“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” — Graham Greene
This quote arrived in my inbox a few days ago and it haunts me.
Could it be true? Is there no beginning or end in a story?
By nature, I’m what you would call a ‘cyclical’ thinker. I see life and all that it is as a series of circles and spirals winding into and out of each other. As one end comes to an end, it begins again at that very same moment.
Destruction for the sake of creation. It’s the stuff of myth.
Add to that, life is story. We make sense of our life experience by framing it with story, and stories are drawn from life to help us make sense of it all. We need it; it’s a part of our will to communicate.
This is where, for me, beginnings and endings come in. Think about it. When we try to pin down our own beginning, it can get pretty slippery. Depending on our belief system, our ending can be even more elusive. If you think about it too much, you can think yourself crazy. It’s like peeling layer upon layer of skin off an onion.
That’s where story helps. It’s a way to pin things down. From childhood, who hasn’t loved that happily-ever-after ending? We grow up and we learn it’s not realistic, but that’s okay — it’s a story. No matter the context or the magical elements that may or may not be probable, stories give us the chance to create beginnings and endings. In life or in fiction they give us ‘closure’ and certainty, however brief.
I guess I just answered my own question. Greene is right: it’s “arbitrary”. The fairy tale ends in a happily-ever-after scene, even as our grown-up minds wonder silently, “ah yes, but then what?”
Which leads me to my quandary as a writer. I have computer folders full of unfinished stories. Their endings are no where to be found. Could it be that the arbitrary nature of beginnings and endings is what has baffled me all along?
My beginnings are great — did I somehow miss the class on how to arbitrarily end things? I know in life I’ve never been good at endings. Quitting a job, leaving a marriage, saying goodbye … it’s always awful, and sometimes done so poorly it’s a wonder I have any bridges left to burn.
Or maybe, I’m not just bad at endings. As writing teacher Jerry Cleaver suggests, my beginnings may not be as great as I’d like to think.
“When you’re having trouble ending a story, it’s because you don’t have a real beginning, a true conflict. The secret to endings is: The end is in the beginning.”
It makes sense, especially from a circular perspective. If the beginning isn’t strong, if it isn’t properly defined or rooted, the circle can never close.
I suddenly feel dizzy as I peel away at my own onion skins. In the search for proper resolutions, could it be that I should’ve been searching for better beginnings all along?