Possible Endings

Warning: This letter contains (many!) spoilers of the J.R.R. Tolkien novel and film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.

Have you ever had a story just humming along, when you realize your ending is like a horizon, constantly remaining just out of reach?

My crackpot hypothesis about that is it’s a sign. It’s time to start deciding how the story will end. Not the exact scene or sentence, but thematically, emotionally.

One way out is to just choose three or four possible themes and notes, and then rough them out, and see what happens.

Put another way, try Lord of the Rings-ing it.

If somehow you have not seen Peter Jackson’s 11-hour, three-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel, the final movie The Return of the King actually ends five—five! — times. Each with its own distinct mood.

Ending No. 1: The survivors of the Fellowship of the Ring reunite in a gauzy, sunlit room, overjoyed to find each other alive. Many stories about war or odysseys end this way, with companions reunited in victory. It’s an ending of elation, and triumph, and it infers (without showing) that the world will heal.

Apparently, inference wasn’t good enough, so onto…

Ending No 2:  Aragorn is crowned king before the Fellowship and a crowd that’s basically the United Nations for Middle Earth. Rose petals cascading around him, he talks of unity, reunites with his beloved, and kneels before the four Hobbits, prompting the entire crowd to do the same. This ending is victory and unity and honor, with a touch of romance.

But wait, there’s more!

Ending No. 3 follows the Hobbits home to the Shire, where they return to their favorite pub, and celebrate Sam-Wise’s wedding, and they realize, everything is restored, and nothing is. This ending gives the audience the satisfaction of seeing the Hobbits safely home, while also acknowledging war changes people.

Which leads us to …

Ending No 4: Four years (!) later, Frodo leaves Middle Earth, heading into the Undying Lands with the Elves, Gandalf, and his uncle Bilbo. “We set out to save the Shire,” he says, “and it has been saved — but not for me.” His Hobbit friends wave and sob as he and Gandalf sail off into a golden sunset. This takes the triumph and homecoming, and makes them bittersweet.

Still, Jackson was not done.

Sam-Wise returns to his wife and children after seeing Frodo off, gazes out at the Shire, and says, “Well, I’m back,” the last line of Tolkien’s novel.

Unless you’re Peter Jackson, you won’t get away writing a story with five endings. Unity and romance? Bittersweet homecoming? Joyful reunion? You will eventually have to choose.

But sometimes the best way to navigate your way to it is to map out several destinations, and point your sail toward the one that feels like home.

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty

Trimming the Flash

The other day, Gotham’s own Arlaina Tibensky and Josh Sippie were talking flash stories in my general vicinity, when Arlaina said something that blew me away. 

“Flash stories are like bonsai trees. First you grow a huge tree, then you prune and prune it,  and shape it into a beautiful tree you can put in your pocket.” 

It’s the perfect way to describe writing a flash piece (a work that’s anywhere from 50 words to 1,000, but no more) because it heads off two common mistakes people make when drafting a flash piece. 

One, they write a sequoia. Three or four characters!  A plot and a subplot!  A convoluted major dramatic question! All of which quickly grow into a 100-foot seedling, which the writer then tries to prune, and ends up ruining. 

Or, they write a single reed of feathergrass, and find themselves with nothing to shape. 

A better approach is Arlaina’s — write as many words as you want about one character experiencing one change. Then, visualize the tree’s shape before you start clipping and trimming. Cut judiciously, so that you create space for the story’s true magic to flourish. 

In her flash fiction piece “Mayretta Kelly Brunson Williams Bryant Jones (1932-2012),” Deesha Philyaw starts with a hermit crab — one story borrowing the recognizable shell of another —specifically, an obituary. Within that familiar structure, she tells the (rollicking) story of Mayretta’s life in outline—that’s the plot. Philyaw then wraps those bare facts in asides and commentary, in Mayretta’s distinctive voice, to reveal the story’s deeper (hilarious) meaning. 

Take the first paragraph, which reads almost exactly like every other obit—almost:

“On, March 14th, 2012, Mayretta ‘May’ Brunson Kelly Williams Bryant Jones slept away peacefully right into Jesus’ arms after a long undisclosed illness (and if that big-mouth Margaret Hill says May had a nasty woman’s disease, she’s a goddamn lie).” 

Essayist Bhante Sumano accomplishes similar magic with his flash nonfiction piece “Buoy” by focusing his story on a split-second, very awkward moment between himself and his roommates. He breaks the moment—five dudes eating breakfast with NPR on the radio —into increments, each with its own paragraph. In between them, he grafts on observations and reflections, like, “I sip my orange juice at the table while the room shrinks—wishing, in hindsight, that I had refused the breakfast invitation, slept in.” 

On their own, the external scene or the internal dialogue would be interesting, but together, they’re a slow-motion car crash. And the tight focus gave Sumano room for the highest-impact moment of all, what he wished he’d said.

Both Philyaw and Sumano’s stories illustrate another common mistake writers often make when writing flash — they assume, incorrectly, these deeply affecting, memorable, big stories are small.

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty

Birthday Cluster

Fellow writers, it’s the third week of May, and you know what that means? Birthday cluster!
And this no ordinary birthday cluster — this week we celebrate the births of three iconoclasts, writers who not only defied expectations, but made an art of it.
First up, poet Adrienne Rich, born May 16th, 1929, perhaps most famous (infamous?) for refusing the National Medal for the Arts in 1997, because, she said, “Art means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage.”
Rejecting the easier path and telling the truth were among Rich’s chief values. Twenty years before turning down the medal, she said in a speech, the subconscious mind—so important to a writer’s craft—needs truth to survive. “To lie habitually…is to lose contact with the unconscious,” she said. “It is like taking sleeping pills, which confer sleep but blot out dreaming.”
Next, playwright Lorraine Hansberry, born May 19th, 1930. Hansberry wrote the classic A Raisin in the Sun, which when it opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in 1959 made her the first Black woman playwright to have her work produced on Broadway.
A civil-rights activist and a member of the Communist Party during the McCarthy era, Hansberry believed writers must “write about the world as it is and as you think it ought to be and must be—if there is to be a world.”
In Raisin, one of the characters says of the future, “It isn’t a circle—it is simply a long line…And because we cannot see the end—we also cannot see how it changes. It is very odd that those who see the changes—who dream, who will not give up—are called idealists…and those who see only the circle we call them the ‘realists!’”
Last up, Nora Ephron, born May 19th, 1941. No doubt you know her romantic comedies, her humorous essays, maybe even her 1983 novel Heartburn. But she also co-wrote the screenplay for the drama Silkwood, about real-life nuclear plant-worker-turned-whistleblower Karen Silkwood.
A big moment in that story is when Karen Silkwood shifted from ordinary woman to political activist who risked her life to tell the truth.
“Well, that’s boring to watch,” Ephron wrote. “The answer was to make the movie very domestic, about three people in a house. We had that: Karen, her roommate, and her boyfriend… three people, all moving in different directions.”
Besides being writers born in Taurus on the cusp of Gemini, one thing these three women had in common was a belief that anything good began with people raising their voices. So, to celebrate them, you can (and should) read their work, possibly with cake. But you should also write, in their honor, and raise your own voice.
As always, I’ve got some suggestions.

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty