I’ve come to the tired end of what has been a long and strangely wonderful journey, finally able to settle myself back into my city, my house, my routine, and yes—the comfort of my own bed. While I’ve been hopping around all over the place for the better part of the last month, I’ve had a lot of time to blessedly crawl out of my own head for a while, and begin planning a little farther ahead into my literary future. One of the most valuable bits of brainstorming I’ve done while I’ve been away has been the plot outlining for several projects.
Exhausted beyond belief after all the AWP brouhaha, Kelly and I sat together a few nights ago and she graciously allowed me to verbally spew all that I’d come up with over the last month. After I’d finished explaining my notes with a mile-a-minute breathiness and gradual raise in volume, Kelly asked me how long it took me to create the narrative arc of a trilogy. I realized at that point that it had actually only taken a few moments–perhaps 30 minutes–in the car with my family driving through Quito, Ecuador.
Soaking up every drop of juice the creative gods rained down on me, I feverishly scribbled in my tattered notebook during a bumpy car-ride that made the whole experience feel somehow epic. I come up with plot ideas all the time but only a few end up being viable, and on that day the very moment I lifted my pen away from the page, I knew what I’d written would stick. Still, all in all, the outpouring of divine literary inspiration took only minutes—minutes that flew by in an instant. Though I’m certain my family members were by that time probably ready to throw me out the window, I was elated to have been able to squeeze out enough material for four new book-length projects.
I can focus on nothing else right now but the ultimate ending I’ve created for my main character, my little brain-baby. Knowing how I will finish her story at the end of four books allowed me to see her more clearly at the beginning. She’s taking me on this crazy journey, and I feel a lot more adventurous about it now that I know where we’re going to end up. I couldn’t really understand how she would behave, what she would look like, or how she might think in these first few chapters–the chapters which I’ve been slogging my way through this whole time–until I had a better idea of who she would be at the end of the whole thing.
And so I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about endings. Of course there are hundreds of book and story endings that have stayed with me, haunted me, and shaken me. I hope, even in these early stages, two give my character the ending she deserves—one that will go on to strike other people and stay with them forever.
Here are the top eight standouts:
8. From Cormac McCarthy’s The Road:
Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.
7. From Travels with Charley, by John Steinbeck:
Suddenly I pulled to the curb in a no-parking area, cut my motor, and leaned back in the seat and laughed, and I couldn’t stop. My hands and arms and shoulders were shaking with road jitters. An old-fashioned cop with a fine red face and a frosty blue eye leaned in toward me. “What’s the matter with you, Mac, drunk?” he asked.
I said, “Officer, I’ve driven this thing all over the country—mountains, plains, deserts. And now I’m back in my own town, where I live—and I’m lost.”
He grinned happily. “Think nothing of it, Mac,” he said. “I got lost in Brooklyn only Saturday. Now where is it you were wanting to go?”
And that’s how the traveler came home again.
6. From Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass, the last book in my beloved “His Dark Materials Trilogy”:
“But then we wouldn’t have been able to build it. No one could if they put themselves first. We have to be all those different things like cheerful and kind and curious and patient, and we’ve got to study and think and work hard, all of us, in all our different worlds, and then we’ll build…”
Her hands were resting on his glossy fur. Somewhere in the garden a nightingale was singing, and a little breeze touched her hair and stirred the leaves overhead. All the different bells of the city chimed, once each, this one high, that one low, some close by, others farther off, one cracked and peevish, another grave and sonorous, but agreeing in all their different voices on what the time was, even if some of them got to it a little more slowly than others. In that other Oxford where she and Will had kissed good-bye, the bells would be chiming, too, and a nightingale would be singing, and a little breeze would be stirring the leaves in the Botanic Garden.
“And then what?” said her daemon sleepily. “Build what?”
“The Republic of Heaven,” said Lyra.
5. Among the final paragraphs of Winston Chruchill’s A Modern Chronicle:
“You don’t love me?” he said. Into those few words was thrown all the suffering of his silent years.
“I don’t know what I feel for you,” she answered in an agonized voice, her fingers tightening over the backs of her white hands. “If reverence be love—if trust be love, infinite and absolute trust—if gratitude be love—if emptiness after you are gone be a sign of it—yes, I love you. If the power to see clearly only through you, to interpret myself only by your aid be love, I acknowledge it. I tell you so freely, as of your right to know. And the germ of which you spoke is you. You have grown until you have taken possession of—of what is left of me. If I had only been able to see clearly from the first, Peter. I should be another woman to-day, a whole woman, a wise woman. Oh, I have though t of it much. The secret of life as there at my side from the time I was able to pronounce your name, and I couldn’t see it. You had it. You stayed.”
4. A book I’ve referenced before—Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft:
Writing isn’t about money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy. Some of this book—perhaps too much—has been about how I learned to do it. Much of it has been about how you can do it better. The rest of it—and perhaps the best of it—is a permission slip: you can , you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much as the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.
Drink and be filled up.
3. The Great Gatsby–written by the man who, together with his wife, has inspired such a large part of my novel’s main character:
And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes – a fresh, green breast of the new world.
Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
2. From Indian Camp, out of Hemingway’s “The Nick Adams Stories”:
“Do ladies always have such a hard time having babies?” Nick asked.
“No, that was very, very exceptional.”
“Why did he kill himself, Daddy?”
“I don’t know, Nick. He couldn’t stand things, I guess.”
“Do many men kill themselves, Daddy?”
“Not very many, Nick.”
“Do many women?”
“Don’t they sometimes?”
“Oh yes, they do sometimes.”
“Where did Uncle George go?”
“He’ll turn up all right?”
“Is dying hard, Daddy?”
“No, I think it’s pretty easy, Nick. It all depends.”
They were seated in the boat, Nick in the stern, his father rowing. The sun was coming up over the hills. A bass jumped, making a circle in the water. Nick trailed his hand in the water. It felt warm in the sharp chill of the morning.
In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die.
1. From Normal Maclean’s longish short story, A River Runs Through It:
Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them.
Of course, now I am too old to be much of a fisherman, and now of course I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn’t. Like many fly fisherman in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.
Eventually, all thins merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters.