An editor remarked that after sticking with a memoir for 300 pages, he felt he was owed a tidy resolution at the end. I understand his feelings. I even sympathize with them.
But I don’t agree.
Do readers earn the right to a snug, reassuring wrap up to a memoir? Must the narrative of a segment of a life (which is what a memoir is) unfailingly end neatly? And even if it seems to, neither we, nor the narrator, can know for example, if the recovering addict falls off the wagon the very day we sigh with satisfaction over the end of an addiction memoir.
Regarding novels, British author Lee Rourke quotes Viktor Shklovsky, who said [a novel] has no ending . . . “because finishing a novel would mean knowing the future.”
I’m not doctrinaire about endings. I’ve always reserved the right to attach my own preferred ending to narrative works of art. (In my mind, Bambi’s mother is alive and thriving. So is the extraordinary Sean Connery’s flamboyant character in The Untouchables. Oh, he gets all shot up while an operatic aria soars through his apartment; but he’s patched up sufficiently to happily join in the slick scene on the train station steps. He might even kick the guy in the white suit over the parapet, after Ness shoots that villain at the very end.)
Now, that’s a resolution.
But wait . . .
Memoir’s different. Neither the reader nor the writer is allowed to make up the ending. Memoir’s current conventions demand that there must be issues/questions/conundrums and they must, absolutely must, be resolved. The unknown must become known, the unfathomable miraculously fathomed. That probably explains why, on concluding of a couple of memoirs, I’ve felt the ending was forced, and even false.
Dulcinea Norton Smith holds that readers want memoir threads “finished off neatly.” Well, I want the events in my life to finish off neatly. But that’s not how it goes, and memoirists can’t just slap a satisfying ending on their manuscript, all tied up like a sizzling roast just out of Martha Stewart’s oven.
Is that even desirable?
Sometimes the protagonist’s goal hasn’t been fully achieved. The fights with the mother, say, are temporarily stilled, but no one believes for a moment that they are over for good.
Jerry Waxler suggests the author ask what conclusions can be drawn from the experiences in her less-than-perfectly-resolved story. Maybe what the writer has learned along the way will be something readers can use in their own lives.
Yet, I don’t consider it the memoirist’s job to educate readers, nor overtly teach them how to live. I feel our job is to allow readers to share our journeys as we muddle—with some success and many failures—through our lives, as they do through theirs.
When I was a technical documentation writer, my coworker and friend, Bob used to kid that we should tell our customers: “Figure it out for yourselves; we did.”
Why shouldn’t readers wrestle with ambiguities and endure dead ends as the author does? Maybe what we memoirists teach readers, if anything, is that much of the struggle in life winds up inconclusively.
Probably this is just rationalizing. If I can’t offer readers anything short of a pat ending, I’ll have to shelve the memoir I’ve spent a tough four years writing, until a certain thread is tidily knotted. But the end might never knit itself into a nice, symmetrical garment. So, I guess my question is: if the narrator is trying to gain something in a memoir, is it unfair to readers to publish the book before all is achieved? Isn’t the journey worth something?
When I put that question to friends, one said, “Life doesn’t offer tidy endings; it’s immature to expect that.” Another said she actually enjoys open-ended endings. “I like it when months later, while standing at the sink or getting into my car, I find myself pondering possible outcomes of the story.”
Was I ever glad to hear that, because just last week it seemed certain that the end of my story, and therefore my memoir, had arrived, the treasure achieved. But then I learned that no, it hadn’t quite yet.
Again, speaking about fiction, Lee Rourke wrote that he is uncomfortable with the desire for narratives to reach closure. He distrusts books that force “chaos towards order and natural events to act unnaturally.” I feel that applies to memoir as well.
Mine was a search for more than just a material object. It was a quest to come to grips with my family’s destructive dynamics, which cascaded from generation to generation. So, I want to say to readers: “Maybe some of the tangible item is still missing, but Baby, this is still a damn good story.”
What do you think? Should I wait until all has been gained before publishing my memoir?
How to End a Memoir
Memoir Lessons: Buddies, Endings, and Beyond
Endless Fascination: In Praise of Novels Without Neat Conclusions