Monday, September 12, 2005

Toward The Light: More On Endings.

Endings, like plants, grow toward the light.

They are seeds planted at the beginnings of our stories.

As the story unfolds that seed--that promise--pushes through the ground, its energy and determination carrying readers toward the light at the end of the story.

To find the seed in a story, you might want to compare the first page with the last page.

Look for the seed that was planted on the first page and see if you can find it fully grown on the last, casting its shadow back on each page as the story moves toward its inevitable conclusion.

In The Bamboo Flute, for instance, Gary Disher, an Australian writer, explores the intimate interior of a 12 year-old boy's heart.

The story, set in Australia in the 1930's, begins with Paul remembering the days before his family suffered from poverty... before his father's bitterness and exasperation over lack of money distanced him from the family.

From the opening passage, Disher shows us Paul struggling with the way his father's despair has sapped the joy out of his life and swept the family's love of music--his mom's and his own--out of their home.

Here's how Disher begins:

"There was once music in our lives, but I can feel it slipping away. Men are tramping the dusty roads, asking for work, a sandwich, a cup of tea. My father is bitter and my mother is sad. I have no brothers, no sisters, no after-school friends. The days are long. No one has time for music."

Now, ask yourself what you learn immediately in this passage?

In the first sentence--the first clause--you already sense Paul's loss, don't you? "There was once music in our lives." And now it's gone.

His life once contained something beautiful, something that he loved... and it's been torn from his fingers by the Depression... and by his father's bitterness.

What else do you hear rippling beneath the surface in this opening passage?

Perhaps Paul's painful sense of solitude without music?

No one besides Paul has "time for music." He's alone... in his daydreams, in which he dreams of music... of violins (which he imagines his father's huge hands might break)... and flutes.

But Paul's not alone for long. One day one of the men tramping the dusty road in front of his house stops to ask for a cup of tea.

That's how Paul meets Eric the Red, a penniless tramp looking for work and hand-outs. He's one of the many drifters who Paul and his fellow classmates at school are warned to stay away from.

But when Eric the Red surprises Paul by playing a flute, Paul is irresistably drawn to the man and his music despite all the warnings. He trusts the man because of the music, though he knows his father would forbid him from meeting with Eric if he knew.

With Eric the Red's help, Paul carves his own flute from a stalk of bamboo growing near an old house where Eric's hiding out. And little by little, as he teaches himself to play, music returns to Paul's life again.

But how can he share share this discovery and new-found pleasure with his father, who grows day by day more bitter over the family's poverty and the lengthening line of men asking for hand-outs?

Not until Paul summons the courage to show his father the flute (and the gift of a letter-opener that Eric the Red carved and gave him) does Paul reveal his friendship with Eric.

And in this culminating moment of intimacy, Paul's father shares his own secrets. He pulls out of the closet the small pieces of wood and metal that he carved while, like Eric the Red, he served at the front during the last war.

This moment of recognition softens Paul's father's heart and brings new-found understanding to both father and son. And it's this new understanding that seems to melt away the bitterness in his father's heart and bring the two close again.

Here's how Disher ends the story:

"We sit like that for a while, touching everything--my flute, his carvings.
Then he stands in his decisive way and packs everything away again.
As he's going out the door, he turns and points at Eric the Red's letter opener. 'In the future, you be a bit more careful who you talk to, hear?'
It's almost the old voice and manner, but this time he can't quite keep the music out."

At the end of the story is the seed that Disher planted early on. Finally we understand what has been at stake for Paul all along.

Not only did Paul need to bring music back into his life, but, more importantly, he needed to regain the close relationship that he had lost with his father.

Now try this: look at the ending of a story. Take a look at the last few paragraphs; then turn to the opening.

See if you can trace the arc of the story--the arc of the character's journey--from the opening sentence to the final paragraph.

Look for the seed of the ending in the beginning.

And watch how that seed grows into a fully leafed plant by the end, straining toward the light to illuminate the main character's innermost yearning.

1 comment:

Galen Longstreth said...

When I read the "Finding the North Star" piece on endings, I began thinking of some books I've read that have intentionally ambiguous endings. Bruce writes that an ending should fulfill a promise, and if that promise is broken, "readers will walk away disappointed." Books like Terry Trueman's Stuck in Neutral (I can't figure out how to italicize the title) and Walter Dean Myers's Monster came to mind as books that have ambiguous endings and yet did not leave me disappointed.

Stuck in Neutral is a novel narrated by a teenaged boy, Shawn, who has Cerebral Palsy. Whereas he appears to others as "retarded" because of the limits of his brain functions, he in fact has a very active mental and emotional life, and is able to remember everything he's ever heard. Shawn's parents divorced when Shawn's father could no longer bear to deal directly with the needs of his son. Shawn's father is so overwhelmed with his son's condition that he regularly entertains the thought of killing his child to spare him (Shawn) any pain or discomfort (and probably to spare himself the pain as well). At the end of the book, Shawn's father is at his bedside, telling Shawn "I love you," and holding a pillow in his hands (which readers understand will serve as a murder weapon if the father so chooses). In the final paragraphs, Shawn experiences a seizure, and we do not know what happens.

In Monster, Steve Harmon is accused of being involved in a murder. The book includes two forms of narration - Steven's prison journal and a screenplay that he writes as a way of showing the trial in the courtroom. We never know for sure whether Steve played a part in the murder. In other words, we never know for sure whether he is guilty. He is given a verdict of "not guilty," but not in a way that convinces readers of his innocence. He never says, in either narrative voice, "I did not do this."

Where does an ambiguous ending leave the reader? Has a promise not been fulfilled? Don't I want to know whether Steve really did it? Don't I want to know whether Shawn's father killed him? Is a book not as good because the ending is not tied tightly?

I found Bruce's piece "Toward the Light: More on Endings" very helpful as I was thinking about the issue of ambiguity. I took his suggestion and went directly to the text. First I read the endings of each of these books, and then read the beginnings.

At the end of Stuck in Neutral, Shawn literally asks himself a question: "What will my dad do?" It is the same question the readers are asking. In the beginning of the novel, Shawn tells readers everything he is good at and what he loves about his life, and also about his Cerebral Palsy. The emotional crux of the first chapter, however, is when Shawn says, "My being born changed everything for all of us, in every way. My dad didn't divorce my mom, or my sister, Cindy, or my brother, Paul - he divorced me." Here, "me" is in italics.) After re-reading this beginning, I read the ending of the book much differently. Shawn is so happy to have his father at his bedside. There is a moment when Shawn's eyes (the muscles in which he cannot voluntarily control) happen to meet his father's eyes. Never have they looked at each other this way, and it means the world to Shawn. Whether Shawn dies during his seizure or not, he knows now how much his father loves him, and that is worth as much to Shawn as life itself. "Either way," he says, "whatever he [my dad] does, I'll be soaring." The ending is connected to the beginning, and in that connection, the ambiguity disappears, at least insofar as it could disappoint.

In Monster, we witness the jury giving Steve a verdict of "not guilty" and Steve tells us a little bit about his life after prison. But in the courtroom, after the winning verdict, when he turns to give his lawyer a hug, "she stiffens and turns to pick up her papers from the table." The look on Steven's face, as described in his screen play, is "like one of the pictures they use for psychological testing, or some strange beast, a monster." In the final journal entry, after the conclusion of the trial, Steve describes his use of a video camera to film his life.

In the beginning of the novel, Steve describes his jail cell, particularly the mirror in it. When he looks into it, he doesn't recognize his own face. "It doesn't look like me," he writes. "I couldn't have changed that much in a few months. I wonder if I will look like myself when the trial is over."

This statement connects directly to the very end of the novel, when Steve writes, "That's why I take the films of myself. I want to know who I am. . . I want to look at myself a thousand times to look for one true image."

Again, ambiguity takes a back seat, as we see that guilty or not-guilty are in some ways less important than how Steve will be able (or not) to live with himself for the rest of his life. How does he perceive himself? How has he changed and at what point will he or was he able to recognize himself again?
While we may have thought that Myers promised us the truth about whether or not Steve committed the crime, we learn that in fact, Myers has offered a different promise, maybe a deeper promise, about the changing self and one's relationship to one's self.