AWP 2013: The Art of the Ending

March 12, 2013 § 3 Comments


A guest AWP report from Melissa Cronin:

I frequently don’t know where I’ll end up, especially at an AWP conference. And this year was no exception. But after I managed to muscle my way around a security guard and secured a seat at the session, Art of the Ending, I realized I was where I should be: among a group of panelists who also don’t know where they’ll end up. I could not have been more relieved to hear Margot Livesey say that it’s not until she writes the final page when she knows how the ending. At least she has a destination for her characters (I certainly wouldn’t fit too well into her stories). I’m not sure what Amy Hempel would have said. Was it Miles Harvey, the moderator, or Margot – I forgot where I was for a moment – who said Amy knows the last line of her books before she finishes writing them? But Amy couldn’t make it to the panel (I wonder where she ended up). Nevertheless, if you have been losing sleep over how the last page of your great American novel or bestselling memoir will end, rest assure that you are not alone. Look at Alice Munro’s short story “A Good Woman,” which the panelists pointed out ends with ambiguity, or what Miles calls “an ending that opens out.”

As writers, we tend to strive for a Hollywood ending. After all, don’t readers prefer the positive? At least that’s what Charles Dickens was persuaded to believe after he showed a trusted friend the proof of Great Expectations. Instead of keeping the original ending, where Pip and Estella part, Dickens changed it so that they stayed together. Personally, I revel in downbeat endings, and it was refreshing to hear Michele Morano, one of the panelists, say that she, too, prefers sad endings.

The overall consensus was that endings don’t need to be tidy, tied up in a pretty pink bow. The best endings are the ones that linger with us or, as Miles said, “the ones that stop but keep lurching forward.” That lurch can come in the form of a single word, reflective prose; or, if not for the narrator or characters, an epiphany for the reader. Sometimes we need to switch things up, reverse chapters, like another panelist, Scott Blackwood, did in one of his novels. He also cautioned against going too far, beyond what readers want.

But first we need to get it all down, heed the advice of the novelist William Maxwell: “Listen to your feelings as you would listen to a seashell then put it on paper.” I thank the panelist William Lychack for that sentimental gem.

I left the panel, entered the herd of other AWP attendees, and squeezed my way into the book fair, where I was to meet a friend at the food kiosk for lunch. She must have gotten lost, so I left, walked a long way, through the Prudential Center. Finally, I ended up at the Cheesecake factory.

Melissa Cronin recently graduated from Vermont College of Fine arts with an MFA in creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Brevity’s book reviews and Hunger Mountain Journal’s “Sally Blog.” She is working on a memoir about the 2003 Santa Monica Farmers’ Market accident in which ten people were killed when an elderly man confused the gas pedal for the brake and sped through the market. Sixty-three others were injured, eighteen severely, including Melissa. She lives in South Burlington, Vermont with her husband and their stuffed animal Hawk.

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§ 3 Responses to AWP 2013: The Art of the Ending

  • kateflaherty says:

    This was great Melissa! When I was at AWP this weekend, I couldn’t help but KNOW I was missing something if I happened to be in a panel that was a bit ho-hum. Sorry I missed this one, but glad for your recap. And you might be interested in this list that’s traversing the net: Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling. #7 Come up with your ending before you figure out the middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
    Maybe that’s why Amy Hempel is so great–she gets her endings done in the very beginning!

  • I never know where I’m going to end up. Never. And even when I get there, I play with it over and over. I like the loose-end endings, the one’s with no pretty bows, even ambiguous can be OK if it helps the story linger a bit. An editor friend of mine is always reading my stuff and wondering how I can shape my endings with a little more of a “period.” And I always fight it. What usually happens is we compromise and find middle ground. It’s not a cop-out; it’s a compromise, and usually a good one. But I still like the endings that…sort…of…just…hang…there…

  • ascreamin says:

    Thanks for the recap – this was one I wanted to go to but missed !

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