From Jane Friedman:
“One of the things I love most about this life is that there’s no final goodbye. You know, I’ve met hundreds of people out here and I don’t ever say a final goodbye.”
—Bob Wells in Nomadland
Sound familiar? The quote is from the promotional campaign for the new film, Nomadland. Winner of the 2021 Golden Globe for Best Picture Drama, Nomadland documents the itinerant lifestyle of thousands of older Americans who refer to themselves as “vandwellers.” Bob Wells serves as a shaman of sorts to these wanderers. Rather than say goodbye, possibly for good, Wells prefers an upbeat, “See you down the road!“
Given that many of us sidestep endings in real life, it should not be surprising that writers have trouble concluding book projects. If you are one of those struggling to find an ending for your novel, your novella, or your memoir, take a deep breath then take heart. Concluding takes a lot out of us. Even happy endings are hard to eke out.
I love what Jane Smiley says about finishing the rough draft of a novel in her excellent tome, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel:
…To write through to the end of the rough draft, in spite of time constraints, second thoughts, self-doubts, and judgments of all kinds, is an act of faith that is invariably rewarded—the rough draft of a novel is the absolute paradigm of something that comes from nothing.
Use a placeholder for your ending
So, as you approach the end, try not to worry about finding finality. Don’t press for profundity or go back to the beginning and start revising. Don’t leave the ending for later. Instead, settle for a placeholder this time around.
What’s a placeholder? Just what it sounds like: someone or something that takes up space until Mr. Right comes along. (Yes, it’s true. Occasionally, the placeholder morphs into Mr. Right. And if that’s the case for you, count yourself as one of the lucky ones.)
For now, aim for an okay ending. A placeholder will help you see the outlines of your story, and it will give you bragging rights: “I finished my draft!” Because you’re going to be revising, right? Of course, you are. So, trust that when you reach the end again, you will be older, more mature, and ever-so-much-more knowledgeable. Then, you can aim for a satisfying ending but not a perfect one. In truth, there is no such thing as perfect. Perfect is an absolute, like unique. Trying to be unique or perfect is the ruination of anything good. As Churchill said, “Perfection is the enemy of progress.“
Pleasing yourself is paramount
What’s okay or good enough, then? Something that serves the story and, secondarily, pleases you as a reader. Pleasing yourself is paramount because in doing so, you are likely to interest a select group of others, those whose reading preferences are like yours. And, finally, writing is something you do for one person. Most often, that person is yourself. John Steinbeck said it this way:
Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike in the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
Link to the rest at Jane Friedman