesting or perfectly understandable out of order–but that’s not how I meant to do it. You might not love it, like it, or even get it the way I did, but I want to give you every chance.

So I don’t read endings aloud at events where I assume no one’s read it. They might not be going to read it, actually–this might be our one and only encounter–but I’d generally like people to enter the story at the point I worked out as the beginning. So I read beginnings, for the most part, or whole stories if they’re short enough, when I do public readings.

But! I like my endings, too! Some of them took a dozen drafts and years of work–if I feel like I finally got it, I take a lot of pleasure in the words as they fell into place and I enjoy sharing them aloud. And even if I do feel like I nailed it, I am very much open to feedback to the contrary–there’s always next time–and there’s nothing like reading aloud to elicit an honest answer from some people.

So whenever I know the audience has read the work, I choose the ending as my selection to read aloud. This has only happened a few times and I’ve never done “Fruit Factory”‘s ending before. So this evening will find me at home standing on a chair, praticing and tomorrow–who knows what they’ll think!

RR

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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