The Art and Artifice of The End
How do you end an essay when really, you’ve just begun? By Deborah Siegel A few weeks back I posted an excerpt from the beginning of an essay I’ve been working on during the interstices of life with a start-up (She Writes of course!) and new twins. And now, I’m approaching the essay's end. Only this essay may be turning into something longer. So here’s my creative dilemma du jour, for which I seek your wisdom: how do you end a personal essay when there’s so much left to say? Memoir writing is somewhat new to me. When crafting a snippet from a life in progress, a view from here to there, the cut-off point seems arbitrary. When writing about one’s children, the end point is artificial at best. In the interest of closure, we codify that which resists codification. We call it nonfiction, but isn’t every personal essay a work of artifice as well? (See the Memoir Writers group for excellent threads on all this and more!) Without further pontification, I share this rushed snippet (written this morning, while babes napped) from my essay’s end. Some context: The essay, “The Gender Diaries,” is for an anthology about gender and childhood (that’s a reductive way of describing it, but I don’t want to give too much away…yet). I’ve written about the first eight days of life with my newborns, boy and girl twins, and my gendered induction into motherhood. I’d love your input, She Writers—as well as any thoughts you might have in general about memoir writing and “the end.” ** Today, the babies turn 9 months old. They’ve been inhabiting the outside world for as long as they dwelled within, and we both have shaped them, this world and I. It’s easy, fun, and lazy, perhaps, to offer precursory observations, as Marco and I so frequently do: Anya splashes daintily, Teo kicks forcefully in the tub. Anya looks so “girl”; Teo acts so “boy.” Yet at 9 months and counting, they are scrambling the code in ways that make the feminist in me smile. Anya seems to be the thrill-seeker while Teo seems content, so far, to stay in one place and let the world come to him. The most interesting part, of course, is that as soon as we’ve got them pegged, they switch roles like good little gender-benders and turn things upside down. Which is perhaps what "Free to Be You and Me"—that anthem of yore, the one we sang at their naming ceremony alongside the ancient Jewish prayers—meant to instill in us all along: “Every boy in this land grows to be his own man In this land, every girl grows to be her own woman Take my hand, come with me where the children are free Come with me, take my hand, and we'll run…” Anya and Teo, long, far, and free may you run. And may your father and I, who are so newly coming into ourselves as your parents, run free of the conventions that bind us to the stereotypical roles that limit our sense of ourselves as well.

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  • Marianne Elliott

    Thanks so much for sharing this extract - I found the first three paragraphs compelling. The lyrics raise more questions than they answer for me. What about little boys who grow up to be their own women, for example? I thought perhaps that was where you were going, a sudden realisation that the anthem of freedom you had chosen itself contained deeply embedded gender stereotypes! It's where I went, in any case, and it was a very interesting place indeed. Thanks.

  • Amy Yelin

    I find endings so challenging! Occassionally they just come...but most of the time it's try, try again. I agree with the comments about trying 10 endings and journaling, of course, to find your meaning. I also think it's hard to judge your ending without reading it in the context of the whole piece.

  • Meryl Jaffe

    Hi Deborah. I am somewhat new to all this but maybe my novice voice will help. I don't know you or the readers you intend to reach, but I do think it is a bit pat and forced. As a psychologist I would tell you to follow your instincts. As a teacher, I find myself looking for an ending with something to think about. Maybe as Judith says below, look for your main thread or threads, and bring them together with a muse about what might they look like, who might they be in the future. Let the reader join you on that journey and look forward to that next installment.

  • Lisa, Susan, Judith, Tania, Glen, Patricia, Julie, thank you so much for these honest and very helpful thoughts and riffs. This experience of virtual writing group -- and your thoughtful and instantaneous feedback -- really is quite an experience! I am taking all to heart.

  • Lisa Cheby

    I love reading the suggestions and comments as I learn so much! But to address your concern that the ending is too 'pat,' I think it is also important to remember (and allow) our writing to reflect the conclusion (the aha moment) we had in the moment of experience and writing. Since you already had that experience (first in the actual, moment, and over and over again in the writing of it), it may not seem fresh to you. But for your reader, it is the first experience and works. I like how the ending takes the form or a prayer or a wish, which leaves it open-ended and invites readers to contemplate how they bind or are bound by gender stereotypes.

  • @ Deborah, when writing short, I have found that creating a tiny scene -- one moment -- that leads to an aha! helps pare away my sweeping summaries and generalities. And it makes me decide what I'm really trying to say. My point.

    On the other hand, why not gush out all your observations in their precious detail into a journal and worry about crafting the perfect little essays later? Enjoy those kiddos!

  • Judith van Praag

    I'm with Patricia, 9/9 is a wondrous moment in time, having your twin babies in your life for 18 months.
    I also agree with Glen, there's nothing pat about ending with words and a ritual chosen by you and Marco, for the welcoming of those two precious babes into your lives and community.

    Of course there's usually much more to say about any given subject than word count allows for. Journalists learn to get to the point and cut whatever is not. An essay of course is different from an article, but if you work within the restrictions of theme and word count, you've got to focus on what calls to you the loudest. Remember, there will be other opportunities, the anthology is only the 'amuse gulle' whetting the reader's appetite for more.
    Take a look at all the threads in your essay, all the instances that you will be bound to continue following. Decide which one is (or three are) the most important threads for the anthology, then follow that one (or braid the three) to the end.
    Or take a look at the ending posted above and follow the thread back to the beginning.
    Going backwards look left and right for sidetracks.
    Either discard the ones that could become essays in their own right (filing for future reference) or neatly tie an end to each, leaving the reader with a hint of more to come, at an other place, an other time.
    The nature of the subject is such that continuation is expected, your reader knows that.
    This is only the beginning ;-)

  • Deborah,

    I'm drawn to the specific examples you give of both the behaviours that confirm the conventional gender expectations (dainty splashing, forceful kicking) as well as the two that deny those gender assumptions (girl thrill seeking, boy meditative, receptive). I think what you have here works; I do also want to validate your sense it might be too neatly wrapped up. I wonder if you could use this as a leaping point, say, write more about the ways the speaker and the father found themselves denying or confirming gender expecatations. I'm always drawn to the specific vignette--but let's say you are indeed wanting to wrap it up for now here. In that case, maybe ending on the anthem, with a specific image from the speaker and father?

    Or sometimes questions work at the end, where you turn and ask the unexpected, or try to lead us into some aspect you might still consider? So it is not tied neatly up?

    That's the best part about being in process, isn't it. Writing ten endings, and then choosing the best. Trying on different ending "hats" such as: Neatly tied up. Wildy questioning. Left turn. Voice of one's mother...Mid sentence dot dot dot...etc.

    Ok Deborah, enjoy the rest of the day and the rest of the essay. Let me know what that ending ends up looking like.

  • Deborah--Thanks for sharing your dilemma plus an excerpt. I do not know how many words you have written thus far, but it seems to me that you have reached a perfect end-point for this first essay--9 months in and 9 months out! My daughter and son are in their early 20s now, but I recall those marvellous first months. I know that each day was a gift!

  • Glen Finland

    Perhaps if you thought of your essay topic as only one of the many ephemeral stages of childhood and parenting as opposed to events with finite endpoints...that way you're taking the reader along with you for a small part your journey. BTW, I like what you've written. Rather than pat, it is familiar, relatable, and simply human.

  • Julie Jeffs

    This is beautiful. I wonder, do you ever catch yourself ever wanting to push Teo to be just a little more of the thrill seeker, or wish Anya to be the more sedate cuddly one. Not that you want to push them into gender roles but just based upon your own upbringing. I still wonder about what I did or did not do consciously, subconsciously with my boy and girl (two years apart) so that it still remained that my girl is the non-thrill seeker, in fact will try little that involves risk, while my son would if he could, try to fly, without the airplane. I sense that it is not "pat" but that it is impossible to find an end, since your babies likely change almost daily.

  • She Writes Fridays

    Ugh - reading this excerpt now "in print", it seems so hopelessly pat, so forced. Help?! -DS