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Searchlights & Signal Flares


Which are harder, beginnings or endings?

September 2002


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





In the 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 like.


After all, 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.


All too 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.


But how I'd love to be in the mood to cook-maybe even a little hungry.



Susan Bono is trying to relocate her inspiration by forcing herself to write to the "Searchlights" topics. She can be reached at Editor@tiny-lights.com .





Beginnings, 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.


Some 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?


There. 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.


What is 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?


Jennie Orvino's website is www.soundofpoetry.com and her email address is jennieo@sonic.net. 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




Re: this 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.


Lela Nargi, Brooklyn, New York




For me, 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.


An ending, 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.


William Judd, Sebastopol, CA




There's 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.

Beginnings 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.


Shirley Bell, Bodega Bay, CA



Beginnings 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.


Mary Gaffney, Occidental, CA




Beginnings 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.


Since I 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 more.


Rosemary Manchester, Sebastopol CA





For me, 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.


Jordan Rosenfeld, Freelance Writer, Fiction Editor for www.Wordriot.org. Find our more about her at www.thewritelife.com . She lives in Petaluma, CA.





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."


Just so.


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."


The choice 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 the point.


Ironically, 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.


In Dickens' 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.


Postmodern 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 or deep.


In fiction, one of my favorite openings of this type is this opening-with-attitude from J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye:


If you 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 truth.


No lollygagging around for Salinger. Boom! You're there.


Each opening 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.



Rodney Lewis Merrill, lives in Astoria, Oregon with his wife Kate. He can be reached at rlmerrill@charter.net.



Endings 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!


Marjorie Williford, Benicia, CA.






They are 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.


I love 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.


My favorite 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 more often.


Now endings, 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.


Jane Merryman, Petaluma, CA


I hike; therefore I am.






Why, I'm surprised that you would even ask

Which is, by far, the harder writing task:

To start or end. For all that ply this craft

Agree that, of the two,



J. Randal Matheny, Sao Jose dos Campos, Brazil 

Randal rhymes couplets in his Random Variables weblog http://random.antville.org .




Thanks to all who participated this month. It's good to know you're out there. Check this column at the beginning of each month to see what's new. Return to Searchlights & Signal Flares menu for future topics and guidelines.


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