Sunday, September 8, 2013

Happy Endings, as in The Beggart's Opera

If you thought beginnings and middles were difficult techniques to master in your search for ability to tell a story, you had no concept of what was in store for you when the time came to consider endings.

True enough about beginnings.  Getting the right individuals into some form of intriguing play was no small accomplishment.  When you think about it, you probably learned most from Lee K. Abbott, whose stories seemed always to catch you off guard, mug you in the parking lot, then take pity on you, leave you with enough money for a medium non-fat latte to get you home.

Middles seemed the ideal place to put a lot of necessary stuff such as backstory and motivation, but then you saw what Alice Munro and Louise Erdrich did with their second act segments, and you knew you had work cut out for you in ways you'd only just begun to realize.  Katherine Mansfield also did the equivalent of pointing you out in the police lineup of suspects, persons who were posing as story tellers.  

And of course Anton Chekhov, although finished with his life some years before you came along, shook his finger at you from the literary grave.  "Don't,"  he seemed to be saying.  "Don't even think of it.  Kids like you!  Get a job.  Deliver newspapers.  You seem to have some ability to maybe become a crook.  Not a good one, mind you; you lack the gravitas to be a good crook.  Maybe, with some weight training, you could be a crook who threatens persons who are behind on payments to the loan sharks."

You spent some time in pool halls and working in carnivals, trying to effect the gravitas of which he spoke.  Your three-cushion billiards was a joke, your snooker so-so, not too bad in eight-ball, but then, not, as Terry Molloy once said, a contender.  Newspapers were interesting, but you had difficulties keeping on point.  There was nothing for it but to throw yourself on the mercy of story, mindful you lacked gravitas.

You still lack gravitas but are aware that in the process of attempting to achieve it, you create humor and also tend to stay too long at parties and as well too long at the endings of your own stories.  In short, you often don't realize you've finished a story when, more often than not, it turns out you have.

You blame a good deal of this on something foisted off on you ever since you can remember, the comedic ending.  This term, at one time, meant that persons in stories got married at the end, or that whoever your characters might be, they all lived happily ever after, which did not seem right, but since you were in search of gravitas, you felt yourself stuck with it.

Forgetting for a moment the so-called series novels, who in your sphere of understanding, would want a story where everyone lived happily ever after?  Where was the story in that?  Your own experiences  told you that happiness was a brief rest between events, sometimes catastrophic, other times filled with high humor, yet other times with pathos, often with some kind of loss.

Were Neanderthals happy?  As you understand the matter, they were too focused on survival to spend much time with such thoughts.  An occasional barbecue of some big animal, say a woolly mammoth, was a respite, a moment of pleasure.  But happy?  And with the Cro-Magnons breathing evolutionally down their necks?  Come on.

So back to work on endings.  Anti-comedic ending endings, where persons settle for things or in some manner negotiate their way to a momentary respite between events, maybe chow down on a woolly mammoth for a celebration, but no living happily ever after because living ever after is filled with contingency and reversal.

Endings, particular in short-form fiction, but as well in novels, is waiting for the other shoe to drop--you know, the shoe the upstairs neighbor drops, waking you from sleep, then keeping you awake, waiting until you want to pound on the roof and say, "Drop the other shoe."  By this time, the neighbor, aware of the sound the first shoe must have made, is being considerate, unknowingly triggering the essentials of story.

At one time when he was a regular visitor at the writers' conference that was owned and operated by your close friend, Barnaby Conrad, you had occasion to be quoting the writer, editor, publisher, Sol Stein.  Your relationship with him goes back to the days when he was running the publishing venture, Stein and Day.  You are even quoted in his grand book on writing.  "Never," you said, quoting Sol Stein, "take the reader where the reader wants to go."

"That's perfectly true,"  he said form his seat in the rear, "except that I didn't say that.  You said it."

One of us has a short memory.

The point though is to end not where the reader wants, but in a place where the characters believe they want.  

Even if that happens to be comedic?

Yes, but the reader must be able to see the irony.

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