The following essay has been condensed from the conference presentation at HippoCamp 2018: Bring It On Home: Crafting Endings in Essays.
One aspect of writing I’ve stumbled over time and time again is producing effective endings to my short-form memoir pieces, which I call personal narratives. The qualities of a substantial ending are difficult to pin down, but Elissa Schappell provides an apt description in The Writer’s Notebook Volume II: “The best ending is one that leaves the readers with a profound sense of awe and wonder, not only at the world the author has created but also at the considerable skill with which the writer has pulled it off.”
Though we nonfiction writers are tethered to facts and reality, we are the architects of our memories with the power to shape our stories to captivate readers. With this in mind, I examined the stylistic tools at work in a few notable personal narratives.
A metaphor of crucial importance can serve as a powerful final focal point. In Mark Slouka’s “Arrow and Wound,” the narrator ponders whether there’s a universality to a near-death experience. After examining the accounts of three notable writers, he comes to a realization: “our consciousness, rather than being shaped by a particular event, predated it. That we were, in a sense, anticipating it. That, to recall Kafka’s haunting insight, ‘the arrows fit exactly in the wounds’ for which they were intended.”
Kafka’s metaphor perfectly encapsulates Slouka’s argument that we shape events instead of events shaping us. Though the reader has reached the end, the image lingers in their mind. It’s no wonder other writers also utilize this tactic. For example, Debra Gwartney includes the family cat in “Broken Home” and Alexander Chee uses a wig in “Girl.”
The Triangle of Characters
The use of a triangle of characters can move a narrative along or it can help reveal a deeper truth. In Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter,” she incorporates herself, her elderly dog, and her work colleague, Chris. When Beard introduces Chris early on in the narrative, she mentions gifts he’s brought back from his travels, including fly wings in amber. In the first scene with Chris, they discuss whether she should put her beloved dog down. Beard admits her secret desire that her ailing collie “go to sleep and not wake up, just slip out of her skin and into the other world.
‘Exactly,’ he says.”
Near the end, a mass shooting at the office results in Chris’ death. The final scene is Beard standing on her porch in the middle of the night, applying the terms she’s gleaned from Chris and his space physics research as she observes the sky. “Around my neck is the stone he brought me from Poland. I hold it out. Like this? I ask. Shards of fly wings, suspended in amber.
Exactly, he says.”
The earlier elements return, woven in a way that progresses rather than repeats. The triangle of characters is once again Beard, the collie, and Chris, now the absent-presence. The amber gift reappears as a necklace Beard wears. She includes a repetition of Chris’ response, “Exactly” and gives him the last words, an elegiac homage to her colleague.
In some personal narratives a theme becomes the prevalent driving force, like reality and fiction in Jennifer Percy’s “Azeroth.” Starting with Percy’s suspicions that her lover is hiding something, she goes on a quest to ascertain the truth. This theme carries into their trip to Bosnia, her lover’s home, where locals can only cope with war traumas by cloaking themselves behind idealized versions of themselves. Percy’s desire for her lover’s secrets remains unfulfilled. Upon return to the United States, Percy takes on her own created fiction donning the identity of Hannah Duncan for her job as a patient actor for medical resident training. Percy suspects her lover of infidelity, but later uncovers the surprising truth: He hid an online gaming addiction, playing a video game where he can live through self-created identities.
With the speculation finally quelled, Percy ends with a final passage about herself alone and wishing to stay within make-believe. “I go deeper into the character of Hannah Duncan [….] I imagine that he is here […] The letters from the Quality Control Team pile up in my living room, all with poor scores. I’m too embarrassed to return to work. I keep Hannah’s script in a drawer near my desk. Sometimes I look at it at night when I am alone.” Though Percy desires to lose herself in Hannah Duncan’s identity, the final paragraph highlights her harsh reality and the detritus around her.
Ending the personal narrative in a flashback scene can be effective if well-executed. In “House for Sale,” Jonathan Franzen shapes his story around begrudgingly selling his deceased mother’s home for a considerable profit in fulfillment of her final wishes. In order to examine his complicated feelings for his parents (mostly his mother), he starts a thread from when he was a teenager going to a summer beach home with his parents. What had begun with adult Franzen selling a house ends with a surly teenaged Franzen, at the behest of his parents, having to choose a ride at Disney World and spending their ride tickets on a merry-go-round. “I didn’t want the things they wanted. I didn’t value what they valued. And we were all equally sorry to be riding the merry-go-round, and we were all equally at a loss to explain what had happened to us.” The final lines which seem entrenched in the current depressing ride actually transcend that moment, perfectly encapsulating the fraught dynamic of Franzen’s family.
While all unique, the aforementioned writers have shared craft techniques. Along with having a definitive desire line for the protagonist, the ending doesn’t necessarily happen at the end. Rather, narrative threads are conveniently woven into the story about halfway to two-thirds of the way through. Mapping out the origins of these ending points illuminate that the ending only functions if built from what came before. These moments, introduced early on, allow for the writer to pull off an ending with Schappell’s desired result—a reader in awe and wonder.