As writers we know we must begin with a bang, something that the reader/agent/publisher/examiner can’t resist. We want impact, engagement, originality to make the audience want to read this little bit, this taster and then to read on, to enjoy the banquet of eloquence set down before them.
In fact, we want this as we begin new parts of our life too. We prepare for hours for a night out, a party, the first date. We do the same for a job interview, for the first day at our new workplace, school or university. We research, we plan, we prepare. We want to be liked, loved, chosen. We know we have to begin as we mean to go on – that you only get the one go to make that vital first impression.
And, if we’re lucky, if we’ve worked hard enough (because it is more about work than luck and more young people need to get hold of this simple idea) then we will prevail. We will have made the mark we want to make and not look back.
For a while anyway…
Ask any writer and they’ll tell you that writing the book is the easy bit, getting it published and read – getting it out there – is the hard bit. Ask anyone who’s been married for more than five minutes and they’ll tell you staying married, sticking at it, is the hard bit. Marriage takes work. Being successful in your job takes work too – riding the waves of success, surviving the troughs of disaster. It’s the middle of the essay where the big marks are. It’s the keeping going that shows who we are – tenacious, smart, flexible, resilient. The middle is the hard part where you can see the shore, you’re swimming towards it but the current sweeps you away, or a storm confounds you, or the sharks keep circling you want to stop or leave but must keep going, because usually the rewards are worth it. Remember Odysseus, his long journey home after the battle at Troy; remember the transition stage of delivery, when you can’t go back but a few more pushes, a sniff of gas and there is your beautiful baby.
And then there are the endings…
For some time now I’ve been teaching my beloved charges about the strength of their openings but not without attention to the importance of ending well. The examiner needs to be sucked in, but then she has to be reminded of the quality of the writing by a sound, memorable ending. Novels too must end effectively and leave the reader satisfied, wondering, uncertain – a range of emotional possibilities but they must feel something. As long as it’s not disappointment. A novelist’s job is to craft and work those words and sentences so that their message, their idea is left reverberating long after the reading has gone. As Edgar Allan Poe almost said: leave the reader feeling something, and as if their time was well spent. Sometimes it’s easier to begin with your ending and work backwards. Knowing how to end your novel can be as important as how to start it. I struggled with my latest effort (Ophelia, for my study) with the first couple of full drafts ending with a limp, wet ending that even I didn’t like. It took until draft 4 to get an ending that resonates, that has emotional impact and now I’m back to the beginning.
But too often we don’t have control over our endings. Relationships fail and we walk away too easily without thinking through the consequences of that failure. An ending that could have been avoided? Perhaps we should have talked more, taken more notice of the other one, been more considerate, more involved, less angry and selfish? More of us should think of the damage from discarding a relationship too easily – what are we left with? Debts, broken homes, damaged children, debilitating loneliness? Before you end a relationship make sure you’re doing so for the right reasons, because there is violence or abuse, because you have done all you can to make it work and you’ve thought through the next step: you’ve planned your ending, so you have an idea of the steps you will have to take towards making a positive new beginning.
What of work, when that sours, what do you do? Do you plan your exit as carefully as you planned your interview, your first day? Work can be a treacherous place and just like a relationship it can be very tricky to call the ending effectively. But to resign in temper, to go sick or stressed indefinitely is no way to end a job. Where is your dignity, your self respect, your ability to get another job and you will need one. Don’t act in haste, consider what is right about your job, what needs changing and where your best options lie. Like moving house or remodelling the existing one, the choices are never that cut and dried. Plan your work exit as carefully, if not moreso, as your beginning. Reputation matters. Leave things completed, leave on good terms (as far as is possible); say goodbye and leave any nastiness to someone else. This is about dignity and self respect. Marriage the same – it does you no good to end on a speech replete with spleen and bile. Go in peace, the quiet dignified way so you can begin again with your own integrity in tack.
Endings are the doorway to new beginnings. Just because you change jobs doesn’t mean you won’t remain in contact with those people, especially if you remain in the same industry: you may need to call upon them one day. Divorced parents need to remain civil for their children’s sake, if nothing else: and you can build a whole new relationship as some of the pressures that pushed you apart fade away. Some people re-marry! Leaving home for the first time is an ending but it is the beginning of a whole new life. You don’t want to slam the metaphorical door on your parents, do you? After all, the way the world is you may meet or need your past again. None of us can see the future well enough to burn all our bridges…
And finally, the ultimate ending…
Go out as you want. Death stalks us all and it isn’t ghoulish to plan your own funeral. In fact I think it is a thoughtful thing to do for your loved ones, who in their grief (we hope!) will be relieved of the burden of guessing what you want. So make plans – pick your music – a bit of Highway to Hell if you must, choose your flowers, pick the poetry you want read, opt for a Viking funeral if you want, decide on the casket, book the church or which ever venue suits you. Pick the headstone and epitaph too – actually I would NOT leave this to others. Plan it as meticulously as anything else – make it the best ending ever, not forgetting to cater for the after party where your loved ones can drink your booze, eat your canapés and lament your passing. After all you want your family and friends to know you’ve gone!
Remember, beginnings matter for a whole range of areas, things where you are in control. But can you remember how you came into the world? Is there anyone left who was there? You may not ‘be’ at your own ending but you can be in control of it and make sure you are remembered as you want.
Life and stories – beginnings, middles and endings – over and over, again and again. (Images courtesy Google Images)