Creative Process, Fictional worlds

Despair, Joy, Complexity: Against writing default endings to fictional stories.

March 19, 2009

(coincidentally, the day before spring)


 Interesting times, no?


Hope? Change?



Restorative justice? Innocence Project?

Families Destroyed. New Kinds of Families Being Created.


War Crimes. Truth and Reconciliation.


Environmental Destruction. Melting Ice Caps.

Reclaiming the Rainforest. Greening the World.


Financial Collapse.

Greening the Economy.


Dying Newspapers.

Global News Online.


Sometimes it feels like the same old, and getting worse by the moment. Sometimes it feels like an extraordinary and urgent opening of possibility.


Which direction do we move toward, submit to or leap into?


And how might this affect our writing? 


I have often spoken with writers about what I feel might be a kind of “default mechanism” in my process of writing, and in theirs, something to watch out for. Basically, when we get on shaky ground, hit a rough spot in our material or just feel stumped about what to write, sometimes we go to a kind of default writing—doing, in terms of style, that which makes us feel good, that which we sense we can do well. Our strength in writing—what has worked well before to free our voice, leap over the obstacles to expression. It may be vivid description; it may be terse dialogue. It may be lyrical, internal narration, the character remembering a lost and beautiful moment outside  of the current goings-on.


I think there is also a kind of default writing that has to do with the events of the story. There may be an argument, or a character disappearing; a party in which all the characters meet and there is an emotional explosion; a revelation of a secret that a good reader suspected all along. Genre writing often has an expected ending, a kind of default to that ending instead of some process of discovery which deeply explores the characters and the situation. A good book for me might even reveal the ending at the beginning, but give such an extraordinary view of what happens along the way, or why and how the end comes about, that knowing the ending from the outset only adds to the emotional and dramatic power as we work to understand this world of the story, as perhaps we internally fight against the ending we know is coming.


There may be a happy ending or a tragedy.


I think in a way, then, there is a kind of emotional default, a path of least resistance emotionally that we may take in our writing. It may show in what actually happens, how the story ends, what happens to the main character; it may show in the tone of the narrator. But sometimes we might feel that no matter what we are writing, we are in some way barreling towards a certain kind of ending. Not an ending which we are discovering, which is unknown as we write but which has a sense of the inevitable because of the characters and the situation, as in House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III—an ending which both surprises and makes complete sense.


I am talking about an ending to which we are drawn, because of whatever reason in our own history or emotional makeup, or because we have discovered that such an ending works to get attention or response from readers or from ourselves. An ending which is not a discovery but a habit.


What does this have to do with the little list up-top?


Maybe everything.


When we look at the polar opposites we understand are structured into our world and our lives, we make choices. And yes they range somewhere between despair and joy, apathy and passion, avoidance and commitment, slow destruction and consistent creative work. Abdicating or taking it on.


Of course this takes an infinite number of forms. And some people have a pile-up in their lives of what might push them to one side or another. As do our characters in a fictional world.


So, here’s what I think about this and about writing fiction.


Fiction writers work to create, indeed, we do create, a world. This world works in some similar ways to the world which produces in us humans that tendency toward despair or toward joy and hope. As fiction writers, we listen to the characters we “create”, the characters that have “chosen” us, have come in search of an author, as in the old Pirandello play, “Six Characters in Search of an Author.”


Do we always listen well? Do we ever have something in between what we hear our characters saying and what we push them to do?

We may indeed be structuring their world or moving toward an ending which expresses our own emotional tendency or bias or habit or default, rather than allowing them and their situation and their historical moment to fulfill itself.


We have the ability to say yes in our world, in our actions and attitudes, and still live with doubt. Hopefully, our characters do as well. Many of us, human writers and “fictional” characters, are also filled with the tragic, the violent, the dark. Reasonable enough. I admit it.


But can writing such endings, such resolutions, in our fictional world become a default mechanism rather than a “mirroring” of the “real” world? I am not talking about channeling Pollyanna each time we finish a story. (I never worry about being accused of that!)


I am talking about opening up our writing to the urgent complexity which we as a species are and face, opening our consciousness and our daily actions and approach to this precious world and our precious lives.


It may sound a bit wack, couldn’t resist using that word, but here it is: as we look out at all that we have made, a fictional world which we have indeed created in language, we may get too big for our desks. We may think that our own emotional tendencies, our own default mechanism earned by disappointments or beatings, by world weariness or early rough stuff, by loss, by the enormous knowledge we have gained of the too ugly underpinnings of the workings of greed and power on this planet in both the small and the global stories, is the only way. The proper ending.


Yet, all over the world there are people working daily for a better world. Hard to discount when we really take a look at it.


But back to the fictional worlds we have created, and in which we have a godlike power, especially if we do not listen to the beings which inhabit those worlds.


This is the question I ask you and the question I must ask myself as I work in fiction. How will this story end? Must it be tragic, a story of destruction and loss, a payback of some pissed off or despairing creator, a default into death-in-life? What are the characters saying in their deepest hearts? What are they yearning for, straining for, working for? Is the ending you have chosen for your story inevitable or a habit, an old habit, helpless as the past pushes it? Or is it a vital new ending, perhaps not without destruction or loss, but fully informed by, infused with, the complexity of the real, the re-energizing that may indeed be the true nature of our times; the complex emotional response that has more information about the history of genocide and its current activities than ever, for example, and yet will work harder and more consistently and in more ways than ever before.


Will we work toward endings in our fiction which are not necessarily simple markers of doom and grief, but steps in a great process of flowering?


How will the story you are writing end? How will mine, each one? I am working to not end it by default, the same old, an emotional tic, a disengaged drama, a bit of doom and on to the next. Not one note joy, I am thinking. Not one note despair, either.


Symphonic, wondrous, truth discovering itself.


Anya Achtenberg

4 thoughts on “Despair, Joy, Complexity: Against writing default endings to fictional stories.”

  1. So I am sitting here listening to Chuck Mangione Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1978) and Chaka’s first solo album (1978), eating a home made eggplant, carrot, broccoli, onion, bean curd, snow pea stir-fry with extra garlic, over brown rice, contemplating the end of my story, and reading your newsletter.
    “Woof”, (like poof but more airy), this letter takes me right where I need to be as an artist, to make that very decision with which I have grappled. I have struggled my whole life to represent the validity of non-conventional existence, and there is no reason why any seemingly conventional character has to receive a conventional ending to their saga.
    Thank you Anya. You are always the voice of the mirror.


  2. Dear Renard,

    It took me a few moments to get past the delicious descripion, honestly, I shouldn’t skip meals. But I thank you so much. And we know that whatever ending the character’s saga comes to, it will come from the complex truth of their being. Not conventional. ANd I guess I see conventional not so much as being ordinary, since some of what seems the most ordinary is some of what is most beautiful about being on this planet, but conventional as following, following, what is preset, following the formula already waiting for us, and our characters, to enact it.

    John Gardner, he said it. No discovery in the writer, no discovery in the reader.

    What can we do but discover every moment. Allow our characters, as Grace Paley said, “the open destiny of life.”

    No reason for you not to breathe out discovery into your words and the fate of your characters.

    Many thanks, many thanks,


  3. With the help of our stories, we reveal ourselves, share our emotions, to communicate with others. The end of history depends only on us, our heroes to live as we want it. It is perfectly to create something new, to manage what is the fate ..


  4. Dear Claudia,

    It’s so good to read your comment, to see your understanding of the ability we have to shape our own lives and the larger world as well. It’s so easy to forget that. That’s one reason I love the free field of story, of imagination, fueled by the stories that have whispered to me before, and by those I have yet to get a glimpse of.

    Thanks so much, and wishing you well,


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