HippoCamp Recap: This Way Out with Kelly Caldwell

by Roberta Holland, guest blogger

This post is part of a HippoCamp 2022 recap series, with guest blog posts written by HippoCamp attendees. Learn more about our conference for creative nonfiction writers.

Do you have a fully formed 1,000-word narrative arc in your head that doesn’t sit quite right on the actual page?

Do you ever find yourself unspooling elegant passages of evocative prose, but can’t land the plane?

Do you long for the days when your essay was done when the nun barked “Pencils down” ?

OK, that last one could be just me. But judging from the packed room for Kelly Caldwell’s session “This Way Out – Locating Your Story’s True Ending,” I am not the only one who finds endings can be a bitch.

Kelly Caldwell, the dean of faculty at Gotham Writers Workshop, first blitzed through a reminder of the don’ts: Don’t summarize. Don’t fade out. Don’t use an inverted pyramid. And don’t hoard, meaning don’t save a precious gem for the end.

So how should we end our CNF works of art more elegantly than putting our pencils down? Caldwell said we need to ditch our preconceived ideas about our ending and experiment. Play.

To help us envision new possibilities, Caldwell asked us to draw a timeline of a story we were working on, plotting the inciting incident and other big moments. Next she had us draw what she called a Weird Timeline, including tangentially related details like popular songs or news events happening during the same time period or random facts we gleaned from research.

In rapid fire succession, Caldwell had us go to our regular timeline and find our Last Official Thing, then circle the event just before it. Then, three before the Last Official Thing. We were given 30 seconds to circle three random items from our Weird Timeline. Then our task was to connect the dots, look for synergies between the big moments and seemingly random details.

The takeaway: there may be richer throughlines in our work that aren’t immediately obvious. And by plotting a timeline and experimenting with the chronology we may find that our story shouldn’t end with our Last Official Thing but our third-to-Last Official Thing.

Digging into the themes represented in our piece and the emotion we want to evoke were additional suggestions from Caldwell. For themes, she had us zoom out and list the major themes running through our story – meta ideas like grief, love, identity – and for each one list a plot point, character or object associated with that theme.

For emotion, Caldwell pointed to Lisa Feldman Barrett’s work on emotional granularity, getting really specific about the emotional note we want to hit. In other words, not something fuzzy like poignant but something much more concrete like “wonder tinged with sadness.”

Now armed with these disparate timelines and lists, we should continue to play with them and match pieces up at random. Use those elements to freewrite a new ending and see what happens, Caldwell said. It made me think of those three-tiered flip books I had as a kid, where you could change the head, middle, and bottom of a character. Sometimes the result was aesthetically pleasing, other times jarring, but always different.

If the mishmash doesn’t coalesce into the perfect endnote, that’s OK, Caldwell said. The point is to experiment.

As Caldwell finished her talk, which appropriately fell on the last breakout session of HippoCamp 22, there was a palpable hum of excitement as writers shoved laptops and notebooks back into bags. Even though this was a session on endings, everyone seemed reenergized to begin.

>>See more HippoCamp 22 recap posts, content, and more here.

Meet the Contributor

roberta holland dimitriouRoberta Holland (Dimitriou to her husband; Greek names don’t fit a one-column byline) is a freelance writer, content creator, and former staff writer for digital and print publications. A member of GrubStreet’s 2021-2022 Essay Incubator cohort, Roberta lives in the Boston area with her husband, two grownish kids, and a rescue Spaniel named Floyd. This was her first time attending HippoCamp, but won’t be the last!

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