Deciding when and how to leave an essay is hard. You don’t want to drag on, but you don’t want to “dismount too early,” as a mentor once told me. You want to land, but precisely: not too light and not with a thud. You might want to restate or revisit, or is that too repetitive? You don’t want loose threads; you want to tie everything up, but not neatly, certainly not in a bow.
So how do you leave an essay?
Lately, I’ve been thinking about leaving an essay the way we leave other situations: a stressful job, a summit hike, a toxic friendship. Struggling with how to finish one of my pieces, I combed through Hippocampus’s offerings for inspiration, and found it in these essay endings:
They drive home in her car. The car that went on hundreds of family road trips. But she’s not on this one. They drive in silence. Four hours. Four hours in the Dying Room. Four hours to drive home. Her quilt is on the backseat. It smells like her. Her shoes are on the floor. Her suitcase is in the trunk. She’s everywhere. She’s nowhere. They look at the stars in the night sky. But they’ve been rearranged. Nothing will ever be the same. They watch the sun come up on the horizon, rising over an endless ocean. It’s a new day. The first day in a world without her in it.
Leaving “The Dying Room” is like leaving a theater. When the show or movie or concert is over, you feel an unassailable sense of completion. The thing you came here for is done. But there’s a lingering emotion, unearthed by whatever you’ve seen and heard, what slice of humanness you’ve witnessed. And that emotion will stay, sustained, as you make your way home.
When she is done, you are lighter. She wordlessly says this pain does not have to be your pain. Even so, you don’t want the memory of her to die in a pile of ancestral shame of dishonorable suicide.
She tells you her name. She is gay. She combs her white hair.
The ending to “There Are Girls Like You in Japan” reminds of leaving a nerve wracking flight. Wicked turbulence bolts you to your seat. Most of the journey, you’re intensely focused, trapped in your seatbelt and in your thoughts, memories, fears. Now, after waiting for what seems like hours, the rows ahead of you empty and it’s your turn. Stretch. Feel that relief in your body. What a shift. You’re somewhere new.
“A Darkness to Slice Through: A Night With my Grandfather” by Gary Smothers
As I’m admiring my work, the last job that’ll ever be done in here, I realize that I’ve forgotten to clean the little viewing window, a look-through for viewing the flame as the wick is being lighted with the red-hot coil. It’d be easy enough to clean, but I decide to leave it sooty and impossible to see through.
I leave the heater sitting there next to the unfinished mower and walk to my car.
Leaving “A Darkness to Slice Through” feels like leaving your childhood home for the last time. Whether you’ve helped your parents downsize, move to assisted living, or buried them, the house—and you—are emptied out. How much sentiment can one home hold? How much of it can you possibly take with you? It’s overwhelming. Sometimes moments like these call for something simple: walk away.
A quick spit into a plastic tube and a genetic testing company could tell me if I’ve inherited the Alzheimer’s gene. But once you know, you can’t unknow, and there’s no cure. You can’t use herbicides to remove kudzu from cemeteries. Their corrosive ingredients leave stone and masonry pitted and discolored. Kudzu must be removed by raking through the runners and leaves, tracing each vine to its roots, and troweling rhizomes from the clay. Backbreaking work, but the gravestones remain intact. Families can find their kin. Reparation is the act of making amends for an injustice. I just assume I have the gene and live accordingly. Field peas are self-pollinating. They don’t use bees or wind. They cannot change their heritage. Each strain remains what it is, and a single pulse contains a whole family tree.
Leaving “Pulses” makes me think of leaving the grocery store with a hodgepodge of ingredients that would mystify anyone who doesn’t know the context. If you’d walked the aisles with my mother in her cooking heyday, you’d wonder at the cabbage, eggs, pork, sour cream, beef stock, onions, lemons, rice, crushed tomatoes, and fresh dill thrown in her cart. At the checkout, she’d tell you it was bound for her ancestral favorite, gołąbki. And with that one word, the very last line, all the seemingly disparate ingredients snap together.
By spring, I could read books with more words than pictures and the language began to settle in my mouth. Sometimes, I went with ballet friends to a bierstube and drank wine and when I said I polished my potatoes or the shoelace has a bone in it, they laughed but with kindness. One night, I said I had a cat but she was sick. She died because the doctor for animals was closed. I was sad. I looked at the dancers across the roughness of my sorrow. One of them asked her name.
Leaving “Foreign” is akin to leaving a gathering of new acquaintances. When you first arrive, you look around for someone to connect with, and perhaps find pleasant enough chatter here and there. But you’re a little lost, and growing uncomfortable. Just as you decide it’s time to go, someone reaches out. Hey, it’s nice to meet you. Love your scarf. Entrée as ending, a surprise, as if a new piece might be written after the line break.
Sometimes I picked up the faintest scent of perfume on the cushion in the corner of our couch: amber and freesia, white musk and rose. Sometimes, after he tucked us in at night and I was supposed to be asleep, I could hear the front door open, high heels click across our floor. Another one who wouldn’t be ours.
Leaving “We Had No Woman” is like leaving a prickly interaction. The whole time, you’re looking for a way in, some elusive topic or shared interest that will bring on a bit of nodding and laughter. When it doesn’t appear, you look for a way out, the opening to retreat. It’s not a clean break or a hopeful lift. Rather, it’s a disquieting exit, and you spend the rest of the day rehashing.
The pool is ours alone today. Bubbie walks along the wall while I bob up and down, trying to warm myself. I used to be a good swimmer, she tells me. I know. I lift a leg against the wall to stretch. She tickles the bottom of my foot. There’s not much other conversation. We spend forty minutes in our usual trance: bouncing, stepping, walking through water. We don’t float. It’s not in our nature. I tell my grandma I have work today and she says we should get out. I nod. How long will we be able to swim like this? She grabs the rails, lifts her body, and pulls herself into the rest of her day, week, life. I follow, wrapping myself in one of her thick towels, sure and unsure of what comes next.
Finishing “Swimming with My Grandma,” I think of leaving a game at halftime when one team is dominating. Will the second half be more of the same? Or will a dramatic play upend it all? You want to know, but you’re cold and hungry and satisfied not knowing the ending. This is enough.
When crafting an ending, of course you’ll think of tone, content, and craft. Of what intellectual and emotional resonance you want your readers to carry as they leave your piece. Now consider departures. How might you leave a race for office? A religious service? A marriage? For the essay ending that was giving me a headache, I finally settled on leaving an argument, with one final bit of evidence: the irrefutable last word.