Happy Trails

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.

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27 thoughts on “Happy Trails

  1. Very Pleased to hear it BL. Wonderful post by the way. I sometimes have trouble saying goodbye but recently have learned that it often works better to leave too early and be missed than stay late and people regret inviting you.
    Eoin

  2. Eoin, Yes, I do that leave too early thing also. I’d never thought that one of the benefits of it is that people might actually miss you. I tend to be the sort of person who thinks: Great, now that I’m gone they can say what they really think. (Which tends to be, why in the heck is it taking her so long to write that damn novel?) Actually, they’re thinking, yippee, more wine for me. Best, BL

  3. Congratulations! And keep going! There is a tendency, I think, to want to stop just before we reach a major milestone (not finishing my thesis for several years after finishing graduate courses comes to mind for me)…maybe ‘cos we don’t like those endings.

  4. Ahh…. loss. I must say I don’t like it much myself. I’d rather that people never died and happy times never ended and even that cherished projects continued for ever. But everything has its time, as they say. It IS exciting that you are nearing the end of the novel. It sounded so fantastic when you described it in an earlier post. I’ll be rooting like mad for you to get it published. I know you’ll keep us all up to date about that – you’ve already got a substantial market of readers!

  5. I liked how you tied together and differentiated among real life endings, generally predictable endings in novels, and your own fears and reliefs about cancer. In addition, it made me wonder about people’s preferences for knowing or not knowing about their death. If people were asked, “If it were possible to know when and how you are going to die (being informed when you are in perfect health), would you be more frightened NOT to know (as I think you suggested?) or more frightened TO know? ” There must have been a Twilight Zone where people were allowed to find out when and how they would die, and the consequences (according to Rod Serling) probably support your hunch.

  6. Oh, it’s such a wonderful feeling to be almost, almost done with a novel. Take at least one week away from it afterwards before you start editing. Treat yourself. Have a daquiri.

  7. I think you pinpointed one of the things that is so satisfying about genre fiction. It’s almost ritualistic in the reassuring way it moves through to a final resolution- which was never really in doubt.

    Not that I want to tempt fate but, in a way, I find it very annoying not knowing how long I’m going to live. It makes it very difficult to make plans for the future or to work out what the best use of my time is.

  8. It is the ending that makes the story more poignant. It defines the beginning (as does the beginning defines the end).

    Just as the dark defines the light. the tall defines the short, the din defines the silence.

    But that’s just me being philosophical. I happen to like endings. Of all sorts. It gives me something to look forward to (a new story perhaps).

    But, not so philosophical — BL, I am cheering you on. My own novel is stuck in a rut, mostly because I am fearful of visiting those emotions once again, trying to pour myself into the song I was singing, just so I can see it completed. I am at 4 years, myself. So, it gives me hope that I will overcome those silly doubts and let the song sing itself to a close like you have; I envy you. Green green green.

    A more practical question: When/How do you intend to publish? I’d like to know so I can put my order in (and if the answer is “I don’t know”, I have some terribly standard advice to give which I will not present here).

    ::clapping::

  9. I loved this post: witty and wise, as I’ve come to expect from you. Put me on the list for the BlogLily novel. I’ve had to learn to be tough about goodbyes, living far away from my family as I do. One of my ways is to pretend that we’re just saying goodbye until next week, instead of until next year. This works for about a minute and then I have to cry.

    I like endings, too. Mostly because they signal beginnings and there’s nothing like a fresh start – a new day, a clean page, the beginning of a journey.

  10. I love it that there are so many writers around! LK, that’s such good advice about being careful you don’t put off finishing something because you don’t want to say goodbye. I’d never thought of it like that, but I didn’t finish my master’s thesis when I was in English graduate school until the week I graduated from law school (which is what I did after grad school). I guess I didn’t want to let go of that world. But the time came when I needed to finish up and get my degrees and go out into the world, and so I finally did.

    Hello litlove, Maybe blogging hones your completion skills. You keep having to “say it” — as my comments key demands. It’s been good for novel writing. And of course I’ll be sure to say how things are going. After I finish, there’s a fall/winter of editing ahead and then a winter/spring of sending queries to agents. At the same time, though, I’ll be working on the next thing, which is a story about a young woman who’s the daughter of an American poet. She goes to France after the war ends to bring back a painting for him and, well, nobody dies, but I do see a lot of good sex and good food happening in her life. I can’t wait to get started on that one.

    I’ll take any and all advice Emily and Mick (and daquiris, thank you Uccellina — you have one too dear, after all that Russian nonsense on your blog!) As I said, my plan is to finish on October 1, do editing in the fall and querying in the winter and spring, while continuing on with the next thing.

    Smokey and Make Tea — What you say about knowing when you die makes me realize that the fear of death’s unknown arrival wouldn’t be assuaged by knowing its date, as much as we hate not knowing. I’m not sure I understand or could articulate why that is either. But it’s a great question you’ve both asked and pondered. Thank you.

    Hi Mick — I do like what you say about endings — and wish you good luck with your writing. There are many things that conspire against getting to the thing itself. I’m hoping you beat them all back and find yourself flying along to your ending.

    You know, Charlotte, you’ve made a great case for bringing things to their conclusion — so you can get on to the next wonderful thing.  Thank you.

    xxoo, BL

  11. LIly,
    I liked you answer to Tea and me about death. I was phrasing the question as either or — do you want to know when you are going to die or not know. What you pointed out, or what I read from your statement, is that both choices are annoying and difficult in their own ways (this is assuming the hypothetical possibility of knowing when you would die). And their is no middle answer, no “neither of the above,” no “both of the above,” no “other.” It would just be check either a) or b). Frankly, I find that philosophically kind of cool. Although, in fact, there are lots of questions in life where neither choice is good. Examples? Certainly worth a Bloglily essay. I’m going off on this because I know nothing about novel writing and not much about novel genres. But I love what you and your responders say about it.
    In fact, reading you and everyone else in your blog is sort of like reading a novel–a new genre, for sure. There’s the family, the meals, the friends, the boss at work, the passersby, the baker, the winemaker, and the book publisher. It’s all there. And it’s all dialogue. And there is no ending, well, not that we can predict, or would want to.

  12. Congrats on getting it done!

    I just finished (literally within 20 minutes of writing this) a knitting project, so I am right there with you about how good it feels to finish something.

  13. I had my eyes closed all the while I was reading this post for fear you would tell us the ending to your novel. Thank goodness you did not, I think.

    What is your next move after this? (You may have mentioned it and I may have forgotten.) Literary agent?

    Best and congrats!

    Q

  14. How I like that bit in brackets in the first paragraph!

    The problem with books is that you can see the ending coming, even calculate exactly when (with a known reading speed and number of pages left, allowing for coffee making and toilet visits). And I just realized how you can still surprise your audience: after the end of the story, add a random number of pages of something else (a short history of pea growing, something like that) so they won’t be able to see the ending coming. They’ll love you for it, at least I would.

  15. Well you know how I have it with endings, they popup while I am watching a movie in the cinema. What I sometimes worry about is that if/when I finish my (in my case) script, will I be able to write another one. At this moment I can’t see another one coming up, while you are sure you can write your next book. That must be a great feeling.

  16. “In my life I have been faced with many terrible things–some of them came true…” (I think this is credited to Mark Twain). Glad to hear you are doing well and congrats on the nearing of the end of your book.
    To the extent life is very much about perception, “endings” are a future based consideration. I find that when I spent time thinking about the future I miss the moment. Yes my life will have an ending (and unfortuantely it won’t be as wonderful as I would like to put down in a novel)–it isn’t something I think much about as I don’t think I have any real control over it. It is an interesting topic that you raise.

    Cliches abound on the subject of endings…and I think if you take a moment you could come up with your own long list. “When one door closes another opens” or ” life is journey not a guided tour” –and the list goes on. The one I like is found in a book by Matthew–sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, let tomorrow worry about tomorrow. Put simply, take care of what you can today and tomorrow will take care of itself. Books have endings ….I’m not sure we get more than today.

  17. Congratulations about nearing the end of your book. What a wonderful, wonderful accomplishment. You know, i think as writers we often feel that the competition is so fierce, and success can feel so elusive, but really, you’ve done what only a very, very small percentage of people do – you have written (are writing..) a book. And that is magnificent and exciting and glorious and well, you should be just so, so proud!

    I’m (oddly) happy to hear I”m not the only one who put off her thesis…seems to be afew of us writers/grad students who didn’t finish in a perfectly timely manner…
    love,
    Courtney

  18. Oh no Danielle, I didn’t intend to freak you out! I’m glad you like mysteries; when you’re in the hands of someone who knows what she’s doing — like Dorothy Sayers or P.D. James — you are in for a lovely afternoon.

    Hi Courtney — I suppose because I started writing in earnest when I was 40, way too late for anyone (including me) to care much about the result, I feel, on good days, detached from whether my books go anywhere.   Of course we all care that we reach people, and that our work is good, but it seems so out of anyone’s control, that I try to stifle worries about what happens to my book when I finish. That’s why I have several ideas for other things I want to write. I like to write. I would like to make money selling what I write, but it won’t stop me from writing if I don’t. I’m glad I’m not alone in the imperfectly timed thesis.

    Hello Tom, I do so admire that day by day, live in the moment way of proceeding. Thank you for coming over to visit!

    A Short History of Pea Growing?! Edwin, what are you doing over there in Europe? Something fun, I can tell. That’s a brilliant idea. Why not have fun with endings? Me, I am just looking forward to getting through the one I have planned out without collapsing.

    Ingrid, I’m glad your script is coming alone. It sounds fab.

    Q– Don’t tell anybody, but (she lowers her voice) the bad guy did it. That’s all I’m saying.

    Hi Anna; I knew you were writing up a storm; I had no idea you were also knitting at the same time. How do you do that? Do you have some kind of keyboard mind control thing going on? You amaze me.

    Thanks Dorothy — and congrats on your new job.

    S, That’s very interesting what you say about a blog and its community of comments being like a novel. Except, no ending here.

  19. Hi BlogLily,

    *lol* no key board mind control thing here, though sometimes I wish I had one of those dictation programs that I could talk the writing too while I knit.

    Actually, I knit at the keyboard – simple knits, no lace or anything. When I get hung up during my writing time, I just turn the monitor off, and pick my knitting, and knit a row, or two rows or a pattern repeat. I like to say that it keeps my creative energies flowing while letting me take a break from the writing, but really what it does is keep me at the keyboard. And really, being there is half the battle.

  20. Lily – you know I wil be standing in line for a copy when it hits the stands.

    I am not the doorknob hanger am I?

    Karoline

    “Great is the art of beginning, but greater is the art of ending.” Lazurus Long

  21. Anna, What a great idea. I don’t knit (I mean, I knit badly), but I do think that something creative that keeps you sitting at your keyboard (and here I do NOT mean a creative, um, brownie or cookie or piece of cheese) is a good thing. I liked your scarf, by the way.!

    Hello darling Karoline — No, you’re not the doorknob hanger (who’s a most lovely person, and there’s actually something incredibly flattering about a friend who can’t bear to leave…) — I’m the doorknob hanger: I hate it when people have to go.

    I like that quote, by the way. The art of ending. Someone should be writing a book about that. Beyond “I married him, dear reader.” I can’ actually recall any great literary endings. (Isn’t “wouldn’t it have been pretty” the end of The Sun Also Rises?) I know a ton of beginnings though. Isn’t that odd?

  22. My sisters and I all have had our difficulties saying goodbye–we laugh about how hard it is to get off the phone with our family. We had some difficult good-byes in our childhood and I think that made us afraid of them. I always go through a period of mourning when I finish a large painting and always forget that I always go through it so each time it scares me. It’s great you’ve already got your next project. It’s always worse for me when I don’t have the next painting planned.

    I love your writing–it’s always so thought provoking, interesting and amusing and your readers are great writers too. I remember a writing teacher saying that the way you know your writing is good is when your readers respond by sharing their own experiences that your writing evoked in them (badly paraphrased). And your writing definitely seems to affect people that way!

  23. I’d never really understood this fear until I began writing fiction in earnest. I remember reading in Virginia Woolf’s diaries how she’d become despondent after finishing a book. Partly from exhaustion, partly because of other mental issues, but also simply because she did not know if she’d be able to find the things she’d found before. I didn’t understand it at the time, and I simply thought about how she did always seem to have another thing to say. But now, I think about this every time I sit down to write: will it work this time like it did last time? Will I still have those unexpected images and lines of dialogue? Or was that it yesterday and there is no more? Our unconscious store of ideas is, most likely limitless, but our faith in that is quite fragile.

    And thank you for what you said about my writing. I like doing it and I really like hearing what other people have to say.

  24. I’m late with this comment (as with everything it seems, lately) but I’m so thrilled to hear you’re nearing the end of your book! That’s such an intense, incredible feeling, even if there might a little bit of brooding time afterward. (For me there most certainly was.)

    I don’t like good-byes, either. Instead of making people hang onto doorknobs I tend to try to slink away without saying the words out loud.

    As for that phone call from the idiot doctor, my only response was a giant !

    (So horrified it made me think only in punctuation.)

    I can’t wait to read your book, Bloglily.

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