My writing teacher and mentor, Pam Durban, had a thing about endings. Specifically, that people rarely write them anymore. She discusses this tendency, what she vividly called ‘a tissue of vague emotion made of darkness and tears’ in her great essay, ‘That Way He Could Work It’, which can be found in Frederick Busch’s collection Letters to a Fiction Writer. Her essay identifies the tendency of modern fiction to end with an image – car taillights receding into the dark, say – and takes its name from Katherine Anne Porter’s story ‘Noon Wine’. Porter’s story ends (spoilers to follow) with the main character lying on the ground in ruination, shotgun barrel in his mouth, pulling the trigger with his toe, and the immortal summation of a failed life – that way he could work it. What an ending, the antithesis of the vague gestures that so often conclude stories.
I think one of the reasons that writers, beginner and seasoned, settle for vague endings is because they’re tasteful. And literary fiction is supposed to be tasteful, right? Tastelessness is the purview of genre fiction, of TV and action movies. Literary fiction is meant to appeal to our higher virtues, a rarified place of deep thought and complex emotion that would be sullied by something big and unsubtle.
Except, this is not true. Great short fiction is usually unsubtle, pushing through a potentially decorous finale with all the rude impatience of a business traveler catching the red-eye home. Consider Chekhov’s ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’, Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’, Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues’. Where’s the subtlety? Whither taste? Flannery O’Connor’s acclaimed ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find’ has perhaps the most indelible, and tasteless, ending of all time. In the story’s final pages, the Misfit has his henchmen drag the grandmother’s family into the woods and shoot them one by one, a scene of literary torture porn that ends with the Misfit shooting the grandmother and drily joking about what a horrible person she was. This ending still retains its power to shock, in part because of how reluctant so much modern fiction is to give us something this concrete and final. Which is to say, relative to most modern fiction endings, it is tasteless – or perhaps better put, it is untasteful. We are accustomed to, comfortable with, stories that tactfully turn away, and this story does not do that.
Carrying on my former professor’s tradition, I urge my students to be tasteless. Of course, I don’t mean tasteless, really – I don’t mean being vulgar or crude or gross for its own sake. But I do mean finding the nerve to follow through on the terms of the story. I do mean firing Chekhov’s gun in whatever form that gun might take: sex, violence, failure, loss, sacrifice, death, life. Modern fiction is an enormous wall hung with a multitude of these guns, meticulously loaded and left up there to rust in the third act.
Therefore, write through your first ending is advice I give, again and again. The first ending is usually the polite one, the nice one, the one that feels safe because it is oblique and vague. That’s the hard thing about real endings: they crystallize and reframe the subject matter of the story – they take a stand, and in doing so, they run the risk of being wrong or looking foolish. But that is the risk a writer has to accept if their aim is to create important, durable fiction.
Photograph © Matthias Cooper