Monday, 5 December 2011

Endings, real and imaginary

So. NaNoWriMo is over, and - as you might have guessed if you saw the Winner's Badge on the right - I DID it! 50,000 words in a month. Actually, it's probably not the most intensively I've ever written, but it's pretty damn' close. I finished a day early, after a weekend of really good, hard work, and since then I haven't even looked at the novel. You will be glad to know that I've taken nearly a week off.

And I feel... bad.

It's an interesting one. I should be feeling triumphant, I guess. I may not have written a whole novel (50,000 words? Ha! It's got to be at least 80,000, and at this rate it looks more like 100,000) but I've done well, by anyone's standards. My characters definitely hate each other, and now I can get down to the serious business of making them fall in love. The path is there, in front of me, and another month or two and I should get to the end.

And yet, and yet... Maybe it's the anticlimax of it - exhaustion, the slow realisation that self-imposed tasks only garner self-imposed rewards (i.e., not much), a vague crisis of faith in the novel... But also, I think, I was using the discipline and the absorption of the deadline to keep me going after King Lear finished. I didn't have post-show blues, because I was moving straight on to NaNoWriMo, I had something new to create, something new to get excited about... But it's like drinking to get over a hangover - it just hits you harder, the longer you put it off. Did I say recently that plays are always, for me, like love affairs? Now I feel... heartbroken.

So I am thinking about endings. Real ones. But I am also thinking about fictional endings, because - well, I may have mentioned that I have no idea where or how my novel is going to end. So that's... interesting.

And I was wondering whether fictional endings are a sort of way for us to confront the way things change in real life. Fictional endings, you notice, are incredibly final, in the sense that that's the last page, there is no possibility whatsoever that there's more to come. (Unless the author cheats and write a sequel. :) But the less said about that the better...) But at the same time, they're only final in the sense of a door closing - and you can make believe that behind the door, life is still going on. Think about the last lines of a novel you love. Here's a quick, random-ish selection from my bookshelves (extra points if you can name the book):

'"Hallo, you great turnip," said Tris La Chard.'
'...They are rebuilding Isca Dumoniorum."'
'Only the margin left to write on now. I love you, I love you, I love you.'
'Then out of the sea, like a ball of fire, the sun came hard and red.'

You see? The start of a conversation. A town being rebuilt. Sunrise. The absolute opposite of an ending.

I'm not, you'll be glad to know, going to quote my own last lines, more (I have to admit) because of spoilers than because it's embarrassingly bad form, although obviously it is... but they all, I think without exception, contain something that references the future, the beyond-book, as it were: 'tomorrow' or 'I had a long way to go' or 'I'm quite looking forward to it' or even just a verb in the future tense. The best endings, for me, are the ones that work against their own finality. They soften the blow. And I don't think that's me being squeamish, or sentimental. I really don't.

Because life, I think, is exactly the opposite. The end of something in real life - a production of a play, a love affair, whatever - isn't clean, in the way that a blank page is clean. But there's no comfort, either. You know you have to go on - Becket again*: 'you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on' - but what you love is over, and you miss it. Sometimes you miss it... well, horribly. Which is exactly why we need novels to end the way they do - and partly why, I suspect, we feel so cheated by bad endings, or fudged endings, or meretricious cliff-hanger endings (mentioning no names, coughPatrickNesscough**). We get enough of that kind of sadness and frustration in real life. Art is there - yes - to confront that grief, to teach us how to cope with it - but if it were exactly the same as real life, it wouldn't be art. Real life is a character getting randomly written out halfway through a story. Art is when that means something: when it makes us, on some deep level, recognise the rightness of it. When we think, yes, OK, I see now why that had to happen. (And often in real life that's the biggest problem, when it just doesn't seem to make sense.) It's a consolation, of sorts. Understanding is a consolation. Narrative is a consolation. If only real life were more like books.

Then again... once the book is over, the characters are stuck. Even if the ending tries to evoke the future - it can't ever really give them more life. They don't grow or change or have any more adventures (see previous caveat re sequels), they don't fall in love again, they never have the opportunity to be glad that their story didn't end right there. There's a moment I love in revenge tragedies, after the orgy of fights and bloodshed and death at the end - which is often really macabrely funny - when suddenly there's silence. And you realise that for the characters... that's it. The party's over. The Great Climax has come and gone, and the poor sods will never have another one.

I'd like the drama and meaning and catharsis of a fictional ending. And sometimes, after something's finished, it would be great not to have to get up the next morning and live with the emptiness. But, in the end, I guess we'd (most of us) still choose real life. Because at least then you can take a deep breath and start something new.

Or, possibly, in my case, just stop moaning and get back to work. :)

* No, not 'But is it true love, in the rectum? That's what bothers me sometimes.' Although I will try to find an opportunity to shoehorn this one in somewhere next time. If that's the phrase I'm after... :)

** I have a friend who, seeing that Patrick Ness was my friend on facebook, said, 'P. Ness?! P. Ness?! This is a penis joke, right? He doesn't really exist...' 'Nuff said, I think.

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