… You don’t miraculously arrive at the ending. You have to have a sense of drama. And you discover the ending in the writing, or rather in the rewriting, since I firmly believe in rewriting …
– Raymond Carver
Writers of short literary fiction tend to want to leave readers to their own devices as sentences begin to slip inevitably toward what the eye can see, that last sentence. The end. Carver perfected the subtle ending. The rest of us are left trying, and we often draft non-endings. We fall flat, producing stories in which it seems nothing happens. Carver suggests the end hides waiting our arrival in the rewrite. Like miners, we must unearth it. So, which way to dig? I am starting to think it is not in the brain, the heart, the instinct where we are told to plunge in first drafts—to “get it on the page!” as it is so often exclaimed—but in digging toward the approximate location where we’ve identified our ending, or a sense of one. I was recently working with a writer to revise a short short, and for each of two places in the story I identified as having to cut, change, or otherwise ring true, rather than strike them, change them, or bandage the surrounding sentences, he rewrote the paragraphs before. At first, I thought he was being stubborn. It was only when I decided that the rewrites somehow now “worked” that I considered his strategy: he did not change where I, the reader, was going, but how he got me there. Perhaps we sense what a story is about when we stumble into a poignant image where we feel we should end, and it is only in looking back up the tunnel that we can determine how we got there. Sure, maybe we have to toss some endings, but for now I want to think about tunneling straighter to the established location.
You can do both at once. In the summer of 2012, novelist Chris Bachelder—in an attempt to curb my enthusiasm for what I was certain was a metaphor I could apply universally to shaping my stories—politely explained it just isn’t like that. Every story is different. He gestured imaginary keystrokes in front of him, and looked up. He said you get going in one direction, and the thing shifts. He shifted in the chair. You shift with it, he said. It seemed to me he was describing an M.C. Escher painting, and I left his office sure that I had been given an answer, but not sure how to apply it. I never got that into Escher. His work was complicated and silly at the same time, like I was being introduced to a new paradigm and being told it was an optical illusion all at once, to absorb it without absorbing it. I didn’t find it very pretty, but the fact is that it is really cool.
Bachelder was digging toward an ending he had already located approximately, and was willing to reorient, to shift, as necessary. He was just looking up when he demonstrated his point and my mole of a mind was stuck looking down, thinking that is where endings are: at the bottom of the page. His eyes might have been on the ceiling, but he knew where he was going. This summer, Jamie Quatro read from her 2013 debut short story collection, I Want To Show You More, at Sewanee School of Letters. The collection offers a lesson on how to end short stories. At least, it showcases Quatro’s stylized sense of an ending. Read Ladies and Gentlemen of the Pavement or Georgia The Whole Time, and you’ll see what I mean.