When it comes to writing fiction, beginnings have never been difficult for me. Endings are another matter. I usually have an idea of where I want to end up, but I can get so hung up on the final image that I want to leave my readers with that I sour the taste in my own mouth, or I forget to look around and see how I actually need to get there, if I can actually get there at all.
I try not to do that anymore. I still begin with ends in mind, but try not to get stuck on a final point. Endings are difficult for me because I’m just so uncertain about everything. I’m not afraid of the twists or introductions of new characters. Just of tangling up a middle with an ending that does not belong there. This extends beyond fiction.
Fiction itself is wonderful because it is flexible. If you have an ending that does not fit with your story, you change it. That can be difficult, and terrifying, and seemingly impossible, but it can be done, and sometimes, it must. And that’s where editing and revision come in.
I like editing. I have friends who hate it. I have one friend who believes that editing should not intrude on the original writing, and should stay as true to the original intent as much as possible. I tend to not agree. Not because I loathe my originals so much that I would descend into the very bowels of hell just to watch them burn, but because editing can be a sign of growth.
When you edit, you polish or streamline or shine or whatever it is you do to your words. You sit down and change whatever you originally tapped out on your keyboard, and you write something that you could not have written before. Otherwise, you would have written it the first time, right? But whatever you do, whether it’s tweaking or cutting or revising or shredding the original, cutting those shreds into ribbons, and braiding those ribbons into something new, you’re flexing your fiction. If you need a new ending, you make it happen. It’s your work. They’re your characters, and you control their thoughts and actions, even when you pretend that they’re speaking and acting on their own. You decide if that lightning strike was fatal, or if missing the bus will introduce the hero to the villain, or if the love interest is actually a bunch of cats pretending to be a person. (It’s fiction. It could happen.) You are the god of the universe that you create. When your characters pray for money or for health or for better days, your writing their prayers to yourself.
Sound narcissistic? Well, writing IS narcissistic. Some part of you said, “Okay, we’re going to sit down and write this, just because that’s what we want to do.” You may have other reasons, but ultimately, your desire to see your own words on paper fuels your desire to write. And your self-loathing fuels your desire to edit. (I heard Sam Lipsyte say that, once. I take no credit for it.)
So I do love fiction, and writing, and editing. But I struggle with endings, probably because I’m not sure about mine. I have one in mind, and have held my arms out towards it since my beginning. Trouble is, I’m not sure if I can successfully navigate to that ending or not.
You see, my ending is supposed to involve me being a successful novelist. Maybe I have a couple of kids. I don’t really know, and that wasn’t the original plan. Prior to a few revisions, I was convinced that I was going to end up alone. Although I would probably have a dog. German shepherd. This would not have been by choice, though. The being alone, I mean. I was just going to be one of those characters who never found a love interest for their story. And for a while, I was okay with that. Or pretended to be, at least. I did eventually get involved in my first relationship, though it was complicated in nearly every way imaginable and ended harshly. That’s okay, though. It happened, I survived, and now I’m in a relationship that’s lasted four years and is still going strong. But, like most other things in my post-college life, it’s become another source of fear. I’m happy, but I just don’t know if it will get to be a happily ever after, or if it will dissolve over distance. It’s worth fighting for, but whatever happens, it has forced a revision, one that I’m very thankful for.
I’m not thrilled about all the revisions life has cut into my story. There are some things that I wish I had done differently. There are some things that I wish I had done, period. But while all of those things did shape me, the thing drives me and absolutely terrifies me is the ending projected by my beginning.
My beginning was not my birth. That was a beginning, but not what I consider my official beginning. I mean, I didn’t really do much. Just slept and ate and made messes for my parents to clean up. There are snapshots from my early life that still get passed around the dinner table, like the story my dad tells about the first time he ever went on a roller coaster. Five-year-old me dragged him on to this wooden death trap called Rolling Thunder, and then went hopping and skipping to the very front of the ride. My father was forced to sit with me and, to calm himself, confessed to me that he had never been on a roller coaster before. My response: “This is a roller coaster?” We survived that ride, and have been riding coasters ever since. So I guess that was its own beginning, but it wasn’t my beginning.
My beginning came in the eighth grade. The state of New Jersey used to force its fourteen-year-olds to take standardized GEPA tests. They were language- and writing-heavy, which was a-ok by me. I liked writing by that point. I was working on a story that took place on Rainbow Isle and was as trippy as it sounded. There were dragons and demons and inter-dimensional travel and crazy old scientists and four classically bland middle-schoolers because that is what I wrote in middle school. I was convinced, though, that it was going to rival Lord of the Rings, which had recently become a major motion picture. Not in terms of popularity, though.
For all the work I put into that story, I never once considered taking it anywhere near a publisher. “Rainbow Isle” was for me and me alone, and I never thought about doing anything with my writing beyond that. When I grew up, I was going to be a professional soccer player. I wouldn’t have time for writing! I would have to go to practice and sign autographs and go to the Olympics and all that stuff. That was what I was convinced I was going to do with my life. And then I took the GEPAs. Well, a practice GEPA. With a picture prompt.
I remember this so clearly. The image was printed in purplish-blue ink and showed three boys crossing a wooden bridge suspended above a river. There was thick forest on both sides of the river, and there were several huts on stilts on one end of the bridge. I looked at this picture, and got an idea for a story immediately.
That’s what you did for the GEPA picture prompts. Wrote a story based on an image and turned it in for a grade ranging from 1 (literally poop on paper… no pen marks, just poo) to 6 (God hath spoken through the child). My story was about three boys who were hiking through the Amazon rainforest, but were separated from their group. They came upon this bridge, crossed to the village on stilts, and were promptly attacked and chased away by warrior men. (Looking back now, the whole thing was probably racist, but that was not a major concern in white-majority suburbia.)
I wrote this story, handed it in, and received the breathtaking score of 6. There were only two kids in the class who managed to achieve that score, and the other went on to become valedictorian of the middle school, and then again in high school. So this was a pretty big deal. Not in a competitive way, but as a personal achievement. She was wicked smart and a talented writer, so when I learned that I had written a story on par with hers, I was thrilled. My ego stroking did not stop there, however.
The teacher wanted to read the top stories to the class and show the other kids examples of what would earn a 6 on the GEPAs. So, in secret, he asked the other girl and me if he could read our stories aloud and keep our names secret until the very end, and we secretly agreed. Secretly.
Mine went first.
Now, a lot of a story’s impact can come from how it is read. Tone, body language, emotional delivery… all very important elements to a reading. And man, this teacher did me the biggest favor and read this story like it was the greatest piece of literature since “The Great Gatsby”. To hear my words read aloud with so much enthusiasm gave me such a surge of joy, and he made a point of pausing at all the right places and building up the suspense. That really made me happy, but it was in one of those pauses that I suddenly became aware that the entire class was leaning over their desks, hanging on ever word. They were actually holding their breaths at the climax, and there was an audible sigh of relief when the “It was all a dream!” moment played out. The story concluded with an “… Or was it? Dun dun dunnnn!” kind of ending, and these kids erupted in applause. The teacher smiled, and handed my story to me, and then these kids were actually cheering for me. They were all smiling, and I had two boys come up to me in our afternoon science class and tell me how cool my story was, and how much they loved it.
These were kids that I did not talk to. Kids that I tried not to make eye contact with as I ducked between classes, hoping not to embarrass myself by opening my mouth and being me. I was quiet, hairy and nerdy, and so fiercely shy that I was convinced that I was going to end up alone. Just me and my German shepherd, remember? But once I saw how these kids reacted to that story, I made some revisions, and I slowly became who I am today. I owe all of that to the first time I ever said, “I want to be a writer.”
Now that I’m biologically an adult, I still carry that moment with me. I don’t actively think about it, but it’s in the back of my mind and is there when I need it, and it’s as vibrant and shiny as it was the day that I picked it up. Sometimes, it shines a little too brightly, and I worry that it’s blinding me and making it too difficult to see the way forward. I try not to give into that fear, but that is hard to do. This job market is murder, the publishing industry is still trying to decide if it can survive the digital age or not, I’m battling feelings of depression and anxiety, and I’ve never felt so uncertain about my life before. It’s scary.
But honestly, the only thing scarier than finding out that I need to revise my ending is the thought of letting go of that beginning, and forfeiting that ending by default. So, like five-year-old me skipping ahead of my poor, terrified father and planting myself in the very front row of Rolling Thunder, I’ll face things head-on and try not to give in to fear. You’re welcome to come along for the ride, but fair warning: I still like to sit in the front.