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Recently I was privy to this exchange between two fifth grade girls.
Girl 1: Shhhh, stop!
Girl 2: It’s okay, she’s the kind of adult who can handle things.
I was the adult in question and was more than a little surprised to be deemed the type of person who can handle things. I wanted to tell the girls that they had me all wrong, that I couldn’t handle things at all, that things left me generally wrung out and exhausted. I’d spent the day writing, a rare luxury that I couldn’t really afford. I felt good about my progress until I walked away from the pages and began to experience crushing doubt. This is the normal cycle of my writing life: steady concentration followed by bouts of euphoric output followed by a downward spiral of self-doubt and loathing. From what I can gather, the trajectory is eerily similar to the path of the average drug addict.
But back to those girls. They, too, are writers. One of them approached me to explain that her story wasn’t a happy one. She said someone would die, someone would be killed, and it wasn’t going to have a happy ending. She worried that it wouldn’t be okay. I assured her that it was fine, shared my own opinion that happy endings were overrated. She sighed in the dramatic way that only a 10-year-old girl can sigh. I hate happy endings, she told me. I understood. Life doesn’t serve up many happy endings, so why should literature? Happy endings are best left to the movies.
There is a story by Maile Meloy in the May 21 edition of The New Yorker. “The Proxy Marriage” follows a boy and girl as they serve as stand-ins for couples separated by war. The boy loves the girl, but doesn’t tell her; the girl doesn’t know her own heart. Everyone around them can see that they belong together. The story ends on an optimistic note and my first thought was, meh. But then I allowed myself to imagine the future of the seemingly happy couple. It was possible that the boy would never be enough for the girl. It was possible that the girl could never live up to the boy’s imagination. It was also possible that they would marry and have children and grow old together. In other words, it wasn’t an ending at all. It was a beginning, full of all the questions that beginnings pose.
Lately, I have been struggling with closure in my own writing. Which threads should I tie off and which ones should I leave unraveled? There don’t seem to be any easy answers. It’s the type of thing where I might welcome a formula. It would be nice if I could just know that points A, B, and C must be brought to conclusion, while points X and Y are allowed to dangle. Alas, I fear I am on my own here.
As to those girls and the private discussion they worried I’d overhear but felt I could handle, I have no idea what they were whispering about as I walked in the room. I was once a fifth grade girl myself and I believe they have a right to some secrets, some privacy. I am left to wonder, satisfyingly sans closure.