In Need of a Neat Conclusion?

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?

Further Reading
How to End a Memoir

Memoir Lessons: Buddies, Endings, and Beyond

Endless Fascination: In Praise of Novels Without Neat Conclusions

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13 thoughts on “In Need of a Neat Conclusion?

  1. Hi Lynette, Thanks for a thought-provoking post. You’re certainly touching on some philosophical points here. First of all, what sort of feeling do you like to have at the end of a book you love? I probably slant heavily toward wanting a sense of uplift, partly because during the 60s, in the wave of nihilistic and cynical endings, I found myself growing more and more depressed with every book I read. I finally decided that one of the purposes of reading is to give me hope, so that’s my preference.
    However, even if you don’t feel that it’s that simple, and that “downbeat” is okay, one still expects a story to have a resolution of some sort. Even in Catch 22, when Yossarian saw the man yelling “police police” and realized he was not calling for the police but rather warning the crowd about them, that was still a conclusion. I find that many memoirs end with philosophical conclusions. So for example in Man Who Couldn’t Eat by Jon Reiner about an acute attack of Crohn’s disease, the book didn’t end with him being cured of this incurable disease but rather coming to terms with it. Kate Braestrup in Here if You Need came to terms with her grief not by remarrying but by finding a philosophical peace with the death of her husband. (Well, she did remarry too but that wasn’t the point.) So should you wait until circumstances resolve? That’s one way. Or you might wait until you find a deeply satisfying metaphor or some way to wrap your mind around your circumstances and offer your reader the satisfaction of finding some sort of conclusion. When the reader closes the book, he or she has to go back to life loaded up with the images and ideas you’ve offered. I think it would be a better world if authors attempted to give them the gift of hope. But that’s my philosophical preference. Best wishes, Jerry
    Memory Writers Network

  2. Hi Lynette,
    I realize that I’m answering a question with a question(s). Did you find closure? And, are you happy with your current conclusion? I believe you will find your answer there. However, I do agree with you that in real life there are no tidy endings. If you leave the reader with something to think about at the end. It’s all good. One final note, if you believe in your heart of heart that it is a “damn good story” then tell it! 😉 Why delay?

  3. You know, this could just as easily apply to fiction. Endings in real life are often ambiguous, so why not works of fiction? People like closure but life doesn’t always offer it.

  4. Are destructive family dynamics ever neatly concluded? I would definitely read the book that explains how to achieve that. As for your memoir, did you reach come place of conclusion, enough that it feels finished? Hmm. Maybe “finished” is the better word here–more related to craft than life. Conclusion is so, um, conclusive.

  5. Does life tie together all the threads of our living into a neat, UPS-ready package? Seldom. I’ve submitted essays to journals (early on) in which I came to a nice neat conclusion — like we always told to do in high school and even college English class. One editor told me point blank that “the ending was too neat.” He was right. I ended it earlier — with a quote that underscored what I had experienced without necessarily being a “conclusion.”
    One bit of advice I’ve heard that makes sense is that the ending has to be “earned.” The reader must feel he/she was led somewhere. Whatever the ending is, leaving readers with questions or just a finality — it can’t be “Where the heck did that come from? I don’t buy it. I don’t believe the characters I’ve met, the action I’ve seen makes any sense here.” Think of the ending of Tale of Two Cities. You believe it without a doubt.

  6. This is so spot on, Linda. I agree that the ending has to have led the reader to somewhere important, rather just tantalizing them pointlessly. And I’m glad to know an editor actually objected to too pat an ending!

    Thanks for your comment.

  7. I think you’re absolutely right, Margy. And that’s what Rourke and Viktor Shklovsky were saying.

    So, can I look forward to an ambiguous, thought-provoking ending in your next novel?

  8. I would expect the primary issue in a memoir to be mostly tied up, but I’d be fine with some open-endedness otherwise – after all, as you noted, that’s how life is.

    btw, would have been here sooner, but I think my RSS reader is missing some updates. Good luck with your revisions!

  9. Thanks, Jennette. I’m glad both of us have resolved any problems we had with each other’s sites. Glad to hear you don’t have to have a thoroughly conclusive conclusion! Thanks for commenting.

  10. Lynette, the memoirs I read are for research and written in the 19th century. While they offer solutions to some problems, others remain unresolved for the reasons you mentioned. In example, a woman who didn’t want to leave home must pioneer in an unsettled area. She conquers many of the hardships, but she still wishes she were back at their former nice farm with her family members nearby.

  11. Pingback: Allyson Latta | The appeal of memoirs that lead us "gently, into a different literary country": guest post by Lynette Benton

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