WRITERS AT WORK, Wrestling with Endings (Part 5)

Hi everyone,

March has five Tuesdays so here’s the fifth and final response to Jane Yolen’s chosen subject: endings. Today I decided to talk about endings for nonfiction and poetry.

Topic: Wrestling with Endings
Response 5: David
March 29, 2-11

Sandy, you and Jane have covered endings of fiction very well. For my second go at the subject, I’ve decided to tackle endings for nonfiction and poetry. These share much in common with fiction but there are differences.

My most recent nonfiction title, MAMMOTH BONES AND BROKEN STONES, tells of the archaeological quest to identity the first people to migrate to the North American continent. One advantage of writing nonfiction is that we frequently know how our narrative will end before we begin. In my case, the answer was that we still don’t know with certainty who the original settlers were, which means that we also can’t be sure of where they came from or how and when they arrived. Swell! So how, I wondered, can I end a book for a quest that hasn’t yet succeeded?

Sandy? Jane? You publish nonfiction too. How do you handle this situation? If it were fiction, I might introduce the character(s) the situation, struggle through various efforts to resolve, improve, or accept it, and look for a perfectly timed, dynamite ending. As a reader I figure I deserve a reward at the end, something to keep me thinking about what I just read.

I decided to treat the beginning and ending of MAMMOTH BONES like bookends, sandwiching the story of the search between them. I went back to my beginning and strengthened early statements about how hard it would be for scientists to ever determine the absolute, irrefutable answer. That set up my ending scenario, at least in my head, long before I got to it. Once there, instead of ending with one memorable sentence – sorry, Jane, I really tried! — I went with a cluster of concluding thoughts.

“Who were North America’s first people? We still don’t know. It may have taken thousands of years and wave after wave of new arrivals from different locations to finally settle here. Whether they came on foot or by boat, they came. Our quest goes on.”

Do you ever tear up during the closing scene of a movie or play? I do. Sometimes I need a minute or two before trying to speak. A good ending gets me every time. This goes for poetry too. I want to mention poetic endings before wrapping up. Poems that end memorably tend to be the ones we go back to reread. Poems in rhyme and meter can be harder to manipulate than poems in free verse, but even so it’s always good for readers to feel that the poet left them at the right place and time.

Sandy, I know that you and Jane can quote great examples from your own work but here are three examples. One is mine; the other two are not bad either. (Me winking.)

1, from “Introduction to Poetry”
by Billy Collins, U.S. Poet Laureate, 2001-2003
Subject: How to enjoy a poem.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

2, from “On the Road”
by Ted Kooser, U.S. Poet Laureate, 2004-2006
Subject: Picking up a pebble on the road

Put it back, something told me,
put it back and keep walking.

3, from “Making Ready”
by David L. Harrison
Subject: Pirate captain watching green recruits loading ship

“They’ll learn soon enough to be pirates,
for now let ‘em count and dream.”

Perfect endings are rare and good ones are hard to come by in any genre. They can’t all be blue ribbon winners. Whether delivering a speech, writing a picture book, finishing a novel, creating a play, or composing a song, writers sweat more over beginnings and endings than anywhere else in their work. In the end, it’s worth it.

Jane, thanks for bringing this one to the table.
Sandy, as always, it has been a pleasure.