Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about endings. It’s not just because, about a month ago, a doctor told me I have stage 3 cancer, and I hung up the phone thinking, that’s it then, better burn those diaries from college. (In fact, I don’t have stage 3 cancer — she was an idiot. I’m going to be fine.) My thoughts about endings probably have more to do with the fact that I’m actually nearing the finish of my first novel, the one I’ve been writing for, oh, maybe five years. When the conversation among my friends turns to it, I feel the way I do when I look in the fridge and see something that’s been in there way, way too long. I want to slam the door and point out the window and say, my goodness look at that sunset.
Endings are hard. This morning, my husband had to fire someone. (A bad someone, but still….) He hasn’t been able to sleep for days. Even simple social goodbyes can be difficult for some. I have a friend who’s an otherwise intelligent (brilliant, in fact) person. And yet, this friend always thinks of one more thing to talk about before we’re about to go, a date to make, or a gift to give, or a worry to display. You stand there, hand on the doorknob, unable to close the deal on goodbye, wondering why your friend does this.
But it’s actually quite common. And it begins early. Children have a very difficult time with goodbyes the first few times they have to say them to their parents. When one of my boys started preschool, he cried every day for a week when I left. I had no idea, really, what an act of courage it was for him to bid me goodbye. I knew I was going to be back in a few hours and that these people were a lot more fun than I am. He, on the other hand, knew I was never coming back. What did he know? To him, it was just as likely that today was the day he’d discover he’d been born into a culture where parents leave their beloved children at daycare and then never come back, sort of like the way the Spartans left their children naked on cold hillsides after birth to to make sure only the hardy ones became Spartans. The others? Well, they later became the inventors of gortex.
For children, as for adults, sometimes the fear of goodbye can be cured simply through the repetition of happy returnings, of regular lunch dates, of having your mother come and pick you up just when she says she will. The truth, though, is closer to my son’s real fear. It’s maybe what my friend who can’t say goodbye already knows too well: at some point there are terminal goodbyes. And those are very, very hard.
Which brings me to my novel, the one that’s almost done and then I can stop cringing about it. It’s a mystery. I love writing it. I like very much having a structure already there and then populating it with my own creations. And I do know pretty much how it ends. You have to. One of the pleasures of writing and reading genre fiction is that you know — at least very broadly — how it will end.
In a way, genre fiction mimics life in the utter predictability of its endings. The end of every life is death. The endings in genre fiction are similarly unvarying: the shy girl from Nebraska will always marry the dark sexy guy from Manhattan, the town will always be cleared of the guys who steal cattle and the mysterious stranger will move on, the good detective will make some mistakes along the way, but in the end he will always figure out what happens.But in mimicking one of the few things that are certain in life, genre fiction also offers us a consolation of sorts. Perhaps the frightening thing about death is not so much that we die, but that we don’t know when or how. We don’t know if the last page of our lives will be a chapter into the story, or in the middle of the love scene, or just before we find out who did it. Genre fiction (and to a certain degree, all realistic fiction) tells us this: Yes, there will be an ending. There will always be that. But it will be a predictable ending, and if you choose to, you will be allowed to go the entire pleasurable ride. And you will be entertained, and surprised along the way. No one will betray you with something you didn’t expect. The end will always make sense.
That life is not like this is something that need not concern us today. Today, I’m on the trail and can see the end of my mystery in sight. It’s terribly satisfying to be here. Even more thrilling, though, is knowing that when I finish this one, I’ll be able to start another. And another. Until my own end which, I’m happy to report, is not yet in sight.