Shake Things Out and Dance ~ On Endings

There’s a magnolia tree in our back yard that just doesn’t seem to want to bloom this year. I’ve talked with my neighbors about it; the reactions are different.

“I think it’s dead,” one of them says.

“Give it time,” another says.

“Are those buds?” another asks.

“It’s dead,” the first one says.

Each day I go out on my back porch and stare at it, its limbs big and gray and, for the most part, empty. I’m afraid it might be dead, but I just don’t know. It has bloomed ferociously in years past, a canopy of white and pink blooms that stretched over the power wire, over the fences that separate four urban yards.

Now know that our spring in Chicago was something other than spring. It was cold and wet, with the occasional burst of a bright hot day. Perhaps the tree got confused. “Is this really spring?” it asked its internal tree blooming clock, “then why is it so fucking cold? Magnolias don’t like cold.” And now it is summer in Chicago, hot and sticky, sunshine overhead like something sharp and dangerous. The tree is still gray-limbed.

All the other magnolia trees on the block burst open with their flowers weeks ago.

“Are those buds?”

And this makes me think about endings. Really. Sometime last year Philip and I had a conversation with my nephew and his wife about the movie “The Wrestler.” You know it, right? The Mickey Rourke comeback vehicle? Yes? Anyway, my nephew, Dan, a very good guy and superb father (albeit not much of a reader) was more than frustrated with the ending of that movie. If you haven’t seen the movie, and might, I won’t entirely spoil it for you here, I promise. The ending is ambiguous. You don’t know for certain what will happen next, but depending on your take of the rest of the film, you might assume that things are not going to go on happily ever after. But you must make this assumption. It is not spelled out for you. And there are other loose ends as well about relationships, choices, etc.

“Pick a lane,” Dan says. Insists, more like it. “Why do I have to do the work for you?”

Interesting. Contemporary literary fiction (and independent film for that matter) often does not pick a lane when it comes to endings. It is not unusual when a story leaves things open-ended. And frankly, I like this. I like this a lot. Because for me, good fiction is often a reflection—an interpretation—of life, and let’s face it, life is an open-ended thing. We rarely know with absolute certainty what will happen next.

“Are those buds?”

So getting around to Gerard Woodward’s questions from an earlier post: What is the best way to end a short story? Open endings? Closed endings? I’ve already said that I am a fan of the open-ended ending, but that does not mean that I think this is the best way to end each story. Dennis McFadden does a great job of going through a number of his stories and comparing their endings and the effectiveness of each. And among those things he says, Dennis reminds us that a story’s ending is not really about the ending at all, but about the whole rest of the story.

And while I’m a reader partial to the open-ended qualities of some endings of short stories (James Alan McPherson’s “The Story of a Scar” comes to mind here) I also understand the frustration some of my reading colleagues have with a certain level of ambiguity. Sometimes I agree. I am not a fan of the riddle or the “choose your own exit” type of ending. In my piece “Deer Story,” a short-short from The Temple of Air, close to the end is the parenthetical statement “(there just isn’t any other end to this story).” And that is really it, isn’t it? The simple answer to all of Gerard’s questions about endings—the end of any story must feel as though there isn’t any other end.

Easy, huh? Yeah, right.

Skipping ahead to Gerard’s last question “…what are your favourite stories in terms of their endings?” I’ll share with you some endings I admire quite a lot and why I do. SPOILER ALERT: if you read these examples, you will know how the stories end…

One of my favorite contemporary stories is “The End of FIRPO in the World,” by George Saunders. It is a rather short, short story, that follows a young boy, Cody, very closely (read: in his internal point of view even as the story is told in third person) while he rides a bicycle around his neighborhood making plans for revenge on those who have embarrassed or slighted him. The story starts out funny in its childish imagination and hyperbole, but as it unfolds, we learn more about this kid and his sad, sad existence that leads him to feeling particularly lousy and without value most of the time. We really start to side with him just as he is hit by a car. And in his own end, Cody begins to go back over his own worthlessness and what he thinks of as his complicity in the worthlessness, even as a man (“stickman,” Cody calls him) with hairy nipples and coffee-smelling breath leans over him to give him comfort:

“The announcers in the booth above the willow began weeping as he sat on Mom’s lap and said he was very sorry for having been such a FIRPO son and Mom said, Oh thank you, thank you, Cody, for finally admitting it, that makes it nice, and her smile was so sweet he closed his eyes and felt a certain urge to sort of shake things out and oh Christ dance. You are beautiful, beautiful, the stickman kept saying, long after the boy had stopped thrashing, God loves you, you are beautiful in His sight.”

My comments: First, just listen to these sentences. Hear that rhythm? The breathless sweep of the first sentence that stops and hits the beats on “Oh thank you, thank you…” and then sweeps away again until we hit “and oh Christ dance.” And all the repetition in the very last sentence adds a few more beats as well. The ending word “sight” drops a bit, closing things up.

What is tricky about this ending is that sometimes readers don’t get that the boy has died (I warned you I was going to spoil it!) I am not certain why they wouldn’t; maybe because Saunders doesn’t come out and say plainly that the boy died. But think how much less beautiful, how much less effective this would be if it were spelled out for us. Because, frankly, telling it so plainly would make the story about the kid dying, and it isn’t that. It is about transcendence, this ending, about grace. Cody, who feels ugly and worthless has become beautiful—and we as readers likely understand that he has always been beautiful, he just wasn’t allowed to know that before this ending.

A time-honored tradition, by the way, is killing a character to end a story. And this works best, in my opinion, when the tragedy of the story is earned by more than just the death.

In Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor, the entire story is tragic, really. A mother and son whose relationship is deeply flawed, a world that is changing in ways that neither one of these characters is fully equipped to deal with. Missteps and intentional slights and hurt feelings. And then, yes, a death.

The mother, who has been punched by a black woman for insulting her, lies on a deserted city street, dying. Her son cries for help:

“Help, help!” he shouted, but his voice was thin, scarcely a thread of sound. The lights drifted farther away the faster he ran and his feet moved numbly as if they carried him nowhere. The tide of darkness seemed to sweep him back to her, postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow.”

Is that beautiful or what? How different would the ending be if it flat out said: “she died, thus entering him into the world of guilt and sorrow.”

So maybe that’s it. Maybe why I am attracted to open endings (or at least those whose endings are not spelled out completely) is because closed ones, spelled out endings, can call so much attention to themselves. Sometimes more than a story wants them to. An example of what I mean here is the much anthologized “The Story of an Hour,” by Kate Chopin.

Another short-short story, this one covers the hour a woman, Mrs. Mallard, faces immediately after she learns her husband has died in an accident. The story is told in the late 1800s, and for obvious reasons it is celebrated a story with a feminist point-of-view. The woman, who has loved her husband, still recognizes the possibility of her freedom without him:

“Spring days, and summer days, and all sorts of days that would be her own. She breathed a quick prayer that life might be long. It was only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long.”

This is what is at the heart of the story—a woman who feels grief and relief at the prospect that she will no longer be a wife, that she will be her own person. This might have been a rather daring concept more than a century ago, bold of Kate Chopin to put into words. But the complexity of this short story is tied not to the politics or the social agenda, it is tied directly to this complexity of emotion of a bereaved woman.

In the very end, Mr. Mallard shows up unharmed, and the Mrs., being afflicted with a bad heart, dies:

“When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease—of joy that kills.”

A sort of punchline, if you will. The first time that I read this story and thought back over it some days later, I had totally forgotten that last line. To me the story was more remarkable without the death, without the punishment for Mrs. Mallard feeling the possibilities of being a woman alone. That last line makes the story very sure-footed; it makes the author’s intentions clear. But the life Chopin had created on the page prior to the last line was more interesting to me without this ending. However, the story is not mine. Chopin has the right to her own ending. (Perhaps a piece on stories we love with endings we don’t would be interesting. Your thoughts?)

Back to my magnolia tree. It is July now, and many weeks have passed since I first started my tree bloom vigil. The tree, alas, is still without flower, without the least bit of green. We have decided—those of us who care in this city apartment building—that it is indeed dead. We might have known this all along, and yet:

“Are those buds?”

In Vanessa Gebbie’s book Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story, there is a piece by Elaine Chiew called “Endings.” It starts with a brief bit about the impending end to her mother-in-law’s life, and the family’s desire for a different ending:

“Yet, the more she faded, the more we hoped.”

Chiew goes on to talk about how we suspect certain endings even as we long for others, and how that can be a good thing:

“This sense of narrative expectation and engagement, retaining a degree of mystery or openness where the reader may hope or wonder or accept a different ending, tells me the ending is well-earned…”

Is that it, then? An ending is best when it can perhaps go in a different direction, but for this story, in this very moment, there is no possible alternative? Inevitable—perhaps even predictable sometimes—but definitely, definitely inevitable.

“A&P” by John Updike. Sammy makes the heroic stand by quitting his job at the grocery store because his boss has embarrassed some girls he’s been admiring. The Hollywood ending would be that he dumps his stuff and runs out the door and into the arms of the princess, that she would be waiting for him, ready to bless his heroics with her body. The real ending? The perfect one? Updike wrote it:

“I look around for my girls, but they’re gone of course….Looking back in the big windows, over the bags of peat moss and aluminum lawn furniture stacked on the pavement, I could see Lengel in my place in the slot, checking the sheep through. His face was dark gray and his back stiff, as if he’s just had an injection of iron, and my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.”

Now that’s how things really, go, yes? And on a technical note, see how that paragraph started with present tense and then moved into past? All hope and optimism in the beginning (present tense)—how things might be—and then how they really were in the end (past.)

I am going on too long here. One more thing, though. In a recent post by Tania Hershman on her blog TaniaWrites about ShortStoryville, the half-day recent festival held in Bristol in connection with the Bristol Short Story Prize and celebrating the short story, she talks about “doing a little short story dance after reading an excellent story.” And maybe that is the best indicator of all as to when a story is finished just right: when you reach the end you feel (pardon me, George Saunders, for the borrowing) “a certain urge to sort of shake things out and oh Christ dance.”

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And yes, speaking of endings, this is the last post in the series “Why The Short Story? A Conversation Among Writers.” Thanks again to my fellow contributing short story writers: Gina Frangello, Vanessa Gebbie, Dennis McFadden, and Gerard Woodward. It has been great sharing ideas with you all. Thank you for your thoughtfulness, willingness, and industriousness. We got a lot of work done.

For more conversations with writers and about writing, please visit the Conversations category of this site. To read this conversation—”Why The Short Story?” —in its entirety, follow this link.  -PMc←

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Echoes and Echoes ~ Vanessa Gebbie on Endings

As we near the conclusion of this series “Why The Short Story? ~ A Conversation Among Writers,” Vanessa Gebbieduring a complicated time in her personal life—generously and graciously considers the question of endings.

Vanessa: I will start my contribution on short story endings with an apology for holding up the end of this wonderful discussion—although there is a reason, and that is that I have been caught up in recent weeks in the throes of the ending of a life, and its aftermath. That of my lovely father. And I am not sure if we are blessed, as writers, with the propensity to find parallels in all things—but in this case, they are so clear that I hope you will bear with me.

My father’s death came at the end of a full life. At ninety-five, his body and his faculties having declined fairly sharply, to continue would have been distressing for him and all who loved him—and the end was peaceful, and right. Of course, he will be missed hugely—I don’t think you can have a parent, grandparent and great-grandparent like my father without feeling their departure keenly. But at the same time, as the days since he’s gone roll into weeks, and the weeks into more weeks, we are looking back with great pleasure, sharing memories of a remarkable man, glad that his legacy—his gentleness, bravery, his enquiring mind, sharp intelligence, practicality, doggedness in adversity and his dry humour—lives on in us.

Gerard, in responding to his own question about short story endings, talks about “a sense of completeness within the flow of things—the sense that a story is fully resolved and concluded while at the same time existing in a universe where things go on happening.” Isn’t that just perfectly right? I can’t put it better at all. Life goes on. That story is finished, but it echoes and echoes. Echoes well.

I’d like to share a perfect short story ending with you—and it is the ending of US writer Alice Elliott Dark’s “In The Gloaming,” a piece of work selected by John Updike for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories of the Century. The same story became the subject of an HBO movie directed by Christopher Reeve, starring Glenn Close. The story focuses on conversations between a young man who has come home to die and his mother. The young man is gay. His father has never come to terms with this, and remains distant, awkward, as the mother and her son share moments of closeness, at the close of each day. The story, and his life, run out—until, after the funeral, there is the most poignant final scene between his parents.

I was going to share the gist of that short and perfect scene here. But no. On second thoughts—trust me—I can do you no greater favour than encourage you to go and find Alice Elliott Dark’s story, read, and bow. You will have been in the hands of a master, and you won’t forget it.

Vanessa Gebbie is the author of two collections of stories:Words from a Glass Bubble and Storm Warning, and is contributing editor of Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short StoryHer debut novel, The Coward’s Tale, is forthcoming from Bloomsbury in the UK and the USA. Thank you for taking the time to converse with us, Vanessa. Be well and happy in your memories of your father; our thoughts are with you. -PMc←

“In Conclusion…” ~ Gerard Woodward on Endings

Why the Short Story? ~ A Conversation Among Writers” is near its end, and as we face the final curtain (apologies, Frank) Gerard Woodward answers his own questions about endings:

Gerard: Perhaps it would be appropriate for an entry about endings to begin with one. In conclusion I would say this—there should be no hard and fast rules for how we end stories; as I hope I have demonstrated in this article, closed endings can work just as effectively as open endings, even in what we call literary fiction. What is important is a sense of completeness within the flow of things—the sense that a story is fully resolved and concluded while at the same time existing in a universe where things go on happening.

There is a story I love that has a closed ending—though love is not quite the right word for a story on such a horrible theme—by the British novelist and short story writer Elizabeth Taylor. It is called “The Fly Paper,” and I’m going to summarise it now, (I’m afraid an unavoidable problem in writing about endings is giving them away). The story concerns an 11-year-old girl called Sylvia, who is on her way to a music lesson when she gets pestered by a creepy guy. She is rescued by a kindly older lady who sees off the creepy guy, and then invites the girl to her cottage for tea, to let her recover from her ordeal. After a reassuring chat over tea and biscuits, the girl is horrified when a visitor arrives, and it is the creepy guy, who greets the elderly lady as a friend. The whole thing was a set up and the two older people have lured the girl into a trap, and there the story ends. This story is uncharacteristic of Taylor, and was written as a deliberate shocker. It is horribly prescient, written just a few years before the Moors Murderers put child abduction (and the role of a motherly figure as a lure) into the public consciousness. The whole story is beset by a bleakness of vision and a torpid provincial entropy—everything from the scruffy peripheral landscape that is seen from the bus, to the fact that Sylvia herself is recently orphaned, and has discovered herself to have an unappealing personality—“She did not go into many houses, for she was seldom invited anywhere. She was a dull girl, whom nobody liked very much, and she knew it.” The cleverness of this portrayal of Sylvia is very characteristic of Taylor—she makes her protagonist a little unendearing, so that her terrible fate is slightly more bearable, and even darkly comic. Had Sylvia been sweet, innocent, pretty and happy the story would have taken on a tediously moralistic good-versus-evil dimension, and would have been both too painful and too boring to read. Instead we have a marginal world where good and evil seep into each other, where misery and joy are different shades of the same colour, and the world is too tired to even notice that a child is entering hell.

In some ways this story might seem open ended, for we do not actually know what will happen to Sylvia. It is not described. The final sentence has the three of them sitting down to tea, “she noticed for the first time that there were three cups and saucers laid there.” But of course, the lengths of subterfuge and careful planning that have gone into the abduction of Sylvia can only indicate that her fate is to be a terrible one. Part of the horror of the story is that the reader is forced to imagine what that might be—without that brief bit of imagining on the part of the reader, the story has no power at all. So in fact the openness of the ending is very limited. It is only the nature of the suffering that is left open, the fact of her suffering is absolutely certain.

The closure of the story is dependant on an inversion, what is sometimes called a ‘twist’, so characteristic of suspense genres like the classic detective stories of, say G.K.Chesterton’s Father Brown, or the novels of Agatha Christie. Like those stories, the twist in “The Fly Paper” is like one of those etchings by M.C.Escher, when a lattice of sailing ships suddenly becomes a lattice of fish—the background becomes the foreground and vice versa. In “The Fly Paper” the moral certainties of the world are completely inverted—little old ladies transform from safe moral guardians into their antithesis, tea becomes poison. This moral inversion is compressed into a single phrase in the story—after witnessing the entrance of the man into the cottage “Sylvia spun round questioningly to the woman…” In fact it is just that verb that does it, precisely chosen, as always with Taylor, it conveys powerful, urgent movement in space as well as the sense of a moral universe turning itself on its head. The story is very tightly, firmly closed at this point, but with just the right amount of pressure to keep the narrative flowing beyond the time of the story.

But it is perhaps indicative of the power of the open ending that the closed ending is so rare in literary fiction—unless the intent is to turn the world of the story upside down. This is very different from the ‘reveal’ of detective fiction, where the closed ending is akin to a set of answers to a puzzle that you have been trying to solve as you progressed through the story. The ending of “The Fly Paper” isn’t a reveal, because there were no puzzles in the earlier part of the story, no mysteries that needed solutions. At the same time there is a sense of satisfaction when a story ends like this that should have its equivalent in any story, and not just ones that set out to shock and horrify.

The danger of the open-ended story is that the reader experiences a sense of disappointment. In reading a narrative, the desire for a sense of completeness is very strong, and if this desire is unfulfilled the story has failed in a very significant way. You could go so far as to say the reader has been cheated, or even betrayed. This holds true for novels just as much as short stories, and in fact for any narrative form. However, leaving an ending open is very different from leaving it incomplete. Raymond Carver is a master of the open ended but satisfactorily complete short story. The endings are so open that, bizarrely, they can be hard to spot. When I use these stories in teaching, some students have difficulty in ‘getting’ their endings. Take the story “Boxes” for example. This is a deceptively simple story about a man and his partner helping his elderly mother move house. The story reveals many layers of complexity in the triangular relationship between man, partner and mother, but nothing extraordinary happens. A domestic chore is completed, the mother’s move is successful, as confirmed when the mother calls the narrator a couple of days after the move. And that is the end of the story, except for one thing. When the narrator puts the phone down, he is distracted for a moment by a little scene that is taking place across the street. A porch light has gone on and shown a couple in a ‘welcome home’ embrace. And the story ends like this –  “What’s there to tell? The people over there embrace for a minute and then they go inside the house together. They leave the light burning. Then they remember, and it goes out.”

Some of my students miss this ending, they misjudge its weight and don’t feel its impact. Of course, for it to work properly you have to experience it as the closing paragraph to what has gone before. It is cleverly downplayed (What’s there to tell?), and draws little attention to itself. But if the story is read with enough engagement the scene comes to life in those few words as a tableau of human frailty and love which binds together all the images of fractured and difficult relationships that have gone before (like the memorable image in the middle of the story, of a workman hanging precariously from the top of a telephone pole). And what could be more final than a light going off? And it is quite characteristic of Carver that the moments of significance are found outside the narrative itself, in the incidental epiphanies that are glimpsed far away from the action. Another good example is “Intimacy,” which ends with a vision of dead leaves. In this and so many other stories of Carver’s, you might wonder at first why it ends the way it does, before realising that it couldn’t possibly end any other way. And whether endings are open or closed or a bit of both, that is the effect one should strive for in writing them. Which is more or less where I came in.

This has been fun. Thanks to my fellow contributors—Dennis, Gina, Vanessa and of course Patty for putting it all together.

 

Thanks to you, Gerard, for your insight and questions. Chicago just ain’t the same without you here, by the way. Coming soon, Vanessa Gebbie shares her thoughts on the ever elusive art of endings. Thanks for reading. -PMc←

 

Punch Line = Kiss of Death ~ Gina Frangello on Endings

Gina Frangello takes time away from her many deadlines (including finishing edits on her new novel) to answer Gerard Woodward’s questions about endings–best ones, preferred ones, how to find one, etc. As a companion to her answers here, why not look at her novel My Sister’s Continent, or her short story collection Slut Lullabies?

Gina: When I was editing Other Voices magazine, it may be fair to say that the most frequent kiss of death in an otherwise well-written, engaging story was the “punch line ending.”

You know: that story with a resolution that—once you know “what happened,” all is so resolved that you never really need to read the story again. The story wherein every single line and nuance pointed to an Exit sign, and once the Exit has been revealed, those nuances are no longer satisfying because now we know.

These types of stories (and novels) can be awfully exciting to read on the first sitting. There’s a good reason the thriller and mystery markets are so popular. But, with notable exceptions, they rarely hold up to or invite re-readings. They exist on a tightly wound string that tugs the reader along . . . and once we reach the finish line, the string goes once again slack, never to regain its tautness. Those signifiers don’t point to anything anymore, because the question (the only question) has already been answered. Case closed.

I don’t, if it isn’t already apparent, much care for stories like that.

Like all writers and avid readers, my favorite works of fiction are ones I’ve read over and over again. They are stories that yield a different result depending not only on who’s doing the reading, but at what moment of his or her life. They can be counted upon to yield new surprises each time—not in terms of finding out “who dunnit,” but in terms of a new resonance in the way a detail may serve as a dark echo of an earlier detail; in the way a character’s psyche opens itself up in vulnerable ways that may have seemed flinty and cool on the first read. The way that, say, upon first reading Doctorow’s Book of Daniel, the narrator, Daniel’s, Theory of the Other Couple may have seemed either a startling epiphany or a pitiful grasping at straws, and then, rereading the same novel ten years later in a different political climate and at a different stage of life, may seem precisely the inverse, so that both things become simultaneously True.

In my debut novel, My Sister’s Continent, twentysomething Kirby narrates both her own story and that of her identical twin, Kendra, who disappeared some unspecified number of years prior, leaving behind only some journals written during a period of intense instability. If arguably Kendra is an unreliable narrator of her own life, then clearly Kirby’s second-hand narration is more unreliable still. In the end, the stories Kirby chooses to tell about her sister may reveal more about her own desires or demons than they do about Kendra’s—or at least as much. The novel is not without plot twists or surprises, but even in some of those cases, it’s never entirely clear whether a new development is an Absolute Truth, or simply what one of the twins believes happened. While the sisters’ story contains certain immutable facts, much else falls into a gray terrain of “perhaps,” and as such can be interpreted in different ways by different readers.

The way we interpret may, of course, reveal as much about our own desires and demons as they do about the characters’, or even the author’s.

Not all literary fiction must be completely open-ended, clearly. Narratives like Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, where we end literally with Milkman mid-jump towards what may be his own murder—or Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are We Going, Where Have We Been?” where Connie may be heading out her screen door to be raped, or may be heading out to be murdered as well, or may somehow be unexpectedly saved before meeting her doom—do tend to be more the exception than the rule in literature. Most stories/novels contain some measure of resolution, and that’s fine with me. Unrelenting open-endedness could quickly become almost as formulaic as the “punch line ending” if done to the point of . . . well, formula. The issue is more one of how many ways there are to read a story, and whether the reading is identical to every reader. Does the story offer Truth or truths?

I prefer the latter.

On a closing note: one thing I always remind my students is that every person has his or her own narrative, in which s/he is the star and the one whose actions are “right.” Whether aiming for the perfect ending for a story or whether simply trying to develop characters, a writer can scarcely hold in mind anything more important than the way the story might shift if looked at from another character’s angle. Writing fiction is much more like, say, parenting, than it is like riding a bike or sticking a plug in an outlet or piecing together a puzzle. There is no one right way to do it, but rather a myriad of successful and unsuccessful techniques and approaches that often overlap and intersect, so that a “great” story is not always the same as a “perfect” story just like a great dad may not be a perfect dad. If we struggle towards anything as writers, it is understanding. Sometimes, when I’ve written an open-ended conclusion to a published work, readers ask me what “really happened,” and although I have my own picture in my head, I maintain that my vision—once the story is on the page—is no more or less real or definite than anyone else’s. We are all in this messy, ambiguous and resonant business of fiction, like life, together.

P.S. It’s been such a pleasure to engage in this dialogue with Patty, Vanessa, Gerald and Dennis, and it’s so fitting to end on the note of endings. Thank you, Patty, for including us all in the discussion, and thanks to all my fellow writers for this vibrant exchange.

 

Gina, thank you for taking part in this conversation. We’ll keep up with your work and ideas about writing on The Nervous Breakdown. And readers, keep checking back for more on the art of endings from Vanessa Gebbie, Gerard Woodward, and me. -PMc←

“When It’s Miller Time” ~ Dennis McFadden on Short Story Endings

As we come to the last questions of the series “Why The Short Story? A Conversation Among Writers,” we dig into the ideas and possibilities set forth by endings. Seems appropriate, doesn’t it? Dennis McFadden begins the end here with his answers to Gerard Woodward’s questions set forth a few days ago.

Gerard: What’s the best way to end a short story? Open endings? Closed endings? What does it mean to be open-ended? How do you avoid a reader feeling cheated or frustrated by what might feel like an inconclusive ending? How does it square with achieving a sense of completeness, of closure? Does it ever work to have a more conclusive ending to a story, or is that just old fashioned, and only suitable for genres like horror and romance? Perhaps most importantly, what are your favourite stories in terms of their endings?

Dennis: On a recent visit with our excellent friends in Massachusetts, we hadn’t been settled over tea and cookies for half an hour when Ronnie said, “Dennis, Jack and I really enjoyed your story,”—they’d read “Blue Side Up” in the fall issue of Crazyhorse—“but we have some questions.

“There were two fires,” she said, “—now, did he start both of them?”

“That’s what I said in my email,” Jack said. “There were some things I couldn’t figure out.”

A couple more questions followed, but they quickly petered out. I’m afraid I wasn’t much help. Unlike all of you academicians, teachers and full-time writers, I don’t feel particularly comfortable talking about my work, and I’m not particularly good at it. Looking back now, though, I suppose I could have offered a more illuminating response.

I could have told them that, yes, yes indeed, the protagonist— Aviation Cadet Robert L. Tinley 882624, Sir!—did start both fires, albeit accidentally, killing his girlfriend in the first, dispatching the lady from Russellville in the second, then, unhinged by the accumulating evil, murdered Steven McShea, his friend and fellow cadet. Or I could have told them he was a young, innocent victim of life’s circumstances who, traumatized by those two accidental fires, and suffering delusions of seeing his girlfriend in the clouds, committed suicide on a training run in his Stearman. Or I could have told them he was in fact a psychopath who set both fires intentionally, then went on to set several more, killing his base commander and an innocent duck in the process. Or for that matter, I could have pulled a James Dean Sanderson and told them the same thing he told me some fifty years ago when I asked about the ending to his novel, Boy With a Gun: Why don’t you write an ending that suits yourself? Maybe your English teacher will give you credit for it.

I personally have always liked the type of ending that leaves me pleasantly dissatisfied. So that’s the type I try to write. I don’t want to tell my readers everything that happened. I do want to tell them enough, however, so that they can figure out for themselves the part I didn’t tell them.

And if the part they figure out isn’t exactly what I had in mind? No harm, no foul. Because, you see, I know what really happened. We writers find the lure of omniscience nearly impossible to resist. It’s good to be God sometimes.

And God never lets you know everything that’s happening, now does He?

Life is pretty much a mystery. We can never really know everything that’s happening in our lives, or anything that will happen after them. And doesn’t realist, literary fiction attempt to be an honest reflection of life?

Whoa. Is that heavy or what?

As a writer of realist, literary fiction, I’ve used all types of endings. The first story I had accepted for publication, “Something in the Cellar,” depicts a marriage crumbling amid mounting animosity. Late in the story the couple goes to a dance where the man asks an acquaintance who happens to be a doctor about a mole on his back. The doctor warns him to have it looked at soon, or, judging by his description, it could quickly metastasize into something very fatal. The man assures the doctor he will, then, in the last paragraph, he’s tickling his wife’s back—their last, remote point of contact—where lives the mole that’s spreading there undetected. An ending with a twist.

Hayden’s Ferry Review published my story, “Reinventing Francie,” about a fugitive IRA man on the run in theU.S., reluctantly pressed back into action when a notorious informer is found to be living nearby. In the end, he confronts his intended victim with execution on his mind, but the informer turns out to be armed and dangerous. The final scene shows the former IRA man lying wounded on a wooded mountainside, possibly dying—an open ending. (Apparently not open enough for HFR, however; they insisted on ending the story at the beginning of the confrontation, an ending I thought would leave the reader unpleasantly dissatisfied.)

A story called “Helga’s Last Days,” to appear next spring in the minnesota review, might have been open-ended enough for HFR: A woman worries that her husband might have committed a murder for which his nephew has been convicted and sentenced to die. In the climax, the woman attacks her husband in the kitchen, and a bloody brawl ensues. The last sentence: “I figured if I could take him then there was no way he could have done that to Lucy Wilson, and I reached up and the frying pan found my hand, and I cracked him good, but the outcome was still in some doubt.”

In “Bye Baby Bunting,” the final story in my collection, Hart’s Grove, the protagonist, a rough roofer named Dave, goes searching for and finds, against all odds, a little boy lost in the woods, a miracle that begins to heal the rupture in his marriage caused by the loss of his own child a few years before. In the final scene he and his wife are going home together to make love for the first time in a long time. A closed, happy ending.

Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t make that ending an open one. The story would be cheated. Nor could I have the ex-IRA man shoot the informer, blow the smoke from the tip of his six-gun and ride off into the sunset, neat, complete, explicit and closed. Nor would “Something in the Cellar” allow for anything but that particular twist.

So what’s your point, McFadden?

The point is, I’ve written all different types of endings not just to see how many different types of endings I could write, but because the story being written dictated the ending that was right for it. The ending grows naturally out of the narrative that went before. After all, Ronnie and Jack weren’t really asking about just the ending, now were they? They were asking about the whole damn thing. That first fire—it was described midway through the story and took place years before the current storyline. Can an ending really be surgically removed, examined under the microscope, discarded and the story then fitted with a prosthetic replacement? Open endings, closed endings? Does the writer really have a choice? Not if he or she is listening closely to his or her story.

It seems to me there are only two types of endings to short stories: good endings and bad endings.

Gerard also asked about our favorite stories, in terms of endings (favourite actually, but who’s quibbling?), so I gave it some thought. You know what I came up with? Saunders’ “The Falls,” Hall’s “The Ledge,” etc.—stories I’d already mentioned as being my favorites, as well as my favourites, suggesting to me that if a story is good, the ending is too. You can’t have a good story without a good ending.

A well written story will tell you, the writer, when it’s Miller time. In fact, a good, well written story will not only tell you when it’s over, it will tell you how it’s over. The ending grows out of the story. It’s organic. I would say it’s preordained, but then I’d be getting into that God thing again.

The best way to end a short story? Quit writing when the story’s over.

*

Speaking of endings… I’d like to thank Patty for inviting and allowing me into the august company of this conversation. It’s been a pleasant diversion from the lovely drudgery of hammering on my fiction, and it’s also given me plenty to ponder as I go about trying, in my small, pitiful way, to turn words into something close to literary. It’s been fun, and it’s been a pleasure meeting and talking to—in a manner of speaking—Gina, Vanessa and Gerard. Thanks.

I should also mention, Patty, how impressed I am by your organizational skills, your timely postings, apt commentary, communications and coordination, in short, the exemplary way in which you’ve managed this entire project. In fact, if you’re ever considering a career change, have your people get in touch with my people. Maybe we can do lunch.

Aw, shucks, Dennis. Thanks for the kind words. And thanks, too, for finding the time to be part of this conversation among writers. And to those of you reading these posts, we know you must have a soft spot for the short story. Remember that it is still National Short Story Month, so go out there and support the story and its writer. Read one, share one, pick up a collection. Might I recommend Hart’s Grove by Dennis McFadden? And we’ll be hearing from our other writers on the subject of endings in the next days. Thanks for stopping by. Y’all come back now, hear? -PMc←

Something Dignified and Heroic ~ Gerard Woodward on Earning as a Writer

For the past few months, the novelist and short story writer Gerard Woodward has been writer-in-residence at Columbia College Chicago. It has been a great joy to have him spend time with us, and we will miss him. But Bath, England is home for Gerard, and so he must return. Through the magic of the internet, though, we can keep the conversation going. Here Gerard answers Gina Frangello’s questions about writing and money making, and he also poses the next questions for us to consider in “Why the Short Story? – A Conversation Among Writers.”

Gerard: I have always seen a writing career as a way of avoiding, or side-stepping, or ducking, the need to have any other sort of career. When I made the decision to try and be a writer, at the age of ten or thereabouts, part of its attraction was that it appeared to be an occupation for which one needed no qualifications, no training, no financial investment (apart from pens, paper and typewriter), no network of other people to worry about, no bosses or supervisors. The only downside, I could see, was that there was no salary.

Well, I exaggerate a little to say that I foresaw the impecuniousness of the profession at that tender age, and like most people I assumed that once you had a book published with a proper publisher, your financial problems were solved for the rest of your life. Beyond that vague notion, the question of money and how I would support myself didn’t enter my head.

But sooner or later it did. Perhaps it was after the first thrilling, (but shockingly small), cheque arrived from a literary magazine. Ok, you gradually realise, I’m not going to make much money at this, at least not yet (and the ‘not yet’ is very important). How am I going to find a way to support myself that doesn’t take away all my time and energy for writing?

There seem to be two kinds of writers – the pragmatists who sort out their financial lives with a steady job and regular income before trying to make room for writing, and the idealists who launch into a writer’s life straight away, and then try and find room for doing something that makes money. Both approaches have their pros and cons, the penniless bohemian might sometimes look enviously on the comfortable lifestyle of the gainfully employed but time-starved writer, often to have their envious stare returned. In the end there is only one answer to the above question – how do you support yourself as a writer in a way that doesn’t take away your writing time – by selling that writing to publishers. Any other means of support is going to eat into that writing time, no matter how closely related to writing it is. I have nothing but admiration for the pragmatists who maintain high pressure careers, waking up at the break of dawn to write for a couple hours before the day’s salaried work begins. Some people just have those sort of overspilling brains that still have something left after the day’s demands have taken their toll. I’ve undertaken all sorts of work, most of it of the manual and menial kind, to support my writing. I was lucky enough to get some awards and prizes for my writing early on, a few thousand pounds here and there, which in those days I could make last for years, and which persuaded me I was heading in a direction that was worth following. Eventually the prizemoney ran out, and I still wasn’t earning enough from writing to support myself, (I was a poet) so I took a job. It wasn’t the first time I had worked. When I left school, aged sixteen, I had six jobs in two years, thanks to a low boredom threshold and a healthy job market (yes, it was a long time ago).  There are some very versatile and industrious and resourceful poets who do manage to make a living out of freelance teaching, giving readings, doing workshops and so on, but I wasn’t resourceful enough to be one of them.

As a writer, I’ve always felt that it doesn’t really matter what one does in the world, it is all experience that will feed into the writing. The jobs I had sound mundane (warehouseman in a motorway service station, vending machine filler, pizza restaurant waiter, antiques dealer to name a few) but they provided a vast resource in terms of characters and stories that I will be mining for years to come. It doesn’t matter if a job is physically demanding, as long as it’s not mentally demanding. It means there is energy left in the brain. In fact I think hard manual work can be quite good for the imagination– it tires out the body but actually invigorates the brain, getting the oxygenated blood flowing through the cortex. One forgets how physically demanding thinking actually is (stop laughing, people with physically demanding jobs), you can measure the energy consumption of the brain as it performs mental tasks, and it is like watching an electricity meter when someone switches a toaster on. I sometimes start creative writing classes with physical exercises, to stimulate blood flow. Never forget that the imagination runs on blood. (I frequently forget, which is why I’m struggling to stay awake as I write this).

So, let me try and answer the specific questions in Gina’s post. The first one is by far the most complicated. “What role, if any, does money play in your decision to write and what to write?”

I feel, quite strongly, that a piece of writing doesn’t exist, in any meaningful way, until it is published. Up until that point it is simply an externalised and fixed part of your imagination, something you can refer to if you want but something that affects only you and those people you might have shown it to. To bring a piece of writing fully into existence it needs to be published. (I will ignore, for the moment, on-line publishing, its still too early to say what counts as proper publishing in that nebulous world). In other words, one writes with the eventual goal of publication in mind. (I exclude purely personal writing such as journals, diaries or pieces of writing aimed at one person, like an epistle (although no one writes those any more, so we’re told)). What this means is that one should write with publication in mind. When a piece of writing is published, money usually changes hands (or it certainly should). So writing, publishing and making money are all part of the same triple-streamed process. But this doesn’t necessarily mean one writes purely for money. As we have already discussed, there is so little money to be made from publishing short stories that the financial imperative couldn’t seriously play any part in the creative process. Even more so the case with poetry. (When a teenager of my acquaintance speculated that a certain poet was only ‘in it for the money’ I had trouble explaining why I was rolling on the floor laughing). With novels it is different. The potential market for any novel is huge. Of course, most novels only reach a tiny fraction of the market. Nevertheless, it is a very different world from poetry or the short story, and in theory one could make a living from writing novels, and nothing else. But do the maths (or the math), decide what you think is a comfortable annual income, and multiply it by how many years it takes to write a novel. That’s how much advance you’ll need for your next novel, and for every novel you write thereafter, for the rest of your life. Then consider how many writers you know might earn that sort of advance. And then consider how many writers are currently professors of creative writing.

But why not? Updike managed a novel a year over his very long career, and was quite open about the fact that that was the only way he could hope to earn a living from writing – a novel a year for the whole of his working life. And he managed it, without too much dilution of quality (forget about ‘Terrorist’) right up to the end. Not all of us have that energy or sheer talent. I’m already seeing gaps of two or three years opening up between my novels, the sad mathematics of which means I’ve maybe only got five or six left to write. Oh God, how did I get to this depressing piece of speculation? What I’m trying to say that there is nothing wrong, in fact I think there is everything right, about writing for money. I would even go so far as to say there is something dignified and even heroic about it (stop laughing again, people with proper jobs), much as I try and avoid romanticising the writer’s life, anyone who tries to dedicate their life to the production of written stuff in a time when written stuff is being pushed aside by filmed and digitally animated stuff is a hero in my book (or will be in my next book). But the point is – the money should not affect the content. I should say that in big letters really, THE MONEY SHOULD NOT AFFECT THE CONTENT. The writer’s purpose should be to make well made things that publishers would like to buy. If a book is written well enough, the content is of less importance. So don’t write something because you think it will have a mass appeal, write it because it’s what you’re interested in and excited by. The most common feeling I have when writing is – who on earth will want to read this? – and then carry on regardless. If it’s well made, someone will buy it.

I think I’ve answered as much as I can or want to. Now I must get back to making some money.

Oh – I nearly forgot. It’s my turn to ask a question now. I have a strong feeling that the best ones have already been asked, but here’s one that has always intrigued me. What’s the best way to end a short story? Open endings? Closed endings? What does it mean to be open-ended? How do you avoid a reader feeling cheated or frustrated by what might feel like an inconclusive ending? How does it square with achieving a sense of completeness, of closure? Does it ever work to have a more conclusive ending to a story, or is that just old fashioned, and only suitable for genres like horror and romance? Perhaps most importantly, what are your favourite stories in terms of their endings?

Thanks, Gerard. We will miss you over here! -PMc←

Gina Frangello’s Plan B ~ On Writing and Earning

Continuing with “Why the Short Story?” A Conversation Among Writers, author of Slut Lullabies and My Sister’s Continent, Gina Frangello answers her own questions about making money as a writer.

Gina: Recently, I posed the question to this group about how our writing lives are impacted by financial concerns. We are a diverse group of writers, and the responses thus far have been equally diverse, from Dennis McFadden, who works full-time as a projects manager for the New York State Department of Health, to those leading a more traditional “literary life” (a category that itself entails much diversity, both economically and in terms of what this means for how much writing time such a life actually permits).

Money is a deeply complex thing in the arts world. Although there are writers, painters, musicians, etc. who make a great deal of money at their craft, these individuals are perhaps more in the “minority” than in any other professional guild, so to speak. Among attorneys, among nurses, among teachers, among advertisers, among electricians—among just about any profession one can think of that isn’t arts-based—there is less extreme disparity between those who attain a celebrity level of fame and money, vs. those who literally earn not one dime for their work . . . like, ever. Generally speaking, if you train to become a doctor, for example—going to medical school and graduating—the only reason you would make absolutely no money would be if you are not currently practicing medicine, or that you have obtained sufficient wealth that you have made the choice to now donate your expertise philanthropically as a volunteer. Writers, sculptors, guitarists, on the other hand, may literally work daily at a craft that never pays, period, and that necessitates full-time work in another field for the entire duration of their lives. Even taking into account those in the arts who may lack the essential dedication or skill to succeed, there are indisputably legions of driven, talented people out there who simply never “make it,” and part of that equation entails a particular relationship between art and money that seems unique to any other field.

I grew up poor. This is something people tend to say, because “poor” means different things to different people: being the poorest members of an extended family; the poorest household in an otherwise affluent town or suburb, etc. My meaning is pretty literal: my family was below the poverty line, which at the end of my youth (the time I left home for college) was 10K annually. My father never graduated from the 8th grade, and no one in my entire extended family—on either side—had ever gone to college. Hence we were poor both economically and culturally: a distinction that’s become increasingly interesting to me* as I age, since I know many, many writers now, as an adult, who make a low annual income but whose lives bear little in common with the lives of the culturally-and-educationally-impoverished people I knew in my childhood.

Like many writers, I have written since my earliest memories. I dictated stories to my mother before I could print, and then illustrated them and made them into stapled “books.” I began writing my first novel in earnest at the age of 10, ripping pages off a brown butcher roll of paper my mother had bought to save money. I meticulously hid my writing from my peers, who already considered me a dork for reading so much and constantly wanting to go to the library instead of hanging on the corner, playing sports, or chasing after the neighborhood gangbangers. When I put the nail in the coffin of my own weirdness, by neighborhood standards, and went away to college (on grants and loans), I had already been writing fiction for basically fourteen years, but it never occurred to me for even a minute to major in writing.

I had never met a published writer.

The one “writer” I knew at all was unpublished, unemployed, lived in my parents’ garage and tended to have a lot of dead ants on his floor. He drank too much and died of liver disease in his fifties. I had never—regardless of the season—seen him without the same tan raincoat, nor had I ever seen his hair clean. To say that he was not an ideal role model (though it may also be true that he was the best-educated person I knew in my youth—and according to my father the most “interesting”) would be an understatement.

As I saw it then—and as I still, I must admit, see it now—anyone who would major in writing as an eighteen-year-old college student with no clear vision of how s/he will make a living in this big world must have a trust fund. (Since most of my writing students here in urban Chicago have nothing resembling trust funds, I realize that this perspective is not accurate, but must conclude that my students are a far more optimistic lot than I.)

But as for me at eighteen: I majored in psychology. I was going to get my PhD and open a private practice, or so my plan went. I got all the way through my master’s degree and practiced as a therapist for three years before starting to stay up all night writing my first novel, and calling in “sick” to work in order to stay home and write, and—in my mid-20s and one year into my marriage—defecting from the practical plans of my youth and going back to grad school in writing.

At this point, my husband was on a NASA fellowship in space physics, and if I’m remembering it accurately that was something like 25 or 30 grand per year. This was in 1994. By the standards of my youth, you have to understand, this was Rockefeller terrain—this was the kind of money I would flagrantly quit my job for and go back to pursue my previously unattainable dream of writing as a career. My husband and I labored over this decision and decided that we were going to swing it—that we would live on his income as an academic (he was doing a post-doc at U of C at that time) and somehow pull together a life in which I could write full-time. Previously, it had been a given that I, as a therapist, would probably make more money than he ever would as a physics professor. Now, that plan was upended, and any solid income from me was no longer a “given.”

It’s hard to believe that was nearly twenty years ago. So many things have changed during that time. My husband, tired of moving from city to city and grant to grant, soon left the world of space physics and went into finance, where his income has improved (though is arguably even less stable and predictable, given the current economy). I, meanwhile, got my master’s in Creative Writing, published quite a bit of short fiction in lovely literary magazines that almost never paid, started reading for and eventually took over the editorship of Other Voices magazine, got most of my way through a PhD program, launched a book press in 2005, have taught at several colleges (most consistently at Columbia College Chicago), had two books of fiction published, became the Fiction editor of a hugely popular online literary site (The Nervous Breakdown), have gone through three literary agents, recently went on a fairly massive book tour, have another novel coming out in 2012, and just two days ago finished a new one that is about to go out “shopping.”

These days, I am often asked to blurb books and write letters of recommendation. I appear, it seems, to have a career in writing—and if judged by Dennis’ standards of standing around literary conferences, readings and parties (with or without shrimp), talking shop with other writers, I indisputably lead a “writing life.” To be blunt, I am pretty geeked out with excitement about this literary life of mine, and the ghetto girl who grew up knowing no one who even owned a bookcase can scarcely believe it is real.

Here’s the part I can believe: I make about as much money (less than 25K in my best years) as I figured I would, back when I—very accurately—assessed that, if left to a writing life, I would never be able to pay back my student loans, raise children, buy a house, or support my parents in their old age.

If it were not for my husband’s more standard career—and his unfailing support of my writing, editing and adjunct teaching—I would not be able to lead this lifestyle. The house I could do without, sure. But being a mother—and keeping my own parents financially afloat—are non-negotiable issues. If my family needed me to earn more money, then my editing, my part-time teaching, my taking time off traditional work to go on a book tour . . . those lovely perks of my life would be out the window in a heartbeat.

This is a fine and nuanced point, as it turns out. Because there is a difference between leading a writing life vs. being a writer, just as there is a difference between economic vs. cultural/educational poverty. Because even if I had become a psychologist with a private practice, I would still write fiction. I wrote fiction in elementary school, in high school, in college, while getting my graduate degree in counseling, while working as a therapist. No matter what I was doing, ever, I would continue to write. I would no doubt write somewhat less than I do now if I were also the primary breadwinner in my household. But to think about a life without writing, period, would be like a life without love or a life without air. It would be an impossibility.

On the other hand, I lead a certain type of literary “lifestyle” that is tied deeply to economic circumstances and choices. People who lead this sort of lifestyle—working nonprofit and teaching without tenure and having enough free time to hang out at readings or go to AWP every year—often fall into two categories: those of us with some other economic means (a dual income with one’s spouse, or the luxury of having come from money), or those of us who have made very difficult choices and lead an extremely Spartan lifestyle—one that may never involve home-ownership or raising children, for example—in order to be able to focus heavily on our art, whether or not it pays well.

There can be loopholes. Some writers may suddenly hit it “big” and earn good money on their craft, sure. More commonly, tenured professorships—increasingly hard to come by, but still the most coveted gig for most writers—can provide enough financial security that extreme sacrifices no longer have to be made, and though professors are not wealthy, they can usually afford to have a family, go somewhere cool on Sabbatical now and then, and still have enough time to write, which adds up to a pretty sweet life.

But my question . . . well, back to my question, huh? How does money impact our choices as writers? Well, some writers I know have made financially-driven choices within the writerly arena (such as writing novels based on successful TV series, or giving up literary fiction to write chick lit) that will support them in somewhat higher style without it meaning that they have to get some kind of office (or health department) job. For some writers, this can offer a compromise they find livable: a best of both worlds. But many writers—myself included—just don’t have the right skill or interest set for those kinds of compromises. For myself, I have always felt that if I were to suddenly face financial choices that made it imperative that I earn better money, secure healthcare for my family, then I would go back to working as a therapist, or perhaps teach high school English, rather than “changing what I write” to make my work more lucrative or—that loaded word—“marketable” in the arenas of publishing where the money is. To me, from the very first, the concept of writing has always been fully inextricable from being able to write what I love. Short fiction and literary novels, whether the market rewards these forms financially or not. All that other stuff—the publishing, the networking, the touring—is so much fun icing. But it’s never been even half of what I’m in this for. I write, as most writers I most admire do, because I have to. But more: I write what I have to write, psychologically, artistically. I don’t choose my style or topics based on practical concerns. The work chooses us, as much as the other way around.

The writing life is a beautiful life. There is an almost obscene pleasure in being able to talk about books for a living—a surreal honor in being entrusted with work-in-progress from students and from writers who submit to Other Voices Books or The Nervous Breakdown. There’s incredible camaraderie and rich, lifelong friendships to be found in a tribe of fellow-writers, fellow creative writing teachers and in-the-trenches indie editors, that would be hard to trade for water cooler office politics at an ad firm or something. If you’re like me, and never thought you would have the luxury to live in this world, you spend pretty much every day grateful, and work—even when you’re toiling seventy hours per week for the kind of pay you’d likely exceed as a line cook at McDonald’s—feels like a glorious vacation. This would be a hard world to leave, now that I have had the privilege of dwelling in it.

Someday, I may have to leave it. My husband’s industry is a volatile place. The world is a volatile place.

Should things change, I still don’t foresee myself abandoning short fiction and attempting to become a chick-lit writer or something to bring in some cash. I don’t see myself attempting to mold my writing around my financial realities. I think I would go back to Plan A, in which my writing would have existed on the sidelines of an Other Life, the life in which I would have been supporting my parents and children with a full-time, more predictable job and income.

Ironically enough, I might have no less writing time in that alternate scenario. Editing a book press and TNB Fiction, plus teaching, in addition to mothering three children with no childcare, does not exactly leave me with a full-time writing schedule as it is. Sometimes I write one or two days a week. Sometimes I do not write any new fiction for six months. I’m guessing I would manage just about the same amount of writing time if I were seeing clients or teaching high school. I’m guessing that the things that really matter would largely stay the same—that the work would remain.

But Dennis, I’m not gonna lie. I would really miss the shrimp.

_______

*The multi-layered distinction between economic vs. cultural/educational poverty is one of the main topics of this interview I did for Michael Kimball over at The Faster Times: http://thefastertimes.com/writersonwriting/2010/07/28/i-have-a-character-in-my-head-michael-kimball-interviews-gina-frangello/

Thanks, Gina, for your very thorough and frank answers to these questions. Gerard Woodward, recently returned to the UK after having been visiting writer here at Columbia College Chicago for the past five months (we’ll miss you Gerard!), is next up to answer Gina’s questions. Thanks for reading. Happy Short Story Month again! -PMc←