SOME THOUGHTS ON TIME AND ENDINGS
that came out of discussions of “endingness.”
time of reading. Our time of reading ends, like everything else in life, and this could be construed to mean that all texts have definitive endings regardless of what the final words may be.
time of writing. Not the actual time but the writing-as-performance time. It may have taken the author months to finish the piece, but that’s usually irrelevant, not what we’re paying attention to. No, we’re imagining a “time of writing” that starts at the first word and continues to the last. All pieces have the same plot in this sense: I start writing, I continue, I stop. The piece may end when the scene of writing ends. Reading in a writerly fashion, we may watch the piece unfold with a feeling of “what will the writer do next?” This is totally different from . . .
narrated time within the piece. Inside the piece an experience is narrated which may last hours, weeks, or years. If it’s effectively told, we’re asking “what will happen next?” about the characters, completely separate from the question “what will the writer do next?” Sometimes the writer would rather have us be caught up in the narrated action and ignoring the writtenness of the text; at other times, the writer wants us to focus on her, the writer who is making the choices, thinking the thoughts.
time of the writer’s life. It doesn’t end where the piece ends. Thus, an ending is always a fiction?
Some ways time works within the ending itself:
The narrative comes up to, or jumps to, the present (the time of writing), and the piece ends with the writer/narrator reflecting on what has happened. It may end with a moment of realization, and this realization often is possible only because of the time-perspective that the writer has, looking back.
The reflections may circle back through the past, through the story that has been told. Or gesture very quickly in that direction.
The reflections may look to the future; the piece may end with an intimation of the future, especially with the feeling that the future will be different because of what has been narrated. A strong sense of “That was then, this is now” – a now different from all previous time.
So the ending may include within itself past, present, and future. And often does.
What does the piece of writing, especially its ending, “make it seem”?
that experience can have a shape?
that there is such a thing as resolution or closure in life?
that a person can make sense of her experience?
The writer must let go of the reader.
The reader must find a way out of the piece that feels like “the right way.”
This connects to something said by John Updike about endings in his introduction to Best American Short Stories 1984: “A narrative is like a room on whose walls a number of false doors have been painted; while within the narrative, we have many apparent choices of exit, but when the author leads us to one particular door, we know it is the right one because it opens.”
Prior to that suggestive assertion, he says some things that make sense of it in a particular way. The ending, Updike claims, is where the reader receives, or fails to receive, confirmation of her understanding of what has been written up to that point:
I want stories to startle and engage me within the first few sentences, and in their middle to widen or deepen or sharpen my knowledge of human activity, and to end by giving me a sensation of completed statement. The ending is where the reader discovers whether he has been reading the same story the writer thought he was writing. Two chains of impression have been running in rough parallel; the ending – “the soft shock at the bottom of the story, the gasp of the dimly unfolding wings of finished symmetry” . . . – confirms or dissolves the imagined partnership. . . . . the ending is finer than analysis, an inner release, as Aristotle said, of tensions aroused. [my emphasis]
Now of course Updike is writing about fiction. Nonetheless, I think this is worth considering in the context of memoir or any narrative work. If we think in terms of letting go of the reader, of letting the reader find a “right” way out of the piece, one way to accomplish this is to find a way, however subtle, of telling the reader, “yes, you have heard what I am saying.”
You can download this as a Word document here: Time+endings