There are some books and essays I dearly love and gratuitously recommend to friends and strangers that, prepare yourselves, I don’t remember how they ended. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, for instance. It’s my go-to title for that ridiculous question about being stranded on an island. (I mean, really. If it’s an uninhabited island, then how did those three books get there? And what are the odds that the three books left on an island would just happen to be my favorite three books? Or, if the hypothetical question assumes that the three books are ones I happened to have with me when I got stranded on an island, then that’s just as ridiculous, because when do I ever have just three books with me?) Yes, I love and would want to die holding The God of Small Things very close to my chest. However, I don’t remember how it ends. Not one bit. I think someone in it is swimming, or was swimming, or perhaps was thinking about someone else who was swimming. I think. Maybe. I really don’t know. But good god you should read it! Seriously. It’s a fantastic book.
That said, there is a whole other collection of books and essays I dearly love because of their endings. Essays such as “The Fourth State of the Matter” (Jo Ann Beard), “The Coat” (David Lazar), and any of Lacy M. Johnson’s flash pieces in Trespasses are essays that I relatively enjoyed while reading them, but then when I got to their ends, I absolutely fell in love. Completely. Utterly. Undeniably in love. Obsessed, actually. The endings give the stories new meaning. They are endings that stick with me, continuously make me want to re-read the essays.
So what makes a good ending? There’s the easy answer of unexpected.
The main character has been a dead guy this whole time?!? Awesome.
It was the professor with a candlestick in the living room that killed her and not the butler in the kitchen with a knife?!?
This is why we love mysteries. We love journeying through a story, noticing different clues as we engage with everything that’s going on, and then being rewarded for paying attention with an ending that surprises us.
I say the unexpected is the easy answer, because it can be easy to think of a good surprise and work it into a piece. So here’s the hard part: we’re not mystery writers. We’re writing creative nonfiction. How to give a surprise ending to an amazing experience we had that didn’t necessarily have a surprise ending? Or, even more difficult: we might not even know the ending yet, because we’re still experiencing it. This is where craft comes in.
A good ending in nonfiction isn’t necessarily about what happened, but how we tell what happened. What build-up to the ending do we give? What details to we focus on that help to give the ending a solid meaning? What do we momentarily leave out so that when we bring it in, it creates a more complex essay? I’m thinking here of one of the final scenes in “A Time to Kill” when Matthew McConaughey’s character says, “Now imagine she’s white.” McConaughey is telling a story the audience knows, but with that last sentence he makes his point, brings us to an ending we didn’t think was coming, which leaves the jurors and every movie-watcher in tears. So yes, that’s a movie (a book, first, actually), but the technique is the same—tell your story in such a way that the ending is where the real life of the essay lives.
I constantly re-reading not the essays with endings I don’t remember, but the ones whose endings I have memorized. Why? Because the ending has changed the essay’s meaning for me. It gives what came before it more importance. And so the essay strengthens each time I read it, a different story with a different meaning is born with each reading.
By the way, I’m sitting naked on a beach right now, a cigarette hanging out of my lips, my favorite three books stacked underneath my laptop so the fine sand doesn’t get into it in some way and ruin the thing, and I am also scanning the ocean’s horizon, wondering if a boat is ever going to swing by to bring me back to the mainland. You see, I’m stranded on some tiny island right now, and I can guarantee you that even though I’m totally lying, the next time someone says the phrase “stranded on an island” you’ll think of Chelsey Clammer, naked, smoking a cigarette, and typing up something bitchy about hypothetical questions involving islands. Surprise!
- What sort of meaning and power do you think (or not think) Dillard brings to “Living Like Weasels” by circling back to the beginning image of an eagle.
- What is the purpose of and how do the hypotheticals that are present throughout Bryant’s piece function in the context of leading up to the ending?
- Marion Winik’s micro essay “The Dentist” starts with trick-or-treating, and ends with a fatherless daughter. How is Winik able to tell such an impactful story of this man’s death with such little detail? What themes/images does she briefly touch on that not only propel the story along, but also help to create a strong ending?
- In what ways do you think Lazar’s ending is successful? Or do you think it fails at doing anything, at saying anything? Also, after reading the ending, how did your opinions and impression of the original story about the coat change?
- Look back at your recent writing. Take the first piece you wrote for this workshop and write a new essay based on it. At the end of the new essay, circle it back to the beginning of that initial one.
- Write a letter to someone who has a lot of importance in your life in order to describe a situation the two of you have been through. Use mostly hypothetical questions/situations throughout the letter and end it on a question.
- Write for five minutes about where you grew up. Write for five minutes about why you left. Write for five minutes about where you are now. Cut up the paragraphs and re-organize them, see what type of an effective ending you can get from organizing the paragraphs differently.
- Write for five minutes about a tree that means something to you. Write for five minutes about how you feel about the color blue. Now write for five minutes and connect the two.
Chelsey Clammer received her MA in Women’s Studies from Loyola University Chicago and MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop program. She has been published in The Rumpus, Atticus Review, and The Nervous Breakdown among many others. She is an award-winning and Pushcart Prize nominated essayist.
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