Finding Your Way to the End

Image: a sign printed with the words "text will go here," draped over a wall
Placeholder by Kevan is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Today’s post is by author Sharon Oard Warner.


“One of the things I love most about this life is that there’s no final goodbye. You know, I’ve met hundreds of people out here and I don’t ever say a final goodbye.”

—Bob Wells in Nomadland

Sound familiar? The quote is from the promotional campaign for the new film, Nomadland. Winner of the 2021 Golden Globe for Best Picture Drama, Nomadland documents the itinerant lifestyle of thousands of older Americans who refer to themselves as “vandwellers.” Bob Wells serves as a shaman of sorts to these wanderers. Rather than say goodbye, possibly for good, Wells prefers an upbeat, “See you down the road!“

Given that many of us sidestep endings in real life, it should not be surprising that writers have trouble concluding book projects. If you are one of those struggling to find an ending for your novel, your novella, or your memoir, take a deep breath then take heart. Concluding takes a lot out of us. Even happy endings are hard to eke out.

I love what Jane Smiley says about finishing the rough draft of a novel in her excellent tome, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel:

…To write through to the end of the rough draft, in spite of time constraints, second thoughts, self-doubts, and judgments of all kinds, is an act of faith that is invariably rewarded—the rough draft of a novel is the absolute paradigm of something that comes from nothing.

Use a placeholder for your ending

So, as you approach the end, try not to worry about finding finality. Don’t press for profundity or go back to the beginning and start revising. Don’t leave the ending for later. Instead, settle for a placeholder this time around.

What’s a placeholder? Just what it sounds like: someone or something that takes up space until Mr. Right comes along. (Yes, it’s true. Occasionally, the placeholder morphs into Mr. Right. And if that’s the case for you, count yourself as one of the lucky ones.)

For now, aim for an okay ending. A placeholder will help you see the outlines of your story, and it will give you bragging rights: “I finished my draft!” Because you’re going to be revising, right? Of course, you are. So, trust that when you reach the end again, you will be older, more mature, and ever-so-much-more knowledgeable. Then, you can aim for a satisfying ending but not a perfect one. In truth, there is no such thing as perfect. Perfect is an absolute, like unique. Trying to be unique or perfect is the ruination of anything good. As Churchill said, “Perfection is the enemy of progress.“

Pleasing yourself is paramount

What’s okay or good enough, then? Something that serves the story and, secondarily, pleases you as a reader. Pleasing yourself is paramount because in doing so, you are likely to interest a select group of others, those whose reading preferences are like yours. And, finally, writing is something you do for one person. Most often, that person is yourself. John Steinbeck said it this way:

Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike in the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

Don’t know what pleases you? Go to your bookshelf and pull a good book, one you’ve recently read and admired. Reread the opening and then flip to the ending. Do they speak to each other? How so?

I just pulled a book from my own shelf: Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey. Part elegy, part ode, part true-crime thriller, this slim dynamo of a book begins with an italicized memory, and it also ends with one. Both memories powerfully evoke Tretheway’s mother. In the first, the author recounts a dream about her newly dead mother, something macabre, freighted, and frightening. But her concluding memory is both hopeful and healing. From Trethewey’s teen years, this concluding memory is of learning to drive. On long, empty stretches of highway, Trethewey’s mother would sometimes cede the steering wheel to her daughter:

I’d reach across the center console and take the wheel, leaning into her, my back against her chest, following the arc of the sun west toward home. For several miles we’d drive like that: so close we seemed conjoined, and I could feel her heart beating against me as if I had not one, but two.

The contrast between the first memory and the last could not be more striking. Together, they serve to encapsulate the memoir’s arc—from anguish to hard-earned acceptance.

How to please the reader

In Is Life Like This? A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months, John Dufresne counsels leaving “the reader with a compelling, sensual image of the central character, if that’s appropriate, or of the setting, one that is so resonant and arresting that it stays with us when we close the book.” His example is from the end of one of the most celebrated novellas ever written, The Dead, by James Joyce.

The ending of The Dead is justifiably revered, and to understand its import, you really must read the novella. Suffice to say here that Joyce worked his magic by invoking the beauty of snow. The last line describes Gabriel at the hotel window:

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Throughout the story, the weather doesn’t change. It is snowing when Gabriel arrives at the party, and it is still snowing when he climbs the stairs to the room he is sharing with his wife, Gretta. What changes after Gretta recounts a story from her youth is Gabriel’s understanding of himself and the human condition. His epiphany is evoked through the description of a snowfall.

Remember: the endings of memoirs, novels, novellas, and screenplays are never as final as other things in our lives—the death of one’s mother, say. Surely that’s one reason many of us find reading and writing books to be therapeutic. Instead of putting off your ending for another day, sit down now and write a placeholder. Or at least make a few notes. And, yes, see you down the road!

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