Saturday, December 14, 2013

ADVENT 12/14: Ryan Van Meter on endings

All in all, it was a really weird summer

December 14th is the 348th day of the year, with only 17 days remaining. This notation is written at the top of the page in my diary devoted to December 14th; a similar notation is written on the pages devoted to all of the other days. I have been writing in a diary this year because last year my grandmother died. Until she did, she wrote in a diary every day, every year, for 43 years, which is something like 16,000 pages. Very little about these pages is reflective; mostly they are a record of her activities—loads of laundry washed and folded, shifts at the grocery store worked, meals cooked, visitors to the house, letters in the mail. What happened, but not much of what she thought about what happened. The last day in the diary that she wrote about was not the last day that she lived, and so when she wrote it, she did not know that that page would be the ending of the record she’d been writing for four decades. It was simply the most recent day on which she’d written, and then later, it was the last. The ending of my diary this year will be a record of what activities I do on the year’s last day. It will be the last page of the book, but I’m coming to understand that that’s different than it being the book’s ending.

Grandmothers end just like years end. Countries and movements and religions and languages end, and so do football games, wars, flowers and storms. Even our solar system ends, and a probe we launched in 1977 reached its outer boundary only this year. It is recording its journey on 8-track tape machines, and before it exited our solar system, scientists instructed the probe to erase all of its previously recorded data so that it would not reach the end of its capacity to record. But around the year 2025, the probe’s plutonium batteries will end, and while it will continue blazing across interstellar space filling up its 8-track tapes with new findings, when the batteries stop functioning, the probe’s ability to transmit those recordings back to Earth will end. Besides diaries, books have endings, like weddings, recipes and theories. The Bible has an ending. The last word of it is “Amen,” the same word I was taught to say as the ending of a prayer when I was being taught to pray, which suggests that even extremely long and exquisitely detailed prayers have endings. We already have a few names for the world’s ending though it hasn’t happened. Even the movie “The Neverending Story” has an ending. The only thing I can think of that has neither end nor ending is time.

Essays have endings, but I wish they didn’t, or I wish they didn’t have to have them. Because if an essay is an attempt to understand an experience or idea, if it is a recording of the activity of a mind as it thinks over an experience or idea, can that actually end? Could it ever really be finished? It seems antithetical to impose a fixed point on thinking that could go on given more time or new information, and more than that, it also seems untrue—a big problem for a form defined by its truth. Life goes on after writing an essay, and so does thinking, even about the subjects we’ve written into essays. So how to square an essay needing to end with thinking that couldn’t possibly? The only way an essay really could have a fixed point as its ending is, if as soon as the essay was finished, the essayist went brain dead.

When I write essays I have trouble with the endings. More than once (three times) an editor of mine has suggested (one demanded) that I remove the entire penultimate paragraph from an essay. This was suggested each time because these entire penultimate paragraphs were superfluous—they stated what I’d already implied or demonstrated elsewhere. I agreed with these suggestions because as soon as they were pointed out to me, I saw how nervous the paragraphs were. I was trying so hard to create that fixed point of my thinking that I started thinking for the reader too, and these paragraphs were me making sure that everyone was OK right before I, the essayist, slipped out the door.

There is an episode of “The Simpsons” where Bart is being stalked by a dog. The dog is huge, powerful and snarling. He sits at one end of a seesaw and stares at Bart while Bart sits in his classroom, terrified. The dog rings the doorbell, is always behind a blind corner. One day on his way to school, Bart is carrying his textbook, The Second-Best American Short Stories, when the dog tries again to attack. For momentary protection, Bart flings the book into the dog’s mouth, the dog’s teeth shred it and the last page of a story flies into frame, in close-up. We can read its ending: “All in all, it had been a weird, weird lottery.” (Presumably a reference to the last sentence of “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, which is actually, “And then they were upon her.”) The sentence is a joke because it’s so nervous about straightening up before the storyteller closes the door. It’s telling the reader to think that the lottery was weird right after the reader has already experienced a really weird lottery. When I think about the endings of essays, I think about the joke sentence on that ripped-out page.

The name of this episode is “The Lastest Gun in the West.” (A very old cowboy shows up.) The lastest. That’s what I appreciate when an essay ends well—that difference between an essay that has a lastest sentence and an essay that has an ending. It’s that orchestration I’m becoming skeptical of—the feeling of inevitability forced, of tidiness, of an insight arrived at just in time. At some point, I started to think of that joke sentence as concluding some imaginary essay, and I changed it to the more widely applicable “All in all, it was a really weird summer.” In my teaching and in my writing, “All in all, it was a really weird summer” is the term for the nervous ending – the ending that’s a little too ending.

If this is an essay—an essay about attempting to understand the endings of essays—this must be the paragraph that’s getting nervous because I haven’t finished thinking about endings yet, but the essay itself needs to end. So I could pick up an idea again and ask a startling question about it. I could finally reveal the insight for which I’ve been quietly laying groundwork the whole time. I could return to an image I referred to earlier in a seemingly offhand way, and show it again, but this time it will encapsulate my primary concern. That probe, for example, hurtling out of our solar system, still recording what it comes upon even though we won’t be able to read what it finds for very much longer. I could write something about how the best kind of ending for an essay is one that suggests a mind still thinking even after our moment to see inside that thinking has ceased.

Though another way of ending is to introduce a related but still new direction of development that will resonate somehow. So, there is a book called A Really Weird Summer. Written by Eloise Jarvis McGraw, published in 1977, it’s a novel for young adults about (among other things) a kid who befriends another kid living inside an antique mirror during the summer his parents are splitting up. Its lastest sentence: “And Nels suddenly felt it the best thing in the world to be doing, and the most solidly important—just to be collecting insects for Stevie’s zoo.”

Ryan Van Meter is the author of the essay collection, If You Knew Then What I Know Now. His work has also been published in journals and anthologies, including Best American Essays. He lives in California and teaches creative writing at The University of San Francisco.

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