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Like most people, I believe, I love the last bursts of fireworks at the end of a public Fourth of July show.  The pyrotechnicians know we wait for them with anticipation and excitement, eager for the rhythmic, more sporadic booms of the first rockets to culminate in the rapid-fire, snare drum-like rat-a-tat and dazzling sparks shower of the finale.  The end seems ironically endless until, at last, we are oohed and aahed out, breathless and completely fulfilled for that holiday.  And then the rogue pops and whistles begin in random episodes throughout the neighborhood and continue for hours, even days, jarring our bliss.

Huh? I thought we were done with that…?

Ah, yes…the lingering conclusion. I’ve seen this before.  Like those crazy candles on a birthday cake that never fully extinguish after the song, P.F. Chang’s Great Wall of Chocolate, a third curtain call, and then a fourth, the protracted or seemingly unending ending merely delays the inevitable and may even undermine what was or could have been a spectacular and perfectly timed denouement.

Admittedly, we have conflicting feelings about endings.  Firstly, we tend to prefer beginnings with all their possibilities and mystery.  Secondly, there is the pressure to get them just right.  Done poorly, they can destroy the merits of all that came before.  And, frankly, most of us have more practice with starting things than with finishing them.

The written conclusion can be just as tricky as the real life one, as both writers and readers can attest.  Personally, I’ve always been inexorably daunted by the task of summing up.  Perhaps it’s the perceived (and correct, by the way) notion that the last paragraph will singularly uphold or enervate the entire narrative or essay that has me rattled.  Or perhaps the looming deadline triggers what remains of my creativity to gather its things, turn out the lights, and go home.  Then again, it’s hard to write with the Grim Reader snickering over my shoulder.  “Seriously?” he scoffs, crunching an apple and rolling his sockets.  “How many times are you going to say that?”

In On Writing Well, William Zinsser cautions writers about the oh-so-important last sentence: “An article that doesn’t stop where it should stop becomes a drag and therefore a failure. […] The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right.”  He goes on to extol the virtues of striking at the end an echo of a note that was sounded at the beginning, gratifying the reader’s sense of symmetry with its resonance.

There is such a thing as a perfect ending.  The wish only comes true if the candles are blown out.  The bowing and clapping (and fireworks) have to conclude so we can all leave the arena and get some sleep.  And, really, no one needs six layers of chocolate cake.  Ending well, according to Zinsser, is a joy in itself.  Like the epilogue that hints at a sequel, things must end so new things can begin.

 

This column first appeared in the Orange County Register.

 

Z_The_End_Notorious

What makes a nation’s pillars high

And its foundation strong?

What makes it mighty to defy

The foes that round it throng?

 

It is not gold.  Its kingdoms grand

Go down in battle shock;

Its shafts are laid on sinking sand,

Not on abiding rock.

 

Is it the sword?  Ask the red dust

Of empires passed away;

The blood has turned their stones to rust,

Their glory to decay.

 

And is it pride?  Ah, that bright crown

Has seemed to nations sweet;

But God has struck its luster down

In ashes at his feet.

 

Not gold but only men can make

A people great and strong;

Men who for truth and honor’s sake

Stand fast and suffer long.

 

Brave men who work while others sleep,

Who dare while others fly…

They build a nation’s pillars deep

And lift them to the sky.

 

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1904

 

"Our Banner in the Sky" by Frederic Edwin Church, 1861

“Our Banner in the Sky” by Frederic Edwin Church, 1861

Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Contest is currently accepting fiction submissions up to 3,000 words until midnight (PST) on July 31.  This opportunity is open to all writers and all themes.  As always, submissions must be original, unpublished fiction.  Glimmer Train does not publish poetry, fiction for children, or novel excerpts unless they read like complete stories.  Multiple submissions are accepted.

The first place winner will receive $1,500, publication in Glimmer Train Stories, and twenty copies of that issue.  The second and third place winners will receive $500 and $300, respectively.  Results will be announced in the October 1 bulletin.  For more information or to submit your work, visit the website at http://www.glimmertrain.com/veryshort.html.

Good luck!

 

glimmertrain_2110_32931396

An English summer – and a sense of form

Rides the five senses that dispute their claims.

Lawns leveled against nature, airs which warm

Each plant, perpetuate the hours and names.

We cannot see beyond the blue; no storm

Vies with the children ardent at their games.

 

Childhood returns with summer.  It is strange

That such a season brings one’s memories back.

Springs have their homesickness, autumns arrange

The sweet nostalgias that we long to lack.

But summer is itself; it’s we who change

And lay our childhoods on the golden stack.

 

My fingers rest and eyes concern their sight

Simply with what would live were I not here.

It is the concentration of the light

That shows the other side of pain and fear.

I watch, incredulous of such delight,

Wanting the meaning not the landscape clear.

 

Was it for this the breath once breathed upon

The waters that we rose from?  I can see

Only a summer with its shadows gone,

Skies that refuse an alien dignity.

But gardens, gardens echo.  What sun shone

To make this truce with pain and ecstasy?

 

~ “An English Summer” by Elizabeth Jennings, included in Robert Atwan’s anthology A Dream of Summer: Poems for the Sensuous Season (Beacon Press, 2004)

 

"Summertime" by Marcus Stone, circa 1900

“Summertime” by Marcus Stone, circa 1900

Solstice

Each year, on this same date, the summer solstice comes.

Consummate light: we plan for it,

the day we tell ourselves

that time is very long indeed, nearly infinite.

And in our reading and writing, preference is given

to the celebratory, the ecstatic. 

 

There is in these rituals something apart from wonder:

there is also a kind of preening,

as though human genius had participated in these arrangements

and we found the results satisfying.

 

What follows the light is what precedes it:

the moment of balance, of dark equivalence.

 

But tonight we sit in the garden in our canvas chairs

so late into the evening –

why should we look either forward or backward?

Why should we be forced to remember:

it is in our blood, this knowledge.

Shortness of the days; darkness, coldness of winter.

It is in our blood and bones; it is in our history.

It takes genius to forget these things.

 

                                                        ~ Louise Gluck

 

"The Dreamer (Summer Evening)" by James Tissot, 1871

“The Dreamer (Summer Evening)” by James Tissot, 1871

They are thin

and rarely marry, living out

their long lives

in spacious rooms, French doors

giving view to formal gardens

where aromatic flowers

grow in profusion.

They play their pianos

in the late afternoon

tilting their heads

at a gracious angle

as if listening

to notes pitched above

the human range.

Age makes them translucent;

each palpitation of their hearts

visible at temple or neck.

When they die, it’s in their sleep,

their spirits shaking gently loose

from a hostess too well bred

to protest.

 

~ Judith Ortiz Cofer

 

John Anster Fitzgerald, 1858

John Anster Fitzgerald, 1858

New Millennium Writings is still accepting submissions for its Fortieth Consecutive Awards for Fiction, Short-Short Fiction, Poetry, and Nonfiction between now and midnight on June 17, 2015.

Fiction and nonfiction pieces should not exceed 6,000 words.  Short-short fiction entries should not exceed 1,000 words.  Poetry submissions may include up to three poems, not to exceed five pages total per entry.  Simultaneous and multiple submissions are welcome.  Previously published work will also be considered, provided circulation did not exceed 5,000 or the piece was published online only.

Winners in each category will receive $1,000 and publication in the journal and on the NMW website.  For more information and detailed submission guidelines, visit the website at http://www.newmillenniumwritings.org.

 

nmwv2i1-med

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