This is one in a series of what I call “writing problems,” or more briefly, items — exercises intended to foreground aspects of technique. In this one I want my students to work from empirical data — the endings of real pieces of writing — and try to define aspects of a hypothetical quality called “endingness.” There is no need to have read the pieces from which these endings came, and it may even help not to have read them because the ending is then more of an abstract artifact, an archaeological find through which one can try to glimpse a larger culture.
I’ve used this with many classes, and it has reliably produced interesting, perceptive and I believe learningful discussions.
The following are in, to say the least, different voices. But they’re all endings of pieces of non-fiction, and they are all about serious matters. In that sense they are supposed to do the same thing.
Here is the question I’d like you to work on: What makes them ending-like?Is there something we could call “endingness” that has identifiable attributes? Please ponder & write down your reflections.
It all comes back. Even that recipe for sauerkraut: even that brings it back. I was on Fire Island when I first made that sauerkraut, and it was raining, and we drank a lot of bourbon and ate the sauerkraut and went to bed at ten, and I listened to the rain and the Atlantic and felt safe. I made the sauerkraut again last night and it did not make me feel any safer, but that is, as they say, another story.
At the time of Lewis and Clark, setting the prairies on fire was a well-known signal that meant, “Come down to the water. “It was an extravagant gesture, but we can’t do less. If the landscape reveals one certainty, it is that the extravagant gesture is the very stuff of creation. After the one extravagant gesture of creation in the first place, the universe has continued to deal exclusively in extravagances, flinging intricacies and colossi down aeons of emptiness, heaping profusions on profligacies with ever-fresh vigor. The whole show has been on fire from the word go. I come down to the water to cool my eyes. But everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn’t flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames.
I, too, have not been entirely free of her. Now and then, in the years that have passed, I see that donkey-cart cortege, or his face bent over hers in the morgue. I would like to have told him what I now know, that his unrealistic act was one of goodness, one of those small, persevering acts done, perhaps, to ward off madness. Like lighting a lamp, boiling water for tea, washing a shirt. But, of course, it’s too late now.
The news of the death of my pig traveled fast and far, and I received many expressions of sympathy from friends and neighbors, for no one took the event lightly and the premature expiration of a pig is, I soon discovered, a departure which the community marks solemnly on its calendar, a sorrow in which it feels fully involved. I have written this account in penitence and in grief, as a man who failed to raise his pig, and to explain my deviation from the classic course of so many raised pigs. The grave in the woods is unmarked, but Fred can direct the mourner to it unerringly and with immense good will, and I know he and I shall often revisit it, singly and together, in seasons of reflection and despair, on flagless memorial days of our own choosing.
The morning after there is silence. My dad makes my lunch, which is good because he never forgets the napkin and he always makes sure the peanut butter is spread all the way to the edges of the crust. They are angry at her and they won’t talk. I can hear her crying. She comes out to apologize and they just look at her in disgust. I look away. She goes back into her room in tears and I hear her call my name. I crawl into her bed beside her and she puts her face in my hair and tells me that she is sorry and promises it will never happen again. I hold her close and listen. Some part of me believes her because I want so badly for it to be true. But on the way home later that day I count the steps, avoiding every crack, and pause outside the door, wondering what kind of day today will be.
It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart and it now had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair. This intimation made my heart heavy and, now that my father was irrecoverable, I wished that he had been beside me so that I could have searched his face for the answers which only the future would give me now.
1. Joan Didion, “On Keeping a Notebook”; 2. Annie Dillard, “Jest and Earnest”; 3. Richard Selzer, “Imelda”; 4. E. B. White, “Death of a Pig”; 5. Melissa McLeod, untitled; 6. James Baldwin, “Notes of a Native Son. “