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Endings and beginnings

Wednesday 4/26/23

The other day "Finder of Views" was something like 4200 words. Then it went to 3700. Now it's at 6100. First thing I did this morning was return to the ending of the story. A "this" became an "a" and then went back to being a "this." It's so precise--everything has to be just a certain way. Two clauses were added, each loaded with additional meaning beyond the literal. (What I expect to happen is for people to read a story like this and then come to these pages later to look at what was happening in real time as that work was created, what that creator was thinking, insight into what was done when it was done. In this case, I'll say that those clauses were the ones with the mattress and the word "stead." Everything else you see was already there.) I read the ending and all I can do is shake my head. I actually shake my head.

Worked more on a Fourth of July essay about Concord, the Old Manse, the real meaning of freedom, and Hawthorne. It will be a part of The Human Reader: Pain-Free Explorations of Life-Changing Literature.

I am doing all eight of my published books over again. As I do new books. I will explain this later, the why and the plan.

This is last night's radio interview which was on various adaptations and readings of horror and ghost stories. I don't like listening to these things because it's one more thing someone is the best in the world at, and here they are. I don't need to be reminded of that by hearing the proof of it while also living what I'm living. There is no one who talks like this person. There is no one who knows everything like this person seemingly does. One can go through hundreds of these interviews, on subject after subject, bursting with idea upon idea, with knowledge, humor, inspiration.

Being the overwhelming, demonstrable best at something doesn't lead to anything. If anything happens, it's just that people get angry that this person who does this, at this level, and all of these other things on those levels, exists and is not them. Industry type people especially, being it in broadcasting or publishing. There isn't anyone in radio or podcasting, say, who listens to any of these segments and thinks, "I'm better than that guy," just like no fiction writer reads even just an excerpt of "Big Bob and Little Bob" and thinks, "I write better than him." And no one reads any of the nonfiction on any subject and thinks they know more about that subject or can write better about that subject.

You add all of that up, and you have a unique level of resentment and envy. Then you have a massive problem. You become imprisoned because of what you do and who you are, because those same people have say and control. That community does, is what I mean.

E.F. Benson was a subject of discussion last night during the interview, with the host remarking he'd have to check out more by him, so afterwards I sent along this piece I wrote on Benson for The Weekly Standard, this piece from The Paris Review that includes him, and this piece about Benson for the Los Angeles Review of Books. He comes up elsewhere in my work. This is the thing: there are pieces on everything. There are thousands of pieces by me out there. But with each of those things, there are additional things. It goes so deep.

The other night I was thinking about including a particular essay on Nick Drake in a book of my popular music writings. My first book of them. I was glad that I had written about Drake's only live recording for The Smart Set. I'm also glad that that recording exists. It's the only such one we have from him. I'm honestly grateful for it. I thought that would be perfect. "Glad you have that one," I thought to myself. Then, on Friday night, I was looking for something else, when I came across this Nick Drake piece called "I Am Nick Drake Now" I wrote for Boston Review. I didn't even remember it. There's, again, just so much, and when I'm done with something, I move on. I excel at moving on, because it's the next work that matters most to me. (NB: Have been thinking about doing a book series when it is profitable to do so which rigorously analyzes a musician's discography, song by song. I have planned to do this with Radiohead--they are perfect for that kind of Revolution in the Head treatment, keeping everything tied tightly to the music itself. You want an artist with not a huge catalogue, and a consistently compelling catalogue. Nick Drake would work, as would the Smiths and Jimi Hendrix. And they have to be good at the end. You wouldn't want to close the book writing about lesser material or outright dross.)

This experience--where I find stuff on top of stuff on top of stuff--happens a lot. With every subject. I don't mean a subject like "rock music" or "film." I mean a very specific subject. "M.R. James," for instance. "Billie Holiday." "Buster Keaton." "Wayne Gretzky." And then this upsets me for the same reasons cited earlier with broadcasting, as I also see these talentless hacks who know nothing, write next to nothing, and write poorly, get handed what they're handed. And it's not because anyone thinks they're any good at anything.

Someone said to me the other day that they never wanted such and such a thing that I had written to end. I think I know what they meant, which is not exactly what they said. They were talking about how invested they were in the characters, how real and subsuming everything was, from the lives of those characters to the plot to the language. This is something I'm going to address in The Other Side of the Table: How to Write with Maximum Purpose for Maximum Effect, my guide to writing. You don't actually want people to reach the end of something and want for more. The end is the end. As I said, I understood what this person was saying, which wasn't exactly what those words mean. Usually with people you have to interpret their meaning. They're not precise in their words. It's like with "Fitty," for instance, the story that would save lives in this country--and will, when people are finally able to see it. I can say this now, and because no one has been able to see it, this won't spoil anything, it's so out-of-context. But that story ends in that gymnasium. (Again: I'm thinking of all the people who will know this story, and who will come to these pages after and see these words.) What do you want to happen then? You want them to get in the car and ride along with these two people to where they're going? Then what? Get back in and ride home with them? Do you want to stop for a latte? Or "First Responder." You want to go with the kid to, what, baseball practice the next day?

The story ends where the story ends. People shouldn't want a word more, if you're doing what you should be doing. They should want to come back--a lot. Which is to say, read that work again. And again. I just let out a little laugh right now as I thought of these recent stories I'm working on like "What the Mouse Knew," "Big Bob and Little Bob," and "Finder of Views" and someone reaching the end of each of them and saying, "Please continue."

But like I said, I knew what this person meant. What I'm also saying, though, is the end should be the end. Do you understand how important the end is? The end is everything. The end is, in its way, the biggest part of all. The end is special. The end doesn't exist in isolation. There's the arc, the shape, all that which has brought us here, and that all accrues into the end. But an end is sacred. In its power. People talk about a mic drop. With an ending, you can drop the world. Put that in your writer's notebook.

An ending should make it so that the reader can't stand up. And it should make it so that they have to.

Having said that: the endings of every single story I now encounter are meaningless, because the stories are meaningless. There is no story as story, or life in the work, that justifies the making of the work as a story that needs to be filled with life. It was written for another reason--so this person could be in this community and call themselves this thing they are not in the slightest. When you don't have a story to tell, you also don't have a story with an ending. That's why all of the fiction you see now just ends. It doesn't have an actual end. The end is arbitrary. The writer has to stop somewhere, so they did. Then they hope this randomness is "deep" and "significant," but they know they're not working with anything, let alone a plan, let alone the actuality of what something truly is.

I see this complaint all the time about stories and over the course of an entire story collection. "The stories all just stopped at random points." It's like the writer hit a word count and were done. Another comment I regularly see: "The story stopped just when things started to get interesting." Do you know why that is? Because the writer doesn't know the story. They're trying to find the story. They're not telling a story. They're trying to excavate via writing. They don't have discipline. They can't be honest with themselves. They're not strong enough to possess humility. Their insecurity and ego gets in the way of the work. Their crippling anxiety and fear.

Look at what I just described above with "Finder of Views." When that story was 4200 words, I knew I had a big deal story. I didn't know how it was going to look when it was ultimately finished--not exactly. But I knew something bigger. The same as now. I'm not done. I knew that what I had to do, what I would do, is just be present. Be systematic as well. No ego, no insecurity, no worries about uncertainty. Because I will know when I know. The characters do the work. The story does the work. They do it for me. It's my job--my duty--to make myself fully available to them and their needs.

That's what writing is for me. So I don't worry when I have to make these changes. Or if they're changes I made so that they get me to other changes. I had no problem if the story ended up being 3700 words or that it went up to 6100. (The journey from 4200 to 3700 to 6100 occurred over what probably added up to an hour.) But the reason you see that comment about "it ended when it things started to get interesting" is because it's only at that point that that writer was able to hit upon what might be the story they should be telling, if they should be telling a story there at all.

What they would have to do is get rid of everything else--and it takes these people seven years to write 2000 words often enough. Throw it away. Then, take the end, make that the start, and begin all over again from there. These people aren't going to do that. They can't even handle the prospect of doing that. If you do it, and do it often enough, you realize what stories are, how they have to start. With engagement. Your own process then compacts. The beginnings stop coming further into a story, and get closer to being near the start.

There is nothing easier to do than to stop reading. Writing is about giving someone a reason to keep going. Again and again and again. Until--and the faster this happens, the better--they don't even know that they're reading anymore. They're having a life experience. It's not words on a page. Then someone may say to you that they wanted it to always keep going. But that won't be what they actually mean. Not if you told the story as it should have been told. And the ending was the end, in all of the power that an ending may possess.

This is the first sentence of "Finder of Views." See? Engagement. The inducement of engagement. The reader is immediately involved. I don't mean just interested--I mean involved. They're in on this. Multi-tiered engagement.

If there had been anyone to whom he spoke about what he watched that he shouldn’t have watched and that he couldn’t stop himself from watching, Mason would need to be careful to avoid the phrase “splurge of cock.”


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