I heard a question tonight that rather astounded me. The question, directed at a writer, was “How do you know when to end something?” As I think about it, though, it’s not an unreasonable question to wonder about.
At the time I was in the basement of the large Unitarian church on Clifton Valley Way, in what they call the black box theater (a room painted, you know, black). Once a month, they now feature an event called Wine, Cheese, and Spoken Word. It comes with wine that you pay for, free cheese on crackers, and a featured writer who reads, also free. I believe the general intent is that the writer will be a poet, with an act I and act II, and between the acts, there is an open mic for freelance poets to place their bit into the universe.
I placed my bit into the universe, read a couple of poems, and in January I’ll be the featured poet, so if you could plan your vacation around that, I’d appreciate it. Take a look at AirBnB for a place to stay. Anyway, tonight we heard a writer named Kim Green, who read from her fiction rather than poetry. Afterward, during the question session, someone posed the question about knowing when to end something.
All pieces of writing do end at some point, and the writer decides when that will be. As a writer myself, however, I know it’s not so simple as just writing along, la de da de da, and now we’re at the end, which I knew was coming. Nevertheless, at whatever point I stop, I could have kept going, so I did decide to quit. How? “How do you know when to end something?” For a nonwriter, the question might be an interesting curiosity about how those mysterious writers work.
For writers, though, it’s a weird-sounding question. OK, I’m being presumptuous. I don’t really know what other writers think, since none of them have returned the poll I sent out. But as the Representative of All Writers, in Charge of This Blog, I will tell you why that question is odd.
As stated, it makes several assumptions which do not normally apply to how writing works. First, it assumes that all creative pieces work the same way. The speaker might have meant only novels, since we’d heard a reading from a novel, but it sounds like “when you write (anything), how do you know when to stop?”
Second, there is a kind of assumption that a writer knows they have reached the end, so they stop. From this, we know the speaker is not a writer, or at least not an experienced writer. As the Representative of All Writers, I can tell you that I don’t know when to end something. You write, you aren’t sure, you write a little more, you think you’re done, and your writing group says, “Wow, were you trying to have a really crappy ending?” Uhhhh, yes, I was trying.
In reality, an ending may have been revised and thrown out and completely reconsidered. Obviously the writer Kim Green knows this. She began her reading by talking about what writers do, and she used the word “revise” at least three times.
More substantially, Kim named various things writers do, and one she did not name, but is doing in her new novel (not yet published) is to examine our place in the flow of cultural change. The new book has a protagonist who is a transgender man, born as a woman and making the change. The introspective character asks how people in the future will look at us, and what they will think of the desire of someone to change gender.
This kind of cultural examination is one of the things that I believe is the benefit of writers to society. A writer can take questions that are useful to consider and put them into a form that brings them to life and gives people a chance to really think about them. In this function, writers can let us think about where we want to go in the future.
We are going to go somewhere, in any case, like it or not. There is no end to that.