This is the seventeenth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
Today is my kid’s last day of third grade. Grades are due at the college where I teach. I just finished reading Samantha Irby’s wonderful new collection We Are Never Meeting in Real Life. My favorite television show, Sense8, was cancelled by Netflix. My favorite general, Carrie Fisher, was honored last night at the Tony Awards. The Comey hearings are over—right? My husband and son are trying to save monarch butterflies, their tiny cocoons under mesh in my kitchen. My city is at the beach, celebrating the end of another Chicago winter. We are gearing up to vote Illinois governor Bruce Rauner out of office in 2018.
Endings are everywhere.
I asked my son what he would remember most from third grade, expecting him to say his friends, or karate, or reading—which to my obvious joy he now does ferociously, hiding under the covers with flashlights—but what he said instead was, “This is the year I started to protest.” I wonder what will stick in his memory—the election, the marches, the ongoing discussions—but what’s certain is this: Despite the neat, tidy narrative arc of the academic year, beginning in September and ending in June, a single last day before the period at the end of the story, third grade will never be over. This is the year he started to protest our government. The year he started to fight. Is that a plot point, an inciting incident? What will it mean in five years, ten years, forty? How will history shape this story? Will he even choose to tell it?
I’m thinking about endings in creative nonfiction. How do we find a stopping point when our lives run parallel to our pages? Even when we’re years removed from the experience we’re writing about, it can and does and will return, shaping our understanding of the now in new and complicated ways. I recently finished (ha!) writing a collection of essays about fear. I’d chosen a clear stopping point—my home catching fire, five minutes to get out—but discovered quickly that wouldn’t work. Too much happened afterwards that needed to be included. So, back to the drawing board, the messy work of finding a new structure (because, of course, changing an ending isn’t an easy fix; everything else starts to topple over, like grabbing a pancake from the bottom of the stack). I landed on age. I’d end the book when I was forty, snaking a chronological list of fear throughout the narrative. Four parts, four decades. I liked the symmetry. I gave myself high fives. I turned in the manuscript in June 2016 and found myself in rewrites that summer, during the guts of the 2016 presidential election, which, for me, was the beginning of a whole new relationship with fear.
As my favorite general wrote in her second novel, Surrender the Pink, “Nothing’s ever really over. Just over there.”
Megan Stielstra is the author of three collections, including The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, forthcoming this August from Harper Perennial. Her work appears in Best American Essays, the New York Times, Guernica, the Rumpus, and on National Public Radio.