All the latest news, ideas, and opinions from Denver's Independent Literary Center: lighthousewriters.org
by Laurie Sleeper
It’s been awhile since I’ve attended AWP (specifically four years, when the conference was in Denver), and I have to say this is the biggest I’ve seen yet. When I told friends last week about how there are 15-20 sessions to choose from in each time slot, I was wrong–there are 30. The book fair looks like it doubled, and the evening receptions and readings compete with each other in such a way that it’s impossible to do it all. So I won’t even try to cover everything, and will just give you a taste of what I see and do.
On Thursday afternoon, I attended a panel called “Designed Instability: Open Endings in Short Fiction,” and thoroughly enjoyed the wide-ranging presentations and the following discussion (if you can imagine examination of such a narrow topic to be “wide-ranging”). The panelists were Shannon Cain, Erin Stalcup, Ed Porter, and one of my favorite teachers, Robin Black. Some used the open endings from published stories to illustrate their points, some included personal stories to supplement their ideas. All were well-read, well-published, and well-prepared.
What is a closed ending anyway? “And they lived happily ever after” is a closed ending–there’s nothing else for the reader to imagine. A good example of an open ending? The Sopranos. Or, perhaps, just about any story by Flannery O’Connor.
So what’s the issue about open endings? The literary short story most often employs this technique, yet some readers complain about it. These readers seek some kind of closure, a wrapping-up that tells them how it all ends. But that’s not how real life unfolds–in reality, when something happens in your life, your life goes on after it. So stories that have closed endings do readers a disservice by not accurately reflecting real life.
Why open endings, then, if readers don’t like them? A well-executed open ending draws readers back into the story, where they have to explore deeper meanings and question their assumptions. When readers encounter multi-layered characters and narratives, they are forced to expand their worldview, which they then carry back into the real world where, on a daily basis, we all encounter baffling people and situations. A recent study found that reading literary fiction created empathy in readers, while other forms of writing did not. So a story which asks readers to draw their own conclusions helps support compassion in the world. This may sound like bravado, but many readers read in order to experience the lives of others unlike themselves, and to recognize the sameness in all of us.
How do we write successful open endings? As beginning writers, we try to imitate what we’ve read without fully understanding the point, so sometimes we just stop a story. Readers complain. Or when we gain more experience, we end our stories with an image which we think implies openness, but which simply leaves readers hanging in the air like cartoon characters running off a cliff. Editors reject. Robin Black gave an example from her own life–when she first gathered stories for her first collection (If I loved you, I would tell you this), she found seven out of ten ended with people staring into each other’s eyes. Audience laughter ensued.
If you search on this blog a couple of years back, you’ll see that I’ve written about Robin Black before, and now I’ll do it again. Because somehow Robin always teaches in a way that I am meant to hear. And always with warmth, humility, and grace—and with incredibly sharp insight.
Robin described typical failed open endings. Not only do people stare into each others’ eyes, they listen to birds chirp or the neighbor’s car running or watch variations of the sun setting. But these endings aren’t supposed to mean something, they’re just being open.
And this comes from fear. As writers, we know we’re not supposed to write closed endings so we write something that is “open-ending-y.” It becomes a defensive tactic to avoid being accused of a closed ending. But, as Robin said, “the alternative to a locked door should not be aimlessness.”
She went on to liken the short story to a eulogy. The only true plot for stories—and for eulogies—is that “a person lived, a person died.” So the point for both of these is not the plot, but to convince the audience that the story matters. A failed eulogy is one that ends with the person dying, because the point of a eulogy is to be about the life, not the death. A eulogy should communicate that the person’s life mattered, often referring to an after-life, because there has to be a sense that there’s lasting significance for the events of the life. Or the person is just dead.
So too for a story. Even as the story itself ends and dies, the meaning and emotion of the story should be allowed to blossom and supplant it. A story writes its own eulogy as it progresses, and so the open ending should really be about the story’s afterlife, not its death. A lot of work for the writer, and ultimately the reader, but absolutely necessary to write successful short fiction.
Ultimately, I came away from the panel feeling inspired as to the purpose and place for short stories in our world, and with the firm understanding that I need to revise my stories to make sure they are not merely open-ending-y, but offer an opening to understanding even as the words on the page cease. How will I do that? I’m not totally sure, but I’ll take the advice Robin gave to an audience member who asked how to rewrite an ending you know isn’t working: pretend that you are absolutely forbidden from using the ending you have written, and write a completely new one. Now go!