I was recently on the phone with a friend, talking about editing. I’d just finished my weekly reading for plain china and had endings on my mind. I had been complaining that many of the pieces we read, often with excellent structure and compelling writing, ended like emotionally intense conversations, when both parties have said all they had to say, yet both continue to sidle awkwardly, and add just one more comment—usually one that’s already been said in a slightly different form.
“What is it that makes these pieces of writing so difficult to get out of,” I wondered. “What makes a successful ending?”
Endings are hard. They’re hard in life, let alone in literature. There seem to be certain dangers in writing nonfiction, especially personal narratives. Reading some of the less successful endings in undergraduate pieces, I cannot help but wonder: Is it the voice of some third-grade teacher echoing in the far reaches of our brains, insisting we sum up our stories like the conclusion of a five-paragraph essay? We are taught throughout primary school that our writing has to reiterate and tidily wrap up. No loose threads, no new thoughts, no vagueness, or uncertainty. In short, let your readers know that the ride is coming to an end, and gently drop them off. It’s an understandably tempting trap, the orderly ending, but it’s rarely true to life. One of the biggest pitfalls we see as nonfiction editors is writers grasping for an ending in the form of unconvincing platitudes too broad and ungainly for their own stories. An ending should be about a convergence of ideas and themes, not wrapping everything up with truisms or morals.
In an attempt to ascertain what constitutes a successful ending, we went to a trusted source for good writing: the plain china website. What had we published previously, and what about those pieces had worked? As we read through our previous selections, three pieces jumped out as prime examples of successful endings, each very different from the other.
The first is “Jump,” winner of the nonfiction prize in April 2014, by Anders Nienstaedt of St. Olaf College. The author describes the shooting of several teenagers from his hometown at the East Kingsford Bridge, the site of an old, water-filled mining shaft where local teens sometimes swam. It’s a painful reflection on the odd intimacy of small-town tragedy, ending with this image of the author, years before the teenagers’ deaths:
I’m fifteen years old, and I’m not thinking about anything. I’ve got four bounds before the edge, and then I’m hurtling out away from the cliff. I don’t have time to consider the sun, or my flailing arms, or the sensation of falling. I feel the slap of black water and in another second I’m back up, gasping, treading water, and Brandon Spigarelli and Sam are laughing and calling me the man. Shaky kicks bring me to the sudden underwater shelf at the edge of the mineshaft, and I pull myself out and sit there, panting. I don’t remember the fall, only afterwards. An unfathomable depth pulling at my ankles. Gravity still driving me down. An icy chill, a rush of bubbles, suspended for a moment in the darkness—a circle of light above me, an abyss below.
With gorgeous clarity, we are suspended in the jump, left to draw our own conclusions. One of the nonfiction editors described this kind of ending perfectly: a photograph without a caption. There is a lot of trust in ending a piece this way. The author knows that the story has been told, and readers must take from it what they will.
“Actually, I’m Jewish,” by Seth Winger of Stanford University, achieves the delicate work of bringing a story full circle. This is an exacting task in personal nonfiction, because it not only requires finding cyclical patterns, but also creating an ending in the unfinished life of the author. He begins the piece with the title line, giving examples of the varying situations in which he uses the phrase, “Actually, I’m Jewish”—everything from Christmas time to moments of awkward cultural inquiry. He ends with an experience from his trip to the site of the concentration camp Sachsenhausen:
When we left Sachsenhausen, one of my classmates asked me why I had stopped to put the rock on the gravestone.
“Well,” I said, and paused, trying to find the words to sum up a long funereal tradition, wondering how much detail to delve into, if other customs—rending clothes, covering mirrors—should be brought up. How do you talk about one part of tradition without giving the whole story?
“Well,” I said, as I realized all that needed to be said. “Actually, I’m Jewish.”
It’s a satisfying circle. It works because we believe the cyclical nature; we’ve seen the pattern from the beginning. The bit of spoken dialogue provides a touchstone, an encapsulation of the themes of the piece, with the tacit acknowledgement that it is at once the whole story and the smallest tip of an immense and significant iceberg. It’s not an easy ending to pull off. Symmetry runs the risk of coming off as pat—at best, suspiciously neat; at worst, downright trite. “Actually, I’m Jewish” avoids this by expanding the scope of the repeated phrase over the course of the piece, leaving us with richer, deeper implications.
This brings us to the third piece, and the third ending. Affectionately dubbed a “mic-drop ending” by the nonfiction team, this kind of ending is exemplified in a piece we published in March 2014, “Smiling at Serious Things: An Evening with Dave King.” The essay, by Robert O’Connell of Grinnell College, inclines toward journalism instead of personal narrative. It’s a cheeky piece about seeing the jazz band Dave King’s Trucking Company live in St. Paul, and about the state of jazz in general. O’Connell paints King’s performance as an electric whirlwind of humor, creativity, and provocation. The piece draws the reader in, allowing us to become insiders in the exclusive club of true jazz enthusiasts. The final paragraph brings up a widely held conception of jazz music these days: it’s in desperate need of saving.
On this night, though, in a basement in Minnesota, it would be hard to imagine a better ambassador for the music. People respond to King’s playing, but also to his joy, his charm, his invitation to be involved in something more than an exhibition. King hawks his wares without being dowdy, and his audience warms, reacts. One would be tempted to proclaim this the blueprint for saving the music, for expanding the audience, for making jazz cool again. Then, one would remember, turning to the familiar neighbor and gathering the set-break book, that we like being on the inside, and we don’t really want jazz to be saved.
You can practically hear the microphone hit the stage as O’Connell walks away. It’s a lovely little dig. It inverts the message of the piece thus far, and that’s why it lands so well. It’s a tidy ending that, as one of our editors pointed out, leaves us “tantalized and thoughtful.” We find ourselves reexamining the piece, searching for clues that led to this final jab. We examine our own notions about the content, looking for signs of the sly, traitorous thought that O’Connell calls out in the final line. At its most effective, an ending like this leaves us thinking about the piece, as well as examining our own preconceptions.
These are hardly the only kinds of endings out there, or the only ones that succeed. Far be it from us to prescribe what will touch a reader and what will not.
After a long pause, my friend responded to my question: “I think a successful ending is one that leaves—”
—at which point my phone died.
Posted by nonfiction senior editor Meg Rumsey-Lasersohn, with input from nonfiction editors Molly Spina, Eleanor Dohner, Emily Gaynor, and co-EIC Brooke Morrison.