The Season Finale—What if Your Memoir is Anticlimactic? 

March 3, 2023 § 29 Comments

Joelle Fraser and her mother in Reno

By Joelle Fraser

Will it ever end, I mutter each morning as I venture onto the icy porch, boots crunching and breath billowing. In the black elm above, doves hover while I scatter seeds in the frozen feeder. It’s been an especially wet, cold winter in Reno. A chill has settled into my bones and my back aches from shoveling a crushing kind of snow we call “Sierra cement.” In the house, my cabin-fevered cats perch at the window, hunched and surly. 

But soon enough, spring will come, with all its light and warmth.

What doesn’t seem to have an end is my book-in-progress.

NO ONE CAN FIND YOU: a Daughter’s Memoir, is about my hopes and fears for my elderly parents, who live dangerously off the grid and scrape by from one social security check to the next. For the past decade they’ve lived in a tiny, isolated mountain cabin, hauling up water, stoking the wood stove in bone-chilling cold and washing with vinegar. The punishing rough road batters their decades-old truck, so they rarely travel the 5-hour round trip to town, even though my 81-year-old mother has constant UTI issues and has lost all but five of her teeth.

The Cabin

Our pleas for them to move into affordable senior housing, growing more strident by the year, are ever-kindly brushed off.

When there’s no certain end, we imagine the worst: a wildfire, food poisoning, a bad fall or hungry cougar, a rattlesnake under the outhouse.

None of these horrors are how I want their lives—or my memoir—to end. Yet the best outcome is the most anti-climactic: before next winter, they finally agree to move to town. All that fuss and fear for nothing?

The other possibility is they choose to stay, perhaps for years longer.

In the meantime, I’ve tried to move onto another book, but their story has become tied with mine. Every day I get texts from my mother: …Making biscuits but have no eggs …. How are you doing dear daughter? My feet are freezing this morning.  For years, each morning I check the forecast and picture their day: Is it too windy for a walk? Are they melting snow for dishwater?

One way or another, I will write this story, our story.

But how do you write a boring, predictable ending—or one that simply drags on and on?

For writers in this fix, here are some options I’ve considered:

1. Purge my fears by making it fictional, as a cautionary tale. Add a character or two (a crooked sheriff? A sinister neighbor?). Tell it, perhaps, from another POV, like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby.

The problem with this option is that although fiction is appealing, I’m just not very good at it. Besides, veiling the truth in an outsized narrative seems like a deceptively easy way out for me. The real story of my parents and me would linger, like those birds hovering in the trees, waiting for resolution.

2. Write it now as a long essay, despite the messy limbo.

3. Finish the book now, again despite the messy limbo.

4. Wait for the ending, whatever it is, whenever it is, and write it in all its truth.

The second and third options would mean ending in medias res. This would likely frustrate not just me but my readers, who expect something to happen and want to see how the author gets herself through that “something.” As literary agent Estelle Laure explains, a great memoir ending is one that gives the reader both a feeling of completion and hope.

So I need to see the story through before I can discover, and share with the reader, the meaning I crave. If I wrote it now, I would only be pretending to be at peace with the situation.

For now, I have chosen the final option.

Hopefully my parents will go to town sooner than later, and live with some comfort in their remaining years. We can visit the land, I tell her often. I’ll take you there. It won’t be goodbye forever.

There would still be tension in that dramatic transition, after all—one we must face in one way or another, for our loved ones and one day for ourselves: a letting go and making peace with life’s season finale, whatever it may be.


Joelle Fraser is a MacDowell Fellow and the author of two memoirs: The Territory of Men (Random House 2002) and The Forest House: a Journey into the Landscape of Love, Loss, and Starting Over (Counterpoint 2013). Joelle received her MFA from the University of Iowa, and her award-winning work has appeared in many journals, including Crazyhorse, Fourth Genre, Michigan Quarterly Review, and was recognized in Best American Essays by Christopher Hitchens (2010). She is also a teacher and editor whose clients have placed work in numerous publications, including the NYT‘s Modern Love column, The Sun, and Hippocampus Magazine.

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§ 29 Responses to The Season Finale—What if Your Memoir is Anticlimactic? 

  • You are clearly concerned for your parent’s safety—a quote about safety from Elizabeth McCracken in THE HERO OF THIS BOOK, “Watch out for safety. It will make you no longer yourself, only an object shaped that way.” A letting go… to endings… Lovely

    • joellefraser says:

      Thank you–and thank you for that quote by McCracken. (It makes me think of the book title “The Safety of Objects” –A.M. Homes). I think that yes, letting go will be an essential part of my story.

  • Regina says:

    I really enjoyed this. I wrote a book about my mother and even though she’s no longer alive, I’m glad she’s still alive at the end of the book. Good luck with your parents. It’s already a gripping story, despite the uncertainty of how things will end.

    • joellefraser says:

      Thank you so much for this comment–I would love to know the title of your book.

      • Regina says:

        Oh – thanks for asking! It’s called Marry Me Stop. (Those were the words on the telegram my father sent my mother when she fled to Europe, in love, but no prospects of marriage, until the telegram arrived.)

      • I love that title–brief and to the point–and also dramatic. I’m going to look it up!

  • rachaelhanel says:

    This is lovely and applicable to so many writers. Yes, there is the story of your parents and the question of, what will they do? But the heart of the story is you and how you deal with the situation, and that also is gripping.

    • joellefraser says:

      Thank you–I’m glad you find my story/journey to be interesting as well as my parents’. That really encourages me!

  • Joy Victory says:

    I have a similar issue with my story arc, and feel your pain, both for the book and your parents. How you come to terms (or don’t) with the uncertainty is fascinating, too, but I know the need for having a neat little bow on top.

    • joellefraser says:

      Thanks–that neat little bow can end up strangling the story if we’re not careful, right!? I appreciate your support a lot. Memoir writers need it!

  • Vince says:

    This is so good: grappling with relationships, the weather, and the challenge of honoring the truth. Really love this.

  • Dara says:

    Joelle, thank you for sharing some of your process in grappling with the messy limbo – so much of our lives fall under that umbrella! And even the stories that feel more complete can be hard to untangle from the messy context that gave them life.

    • joellefraser says:

      Thank you and you are so right about the challenge of untangling the context in memoir. I truly wish sometimes I could write fiction and make “better sense” of my story. 🙂

  • Natalie Woodroofe says:

    Grateful for your essay. Briefly considered sending it to my adult children who worry about me contnuing to live an aging hippie back to the land life alone. I swear it keeps me alive, stacking and carrying all that firewood. Unwilling to give up a square foot of what was once our family 40 by 60 foot vegetable garden, and enjoying now generations of wild bird and four legged animal friends. Today I shoveled pounds of heavy snow so I could drive to the Coop for provisions as another storm approaches. Guess we are all doing what seems best: worrying about our aging parents; trying to stay alive and connected to what matters. When I begin to have doubts I recall my mother telling me as a child that if one picked up a calf everyday, would there come a day when she couldn’t? I suppose the answer is ‘yes’ but it hasn’t happened yet.

    • joellefraser says:

      Natalie, I love hear about your story and wonder if you’re writing about it. I do love part of my mother’s life up there and always visit in the summer and fall (camping in a tent) before it’s just too hard to get there. My son and I have a thrilling memory of waking to a night sky full of stars that he had never been able to see before with such clarity. I want to honor her story in this way, too. Thank you.

      • Natalie Woodroofe says:

        Thanks for responding to my response. I have written much about my roots and my quirky family across three generations, though none of it has been published. Your question leaves me wondering if instead of looking back I might record what holds me here, alone and yet fulfilled, talking to crows that know me by the foods that I put out for them. How even as I shovel the heavy snows of a New Hampshire March, I am really just reminding those muscles that we’re limbering up for the planting of peas and flowers soon to come. Do you know what keeps your parents from going elsewhere? What might bind them to where they are now? Sending kindness to you all!

    • joellefraser says:


      • I would be first in line to read your book, or read your online essay, or…whatever you might write. But even if you only write for yourself, it would likely be a great endeavor. As for your question, for now, my parents are limited mostly by lack of funds. They would like to have a better situation (like indoor plumbing) and a water source like a well, but they can’t afford it. And my brother and I don’t have the means either. Thank you so much for your kind wishes…

  • “The real story of my parents and me would linger, like those birds hovering in the trees, waiting for resolution.” Love that compelling argument for truth.

    • joellefraser says:

      Thank you! I suppose I am like those birds, too, waiting. It’s funny, my mom has a favorite quote: “More will be revealed.”

  • Option 4. Remember Capote writing In Cold Blood. He couldn’t finish the book until the characters’ journey was completed, as dark as that option was. Plus you might want some hindsight before writing the ending… and many things will happen you could never predict. And a salute to your parents for sticking to their truth to the end.

    • joellefraser says:

      That’s a great reminder about Capote! And by then, he was so intertwined emotionally with the story himself… Thank you also about the benefit of hindsight and all those things that might happen. I don’t want to blow out the candles too early… 😉

  • Linda Goodmanson says:

    I am a loving observer of your parents. Your feelings about them and their survival are right on. They have made a choice and taking it a day at a time. We don’t know how soon is going to end for them. I do believe they are both doing exactly what they want to do but it does become a struggle. I am loving and watching them from the distance.

    • joellefraser says:

      Thank you, Linda. I always feel better knowing you’re there, following along with me, and Mom, on this journey.

  • Cathy Beres says:

    Dear Joelle,

    I applaud your honesty in thinking through your options for ending your memoir. Perhaps the whole notion of what makes an ending in memoir needs to be explored, just as structure has been explored? What would be wrong with a depiction of their unique life that does impart hope by the very fact your parents shoulder on? Just random thoughts. I have great faith that the ending will come to you at the appropriate time. Stay the course. Good things come to those who wait. With best wishes,
    A fellow memoir writer also struggling with the ending.

    • joellefraser says:

      Thank you for your support and empathy–and I agree that the concept of “ending” really does deserve more thought and study. I think I will go through a few dozen of my favorite memoirs around the house and see how they wrote the final page and dealt with any remaining uncertainty. Good luck with your memoir, too. I appreciate your feedback!

  • charwilkins75 says:

    Joelle, it’s always been the two stories intertwined, yours and your Mom’s, that’s drawn me. It’s the universal mother-daughter wrestling match: Who goes down first. Sometimes I thought my mother was dragging me into the grave with her. That pic of the cabin in the snow . . . Ya, “. . . write it in all its truth.” You can do this.

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