Searchlights & Signal Flares
Which are harder, beginnings or endings?
This month: Susan Bono, Jennie Orvino, Lela Nargi, William Judd, Shirley Bell,
Mary Gaffney, Rosemary Manchester, Jordan Rosenfeld, Rodney
Merrill, Marjorie Williford, Jane Merryman, J. Randal Matheny
last few months I've become so intimidated by the problems
of making a start that I haven't bothered to worry about what
comes next. These days it's not a question of plucking a scintillating
possibility from the cloud of ideas swirling in my head, of
allowing the proper springboard for my story to show itself
to me. My imagination is an empty nest from which all the
little eggs have tumbled. The writers I really admire say
they are compelled to write. I wonder what that would feel
without inspiration we are nowhere. I vaguely recall what
it's like to be visited by a Good Idea-an engaging jolt that
usually announces its presence with a couple of obliquely
related images. An unarticulated certainty starts to warm
my gut-as if I've put a stockpot on the burner and set it
to simmer. Once that fire is lit, I can begin in a roundabout
way to add scraps of thought, sprinklings of details-whatever
is on hand, whatever feels right. I might end up with an unsavory
mess, get too enthusiastic with the salt or sugar, let the
pot boil dry. But once I've actually gotten an idea, I don't
feel so aimless, dissatisfied.
soon, I will encounter those inevitable, often painful, stumbling
blocks-the avoidance of which may be at the heart of my dry
spell. Can I find an opening sharp and focused enough to engage
the reader fully, but loose and flexible enough to allow for
unexpected turns and discoveries? Do I have what it takes
to really develop my idea? How in the world am I going to
end this? Then there are the finished pieces that turn out
to be insubstantial little tales of woe that showcase my self-absorption
rather than my insight. What I wouldn't give on some days
for a nice soup bone when all I have to work with is a turnip
and some limp broccoli.
I'd love to be in the mood to cook-maybe even a little hungry.
is trying to relocate her inspiration by forcing herself to
write to the "Searchlights" topics. She can be reached at
NOW, WHERE WAS I GOING WITH THAT?
there's no end to them. The twin bed in my home office is
covered with file folders of items of most immediate concern,
and at least half are holding cells for unfinished poems.
I start out like a barn-afire, that initial image or impulse,
full of specific detail and passion. The music of the language
flows in my particular tune, yeah yeah yeah, and then... I'm
at the middle and don't know which way to turn. I run out
of energy, ideas, even feelings.
of the poems in those folders were "workshopped" (I made
a typo and wrote "warshopped" and I often feel at war with
whichever of my inner selves thought the work was just about
cooked and submitted it to her peers for review.) and now
I see the flaws but have no idea how to fix them. Friendly
critics have said, "Perhaps you just don't want to go deeply
where the poem is leading." Now, I pride myself in taking
relationship risks, do a lot of work on myself, so this seems
like so much psychobabble. And yet, if I resist, isn't that
a sign that that what I am resisting is what I need to explore?
I've written two paragraphs and what to say next? I've chopped
off the rear ends of works that degenerated into: 1) going
back to an initial image, wrapping it up; 2) telling the reader
what the poem was about in case they didn't get it; 3) ending
with a wild image pulled from nowhere (the hurricane approach,
just blow everything away), and the reader says "huh?" I could
call this "make the reader feel dumb and therefore I seem
avant-garde or profound" approach. But what I'm looking for,
what I want, dammit, is the ending that moved me as
I wrote it, then moved us all to a different perspective without
even realizing we were being transported. We arrived, boom,
and the tears flowed or the chuckle came out.
harder, beginnings or endings? My acting teacher told me
never to "telescope the ending," to let myself be just as
surprised as the audience about where I was going with a scene
or an exchange. A writing teacher told me to "write what the
poem wants, not what you want to impose on it." Fine, great,
but how? Those of you out there who are enders, what's your secret?
Orvino's website is www.soundofpoetry.com and her email address
When not romancing the Muse, she is out promoting her new
spoken word CD, "Make Love Not War," a collaboration with
Bay Area musicians. Hear sample tracks at www.cdbaby.com/orvino.
month's question about which is harder, beginnings or endings:
most assuredly ENDINGS. Which is not to say that beginnings are necessarily easy; only, I've learned
a thing or two in all these years about the way I work, and
I now know that for one of my beginnings to be successful,
I need only to delete it, and start my piece with the second,
or even the third, paragraph. Yes, I am the queen of
false starts. And exasperated endings. Someone, somewhere
in my youth, tried to drill into my head the notion that conclusions
should be recaps or summaries, neat things that tie the whole
endeavor prettily together. I rage and struggle against this
idea-that kind of neatness strikes me as overly snug, potentially
corny. So I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite my endings, often
letting months go by between attempts, hoping to strike upon
the pithy, the unexpected, and of course, the ultimately perfect.
Look at me, I don't even know how to end this e-mail! Out.
Brooklyn, New York
beginnings and endings require the same intuitive method so
it's hard to say which is harder. I'm learning to get started-with
the lowest possible standards-then step back and leave it
alone for a while. When I return to something often my intuition
has had enough time to work with the material in ways that
my conscious intention can't quite manage. So I have to give
myself some raw materials to stew about, even if they're just
old bones. The stew isn't always good. Plenty of my quick
starts fail to connect with anything of depth.
the closing move in a poem or the right finish to a story,
comes from the same source as the beginning. Sometimes the
intuitive work will carry the piece through to the end, but
sometimes I'll get in there with my logic and ham-hand the
end. Then it's time to step back again and give the quiet
writer in me room to work. Maybe I write because I can't resist
how I feel when I get a good ending.
Judd, Sebastopol, CA
something in modern physics about time, as we know it, being
an artificial construct designed only to help us communicate
among our particular species and that, in fact, everything
is happening simultaneously; that is, past, present, and future
exist as one. So, those individuals labeled as psychic most
likely possess an ability to pass through, or virtually ignore,
the barriers of time possessed by the rest of us.
and endings dissolve within this framework. I can never determine
precisely the beginning or ending of anything because each
time I attempt to do so I wind up following long silver threads
backwards or forwards which connect to other threads or ropes,
which then hook into a larger story. Life once seen as an
assault of harsh endings now seems to be a richly woven tapestry
within which are tucked the once raveled but now neatly hidden
beginnings and endings.
Bell, Bodega Bay, CA
or Endings? Twenty
years ago, I began writing a novel. It was easy. It was fun.
Twenty years later, I'm still working on that novel. Ending-as
in being finished with the work-is more difficult than starting.
"The end" is also harder than "Once upon a
time." Happy ending? Moderately hopeful? Sad? Downright tragic? I thought it would come to me in a dream or a moment
of inspiration, but it didn't. I put the manuscript away and
away it did stay for many years. When I finally got it out
again and read it as though it were one of the books stacked
up on my bedside table, I discovered that the ending was already
written. Not that I'd stopped there. I'd written another hundred
pages, some of them good. Like a love affair that's over long
before the break-up, I had stuck with my story, my people,
too long. So I have a beginning, an ending, and all that really
hard stuff in between. Now I need a publishing, so I can really
put an end to this, put it on the shelf.
aren't hard to write, they're just hard to locate. I usually
find them in the middle of page 3, when whoever has been dragooned
into listening to my stuff stops me and says, "There! That's
the perfect beginning!" Where would we be without our friends?
Up the creek, for sure.
know the beginning is in there someplace, I just start writing,
confident that in time I will recognize it. Endings? Since
I write non-fiction I know what the ending will be, and I
try to put some pizzazz into it, to leave the reader wanting
Manchester, Sebastopol CA
beginnings are the best part. They're usually the heart of
the thing, the spark that got me interested in writing the
story in the first place. It might be something quirky I heard
on the radio, or a memory that surfaces through the thick
skin of time. The momentum of the beginning usually carries
through till about the middle, and then it's a rougher and
much more precarious terrain for me. I often let a story sit
for months, mulling over the ending. Partially the problem
for me with endings, is that I get attached to my characters
and my process...I don't WANT to finish the thing. So I either
err by tacking on a "too-easy" ending, or I labor
and labor and labor to find one that feels natural. The sad
fact for me, is that no ending ever feels right.
Rosenfeld, Freelance Writer, Fiction Editor for www.Wordriot.org. Find our more about her at www.thewritelife.com . She lives in Petaluma, CA.
THE OPENING IS THE THING
In Right Ho, Jeeves,
Bertie Wooster says of writing an opening: "I don't know if
you've had the same experience, but the snag I always come
up against when I'm telling a story is this dashed difficult
problem of where to begin it. It's a thing you don't want
to go wrong over, because one false step and you're sunk.
I mean, if you fool about too long at the start, trying to
establish atmosphere, as they call it, and all that sort of
rot, you fail to grip and the customers walk out on you."
As a personal
essayist, I am intent on creating a truth by telling a story
that comes from my life. Consequently, I must use the devices
used by writers of invented stories while sticking pretty
close to actual events. Like Bertie Wooster, I want "to grip
the customers before they walk out."
seems to come down to this: a theatrical opening or one of
a synoptic sort.
In a synoptic
opening, I "make a long story short" as they say. I take dozens
of pages of interaction and dialogue and squeeze them into
a paragraph or two of narration. Synoptic openings get to
they make for slow reading. Even though they quickly bridge
large spans of time and detail, summation tends to evoke an
impression of "secondhandedness." That reduces reader involvement
and creates a sense of lumbering.
day, readers didn't mind a lumbering introduction. Life was
slower-paced. Readers were willing to enter a story as one
might enter a stream: inching into it, taking time to acclimate
body and soul to the task. They were not compelled to dive
headlong into the deep end. Long and-it now seems-painfully
protracted openings were then commonplace and expected.
readers-weaned as they are on remote-controlled picture-within-a
picture MTV and other nanosecond entertainment technology-want
ACTION. They want MOVEMENT. And nothing spells action and
movement like a dramatic scene and/or dialogue. Without mincing
words, it throws readers into the water, no matter how cold
one of my favorite openings of this type is this opening-with-attitude
from J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the
really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably
want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood
was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before
they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap,
but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the
around for Salinger. Boom! You're there.
method, synoptic or dramatic, is equally valid. I try to blend
them in a single opening that takes advantage of the best
each has to offer: descriptive imagery and dramatic immediacy-without
fooling about so long, as Bertie Wooster puts it, that you
"fail to grip" and the customers walk out on you.
Lewis Merrill, lives in Astoria, Oregon with his wife Kate. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
are hardest! You walk into situations bright-eyed and bushy-tailed
and then the stuff begins to brew. The pot boils and there
you are in front of that fan with a face full!
Williford, Benicia, CA.
THE DEAD HORSE IN MY LIVING
easier for me-beginnings. When they arrive, either serendipitously
or carefully shepherded, they flow-and breed. I had wanted
to build raised beds in my garden ever since I found out I
had adobe soil, which a farmer told me is quite fertile, but
which, wet or dry, I can't dig in. My own experience and countless
gardening magazine articles told me raised beds, filled with
workable soil, were a project that should begin. But it stalled-for
thirty years. Six months ago I woke up one morning, began
measuring, checked the bank account, and called my landscaper.
In a few weeks those beautiful cedar boxes and the paths we
designed around them had transformed my entire garden, a bonus
beginning I hadn't anticipated.
beginnings that sneak up on me. While traveling in Indonesia, I broke away from the tour group to go looking for
a woman's point of view-all our guides had been men and I
was just curious. Because I had worked for many years as a
school librarian and often visited school libraries when I
was traveling, it didn't seem strange to follow a horde of
teenagers carrying book bags. I was betting one of their teachers
would be a woman who could speak some English. The headmaster
called the English teacher out of class. Alas, a man, but
a happy, enthusiastic young fellow who immediately took me
to his third-year students so they could hear English as it
is really spoken. Afterward, he took me on the back of his
motorcycle to his village to meet his wife and daughter, in-laws,
brothers, uncles, aunts, grandmother, cousins. Since then
I have returned many times. The villagers greet me, "Selamat
pulang-welcome home." I didn't know when I began tailing some
dawdling students that I would be putting down new roots.
beginning is the coup de foudre, the lightning strike, French
for love at first sight. It happened to me only once, and
how sweet it was. An explosion shimmering against the dark
texture of my tightly woven life. Such beginnings should happen
they are mostly agony, from the end of the affair to the end
of the ice cream carton. The goodbye to a soul mate discovered
as our ships passed in the night, the last page of a romantic
novel and a cleansing cry, the swift fading of a sunset seen
at 30,000 feet. Such endings are definitive. It's the endings
I don't know when to call endings that bedevil me. When to
quit flogging that dead horse? How long do I have to push
around seventeen syllables before I can declare them a poem?
Someone said-I've heard it attributed to Mark Twain and Robert
Frost, but perhaps it was Homer, "A story (poem, painting,
diet) is never finished, only abandoned." The trick is not
in all, but in enough.
therefore I am.
surprised that you would even ask
by far, the harder writing task:
or end. For all that ply this craft
of the two,
Matheny, Sao Jose dos Campos, Brazil
rhymes couplets in his Random Variables weblog http://random.antville.org
to all who participated this month. It's good to know you're
out there. Check this column at the beginning of each month
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