I spent a number stressful days last week trying to write the last chapters of the next (and final) installment of the Fin’s Revolution tale: Fiddler’s Green. I’d put off those chapters for a long time because I needed to be patient and mull over Fin’s entire story and make sure that all the necessary events and emotions came together in just the right way.
After writing all day on Saturday, I laid awake until three or four in the morning with a whirl of descending character arcs and plot resolutions spinning through my head. When I woke at seven the next morning my brain still hadn’t stopped. So I got up, got dressed, shirked church and sat in the coffee shop writing. At about 3pm on Sunday, I wrote the final sentence of Fiddler’s Green.
An ending is a strange and delicate thing. In storytelling terms its importance is equaled only by its opposite: the beginning. The bits in the middle tend to be easier to shape because they’re open ended and the writer can, in some measure, both pre- and re- form them throughout the narrative.
Beginnings are all promise and adventure, a setting out toward lands unknown. They signify a contract between the writer and reader in which the writer suggests a journey and, tendering a currency of time and attention, the reader buys a ticket hoping to gain safe passage through the writer’s mind in hope of entertainment, or escape, or revelation.
But endings? Endings are final. After the last period, there’s nothing more to be said. All communication with the reader ceases. An ending might leave the reader angry or dissatisfied or, in the best cases, it can leave them moved to tears, or joy, or laughter. But laugh or cry, ending is a serious business.
Think about your favorite book. There’s a good chance that when you recall it, you recall the feeling you had in its moment of ending.
“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.” -Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
“Yes, it is the dawn that has come. The titihoya wakes from sleep, and goes about its work of forlorn crying. The sun tips with light the mountains of Ingeli and East Griqualand. The great valley of the Umzimkulu is still in darkness, but the light will come there. Ndotsheni is still in darkness, but the light will come there also. For it is the dawn that has come, as it has come for a thousand centuries, never failing. But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret.” -Alan Paton, Cry, The Beloved Country
“Some natural tears they dropp’d, but wip’d them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide
They, hand in hand, with wand’ring steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.” -John Milton, Paradise Lost
“Her eyes filled with tears that did not fall, but she said quietly, ‘I could die in peace, I think, if the world was beautiful. To know it’s being ruined is hard.’ […] She held out her hand to me. She gave me the smile that I had never seen and will not see again in this world, and it covered me all over with light.” -Wendell Berry, (book censored to prevent spoiler)
“So Lyra and her daemon turned away from the world they were born in, and looked toward the sun, and walked into the sky.” Phillip Pullman, The Golden Compass
“And Julian’s soul is laughing now, as booming and boisterous as the thunder. And the Lord’s embrace is his golden rope. . .” -Walt Wangerin, Jr., Saint Julian
See what I mean? Each of those brief excerpts evoke their writers’ tales entirely. They stir up a swirl of emotions and I get misty-eyed and want to hold the book in my hand and smell it and smile. Each of these great endings has something in common: they convey not only a sense of resolution, but of continuance; they each imply, however subtly, that the story in some form goes on, or that we as readers, having spent our little time within the tale, are now drawn away, back to our own world, left to wonder at the mysteries still afoot in that other. This idea, that an ending can, or possibly should, imply a continuation or a new beginning, is important, I think. When done properly, it grants the book a sort of immortality because in the mind of the reader, the story has not ended but instead, continues into the distance. Certainly there are great books that end with finality but I wonder if they have the same endurance. To end well is a dire responsibility, it seems.
In discussions of writing, people frequently ask if I have an ending in mind when I begin a story or if, instead, I simply begin writing and allow the story to unfold naturally and lead me to the destination of its choosing. Of course there are as many approaches to the process as there are writers. When some begin they have no ending in mind, only a vague direction. Others script their story down to the smallest scene before they write a word of prose. Still others write non-linearly, penning scenes and passages in whatever order they come along, only later finding a way to put them together into a cogent whole. None of these methods are wrong. But I can tell you that for me, I need an ending before I begin. I need a target to shoot at. A scene to earn.
I’ve known the ending of Fiddler’s Green for nearly a decade now. It was in my mind almost as soon as Fin Button’s character took shape and I don’t think it’s unfair to say that I wrote the books for the purpose of writing the ending, two novels for the sake of a couple of paragraphs. That might sound crazy but writers have rarely laid claim to an excess of sanity. I think every storyteller knows what I’m talking about. You have an image in your mind, or a scene, and it’s something beautiful and wondrous and the need to communicate that bright moment is what sets us in motion. We know we can’t simply tell people about it because out of context it’s meaningless and silly; so we create entire worlds to explain our dreams and visions, to make sense of them if we can.
I jotted down the ending to Fiddler’s Green several years ago and in the course of writing the books, I’ve gone back to peek at it often. It was like a treasure map that reminded me where I was going. Year after year, word after word, I followed it and after hundreds of thousands of steps, I arrived at the longed-for destination. But on arrival, I found out that it was surprisingly hard to stick the shovel in the ground and dig up the treasure I’d been chasing. So for a few months, I just stared at the spot on the ground, the big black X marking the spot. I walked around it and scratched my beard and I kicked the dirt awhile and I looked at it suspiciously from the corner of a narrowed eye. And then I took a deep breath and I sat down on a Sunday morning and dug.
I’m not a parent so I don’t know what it’s like to experience the birth of a child or to see that child strike out into the world to make his own way. But I wonder if that sort of triumphal advent isn’t, in some way, akin to finishing a book. It’s an emotional business I can tell you. You live with a set of characters and their struggles for so long that when the time comes and you tell them goodbye, the experience is truly a kind of grief.
I’m sure there are a few dozen people in Nashville chuckling and telling their friends about the guy they saw crying in the corner of the coffee shop on Sunday. The weight and finality of Fin’s last scene came down on me with such force that my chest was tight with it and my breath short. When the writing was done, I went home and paced my room for an hour with tears in my eyes trying to understand the strange emotional storm that ending the story had stirred. I still don’t fully understand it.
Don’t read this to mean that the ending is sad; I won’t spoil that revelation for you. The emotional impact didn’t come from the nature of the ending, you see. I’d known that all along. The impact came from the finality of it, the realization that I no longer needed the map, that I was no longer searching for the means to explain a decade-long dream. The contract entered into so long ago had been satisfied. The beginning had found its fulfillment in the end. It’s something of a holy communion, isn’t it? To create. To love one’s creation. To lead that creation through trial and grief and, at last, to come through the grand adventure and say, “It is finished.” Oh, what a holy image we bear. The creation creates and so by labor and great mystery, glimpses the endless love of the Creator.
So it’s done now. And I’m happy with it. Though the ultimate judgment lies with you, the reader, I think I’ve served the story well. I think Fin and her ragged cast have been honored and now that the writing is complete, I find that I’m humbled and incredibly grateful to have been entrusted with the gift of telling their stories. The book will be out December 7th, 2010. I hope you enjoy it. I hope you find that, in the end, it’s a story worth telling.
Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he’s the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.