It starts like this.....
It was the autumnal equinox and even though she was a level headed girl, who considered herself beyond the allure of casual superstitions, she found herself blaming the calendar, or perhaps the day to night ratio, for what happened. Of course, blame came later. On the day in question, she was only vaguely aware that it was the beginning of fall. The sun, after all was out and the day was exceptionally nice and warm.
(A Baker’s Dozen)
I am really good at beginnings. I am actually really good at middles and pretty darn good at endings.
You know what I am not so good about? Finishing.
How is that different from the ending? Well, usually when I start a short story or an idea for a novel there is a vast amount of Unknown. And this Unknown is exciting.
We went back to her place because it was closer and because I was legitimately interested in seeing her art. Sleeping with her, sure, but art was what had brought me out to the gallery opening on such a rainy night in the first place and art had been the focus of our conversation for at least an hour before it dawned on me that she might be interested in more than just my ranting about the importance of oil paints as an aesthetic choice. Her overzealous and almost painful exuberance in the cab ride had not only embarrassed the driver but had also made her intentions obvious.
Sometimes I start with a word, a phrase, a vague ideas…. And I just write. I write and the words come out and the story takes shape. I don’t know how it is going to end. That not knowing keeps me interested in writing. I am on a journey and the only way to find out what happens next is to keep typing.
We came back to the house because I didn’t know where else to go. In the entry hall, I put my purse down on the table and then looked at it as if it were a strange foreign object. I took my shoes off and left them half hidden under the hall table. I went to the living room on autopilot and sat down on the sofa. I waited to feel something else.
Martin was a study of slow movements, taking off his sports coat, checking the thermostat, moving the mail from one pile to another, checking the messages. I sat still, not wanting to move. I had thought that getting through the funeral would be the hardest part, but this sitting here afterwards with nothing to do, nothing to plan or organize, nothing to take care of, this was worse.
Sometimes I start with a character. A person sometimes only partly formed, sometimes so severely detailed that they are more real than the people sitting next to me. This character has a story, an event, a moment of clarity but I don’t know what it is. All I know is that I have to write about him/her or they will haunt me. Ben is such a character. He has been haunting me for almost a year.
The ball had dropped hours ago. The streets that had been overflowing with merry makers had dissolved into dark alleys where trash danced in the flickering traffic lights. It was hard for Ben to imagine that there had been hundreds people here just a few hours ago, and that all of them had been happy. Or at least they had pretended to be happy. Ben supposed you shouldn’t go to a New Year’s party and act depressed, even if you were. Depressed people were supposed to stay in cheap hotel rooms and drink cheap whisky and sulk. If you bothered to get dressed up and hit the streets, then you better at least act happy for the sake of the actual happy people out there who don’t want to get dragged down by your low mood.
Really though, whether it is the person, the event, or just an errant line….
I am nothing but a drop of water in transition.
…I have to write the rest of the story in order to find out the rest, the pulse, the reason, the message, the moral, the ending.
And as a process it works. Sometimes it works really really well. There have been times when I have written a solid story straight through. All 2000 words or whatever it is… just barreling though not sure what is going to happen, like my future readers, I am along for the ride.
Sometimes though, I get interrupted. I do other things besides write and thus if an idea comes while on a bus or working on a spreadsheet or standing over a pot of boiling pasta, I either can’t start it or at the very least I can’t finish it. At least not right that second.
This is where the problem comes in. The problem of Finishing. It isn’t a matter of not being able to come up with an ending. If I write it in one fell swoop the ending is part of the initial birthing process.
But if I take a break, if I step away, if I SAVE and return to it later…. Then I have time to think.
I think about what might happen. I think about what should happen. I think about what would make sense. And then I write an ending.
When I get home hours later Marty is sitting in the living room, a book on his lap. He looks at me while I take my time locking the door and putting my bag carefully on the end table. I know he knows I came home and then left, I know he wants to know why and where and what it all means. For the first time in months I look at him and see the tiny worry lines around his eyes, the flicker of fear as he looks back.
I cross the room and sit down beside him. For a long moment I hold his gaze with my own and then I kiss him. There are things to do, calls to make, the final edits for the story will have to be hammered out and argued over. The magazine people will have to be coddled and I will probably end up loosing my commission on the story because it is so far past deadline. And Marty.. there will have to be talking with Marty as well. Actual talking, actual communication.
I tell myself I will deal with all that tomorrow. Right now, I kiss him and feel the walls come down.
The problem is that once I know how it is going to end because I have spent an hour, a day, a lunch break, a bus ride, a trip to the store, thinking about it… I really lack the drive to put it down on paper.
It’s the same thing that if you know how the movie ends, you are less likly to watch it. You might still watch it, you might still enjoy it. You might even find something surprising about it. But the fact remains that you might just skip it to see something else, something with a Unknown ending.
Which leaves me with dozens if not hundreds of MS Word documents that I just can’t bring myself to finish. Because I already know how they end.
And because I just got a new idea… a new moment of inspiration… and I simply must write it down…..
She awoke and for a long moment she was confused. The room was dark, deeply dark, middle of the night in the middle of winter dark and there was no reason for her to be awake. She had never suffered from sleeplessness and even with the current stresses and upcoming life style changes she had been sleeping just fine thank you very much. Her mother worried that she wasn’t ready, but Anna argued that her ability to sleep like a baby every night obviously pointed to her overall acceptance of the inevitable. Of course when she said things like that her mother rolled her eyes and muttered to herself in Yiddish and usually went to pour herself a drink.
And yet she was suddenly awake and staring at the ceiling. Why, she wondered, why am I awake? What woke me up? Was she finally going to start worrying and second guessing her decision now that it was almost too late to do anything about it? Was she about to go through some sort of crisis of faith? Would her sister arrive home tomorrow to find her shaken and tense, gulping coffee, stammering incoherently, her face pale, her breath reeking of cigarettes?
Here we go again.
I keep myself I’ll go back and finish them if I can forget my plans, if I can tap into once again the freedom of the Unknown.
Sometimes that forced forgetting actually works.
(A few of the excerpts in this blog entry actually made it, in short story form, into my book Links: A Short Story Collection which is available on Amazon.com)