How Do You Know?
Patti Callahan Henry
The Scene: I’m at a book festival and it is Q&A time: my favorite part. Then this earnest man asks this, “How do you know when you’re finished with a novel? How do you know when it’s The End?”
I answer. “I just know. It’s over when it’s over.”
He does not, in any way whatsoever, like this answer. Which, being the sensitive girl I am, wanting everyone to like me and not be mad at me, I suddenly don’t like the answer either. I want a BETTER answer. I more firm answer. A scholarly answer.
He wants something more….substantial than a vague gut reaction, an ephemeral feeling.
Now so do I.
So of course I began to obsess (this can be a writer’s specialty: obsessing).
How do you know when it’s The End of your story?
How do you know when it’s the end of anything? A relationship? Or a conflict? Or a living situation? Or a job? Or…you get it, my obsession went wild.
I asked other authors (I always begin there). And the answers ranged from “When it’s due.” To “When I hate it.”
There is a story – I can’t verify it’s truth, but I’m a fiction writer so I really don’t care if it’s fully true – that someone once asked Margaret Mitchell about her writing process and she stated that she knew THE LAST line of Gone With the Wind, and then wrote toward that LAST LINE. That, unfortunately, has never happened to me.
I write in the same way I live – to see what happens next. I don’t want to write toward a particular ending (although sometimes I write toward a vague, foggy, misty ending), because I imagine all the situations and people and scenes and conflict I would miss if I were so set on just one ending. So to compare this to life: How do I know when there is “Nothing” that needs to happen next? That this particular story or life lesson or relationship or circumstance or living situation is over? Kaput? The End?
So I tried to dig past and through my “knowing feeling” into something with words. Isn’t that what we, as writers, are supposed to do anyway – dig into the feeling and find the words to wrap around it? I tried. I did.
I really, really did try.
I believe that answering this question is somehow important to not just my writing, but also to my life. How much more gracefully would we live or write if we knew when something was really over, and then we just let it go at that? It’s awful to read a book that goes on and on and on until you just don’t care anymore. It’s awful dragging around a dead relationship or dream or cause past its time.
How do we know when it’s over? The End?
So, if you read this far and hoped for an academic answer, sorry I don’t have one (yet).
I just know.
I don’t always want to know, but I do know.
So tell me, how do you know when you’ve reached The End? (of anything really)
Please tell me so I can answer the next question at the next book festival without infuriating the earnest seeker.
Seriously, tell me. I want to know!
Patti Callahan Henry is the NYT Bestselling author of six novels with Penguin/NAL.