Alumni Feature August 2010

The First Alumni News!

Each month the Alumni News page will feature a single, substantial feature on some aspect of the writing process – members of the Varuna Alumni Association are invited to contribute their thoughts to this piece. Alumni who have other news to submit are asked to send an entry of less than 100 words (it will no longer be edited) in the body of an email, and accompany it with a usable photograph in JPG format if you wish. In either case, please send an email to our News Editor, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

As a little warm-up before we move into this month’s feature on endings, Charlotte Wood has gathered some quotable quotes on the subject, which might provide some food for thought to those currently trying to ‘wrap it up’:

If you are going to make a book end badly, it must end badly from the beginning.

Robert Louis Stevenson

My last page is always latent in my first; but the intervening windings of the way become clear only as I write.

Edith Wharton

Ends always give me trouble. Characters run away with you, and so won’t fit on to what is coming.

EM Forster

It’s pure instinct. The curtain comes down when the rhythm seems right – when the action calls for a finish. I’m very fond of curtain lines, of doing them properly.

Harold Pinter

That’s All She Wrote: the agony and ecstasy of ending

by Diana Jenkins

Writing is like a perpetual return to childhood, in which one is strapped into the back seat forever asking, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” The answer is usually something along the lines of, “Not even close. You’ll just have to hold.”

This endless-desert-road-trip feeling is all the more ironic given writers tend to fantasise very lucidly about the sweet glory of finishing (only struggling monstrously with absolutely everything in between). Many writers will recognise this embarrassing mental leapfrog: sailing past the grim necessity of actually sitting down, writing and then rewriting the infernal book. This is a rather nimble move in which one lands – hey, presto – in a vivid daydream of the nonexistent book being universally accepted and adored. Ahhh…wouldn’t that be lovely? What a shame about that whole irksome writing thing…

Charlotte Wood But then, every so often, the happy day arrives when a manuscript is actually finished by the author’s own measure. At this time, drained of all bodily fluids and quite possibly the will to live, she or he types the longed-for words: The End. Leaving aside that this won’t be the end of anything at all, chances are it’s a pretty good feeling. Your News Editor has done it once, and highly recommends it (even though she’s still thrashing about in the shallows with the MS That Will Not Die). The End. Isn’t it beautiful? So concrete, so confident, so gorgeously absolute…

And yet sometimes – somehow – these two words announce a conclusion that is so, so wrong.

The author reaches his or her endpoint – blissing or blacking out, depending on personal pathology – but that’s an altogether different ending to the one contained in the book itself. Let’s take a closer look now at this second variety, and some of the ways in which different authors tend to think about it.

Our own Charlotte Wood (who wins this month’s prize for participation, though hopefully you’re all planning to rush the News Desk with thoughts on September’s featured topic*) says, “I do tend to [believe] that the best endings feel natural, as if they’ve arisen organically from the book, but I know some writers who write the ending first. I wrote the ending of The Submerged Cathedral as one of the earliest bits, but that was a love story, so that ending was inevitable.

I think in some ways it really depends on what kind of book – the conventions of the form that demand to be met. If the book is a mystery, then the reader will feel ripped off (think [Tim] Winton’s The Riders) if the convention isn’t adhered to. You are setting up a kind of expectation with the form and the structure of the book.

While those structural elements can provide an invaluable guiding light, suggesting the ending to the author from within a story’s own emerging framework, sometimes the shape itself is the obstacle that wants overcoming.

With my work in progress, I am having to do a lot of work on the ending because it had this problem,” Charlotte admits. “I had a kind of circular structure, and in the last draft I did, I didn’t give the satisfaction that’s inherently promised in the structure – the completion of the circle. So easy to see after the fact, but not so much when you’re writing. But in a way that’s the best way to do it, I think, so it hopefully doesn’t feel wooden or formulaic (e.g. I Will Write To A Circular Structure, now let’s look for an idea), but rather you discover that this is what your structure is after you’ve written it, and then make sure your ending delivers what you have promised.

All writers want to be rid of the book they’re currently writing – Patrick White’s letters, for instance, reveal a rabid ambivalence and outright disdain toward absolutely every book he reluctantly gouged out of himself – so the temptation must be there to punch some keys and have the ending done. The End – there, I’ve said it! Now get out of my sight. Sometimes an abrupt ending is achieved via the element of surprise, but as readers, this rankles. We feel cheated. We might even want to dash off a miffed letter to the author saying, “We know what you did. You choked.”

Tricky stuff,” agrees Charlotte. “I know in Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land, which I loved, the ending was seen by some as a cop-out, or a kind of Deus ex machina. It is tempting to do this sometimes, I reckon. I certainly was about to do it in my current book – have a big dramatic thing suddenly pop up at the end which bore no relationship to anything that came before it. And I don’t mean that dramatic endings are verboten – I love a good dramatic ending or twist – but I do think Jessica Anderson is right when she says it needs to come out of the body of the book.”

Anderson, a two-time Miles Franklin winner who died last month aged 94, talks about endings in the very handy resource Making Stories, edited by Kate Grenville and Sue Woolfe. Anderson writes, ‘I believe that if a book is sound, the ending ought to be the easiest part because it is derived out of the action in the body of the book. If there’s an error in the body, the end will need falsification. And nothing is harder than that, to wilfully impose an ending. If an ending is hard, I would return and find out where I had gone wrong in the body of the book.’

But authors sometimes miss or ignore that warning sign, because haven’t we all had the experience, as readers, of reaching the end of a book and thinking, “Huh?

Few things are as disappointing and irritating as a bad or jarring ending in a book one has otherwise enjoyed. Reasons why some endings don’t soar are many. Sometimes the sheer weight of a great work seems to damn its closing pages (the preceding sublimity of Winton’s Breath, for example, proves a supremely tough act to follow); sometimes things start unravelling in the thick of the text, so that one knows the story’s off the rails well in advance of its ending (some would argue this was the unfortunate fate of Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry); and sometimes the ending simply fails to satisfy, as though the author ran out of steam, or interest, or both (in otherwise awesome writing careers, one wonders what happened in Hilary Mantel’s Vacant Possession, and in Joyce Carol Oates’s The Falls, not to mention Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam.

In some cases, one can’t quite believe that this is the true ending, it seems there’s been a terrible mistake, and surely this isn’t what the author would really choose if he or she had their time over, and so one begins to wonder: how, when and why was this ending written?

Do writers start at the beginning, or do they work back from a foregone conclusion?

Well, some writers know their entire plot in advance, even mapping each scene in chronological order. Others are completely haphazard, lurching intrepidly from an original ‘base camp’ kernel into the great unknown. Equally, some mad mappers inevitably change their mind, and some writers who don’t forward plan are nonetheless sticklers for process, writing one ending and one ending only – at the very end. Some authors will dabble in all of the above.

And then there’s Chekhov’s advice, being to ‘cut off the beginning and the ending of everything you write.’ As Charlotte notes, “Chekhov said beginnings and endings are ‘where we are most tempted to lie.’ It’s true that merely chopping off the hyper grandiose ending of my first book (on advice from an astute editor) peeled away the lie and showed the natural ending that had already occurred.”

That novel was Pieces of a Girl, an apt title given that wholeness was eventually achieved by the removal of its end piece.

I have heard it said many times that the very beginning of a book should somehow forecast the end,” Charlotte says, “but not in any immediately discernible way – only when you have finished should you be able to see the echoes of the end in the start. I do like that sense of a book being a thoughtfully crafted shape like that.

The English novelist Zadie Smith would doubtless agree. Smith, in a 2008 lecture at Columbia University entitled ‘That Crafty Feeling,’ identifies two types of writers, Micro Managers and Macro Planners, saying, ‘I know Macro Planners who obsessively exchange possible endings for one another, who take characters out and put them back in, reverse the order of chapters and perform frequent—for me, unthinkable—radical surgery on their novels: moving the setting of a book from London to Berlin, for example, or changing the title.

I can’t stand to hear them speak about all this, not because I disapprove, but because other people’s methods are always so incomprehensible and horrifying. I am a Micro Manager. I start at the first sentence of a novel and I finish at the last. It would never occur to me to choose among three different endings because I haven’t the slightest idea of the ending until I get to it, a fact that will surprise no one who has read my novels.

Smith’s practice of organically reaching the ending during the process of writing extends Anderson’s point in Making Stories, that ‘if you know what’s going to happen, you can’t allow for the things that occur because your characters have altered as you write them.’

Anderson continues:

They’ve developed, and that engenders possibilities, and if you plan ahead, you can’t allow for that. I would like to plan a whole book, and just write into the plan. It would avoid that awful suspense when you don’t quite know what’s going to happen. You have your rough idea, but as you write, things sometimes take you by surprise… and they often lead to changes. Sometimes you will write things that surprise you as they appear, and those are the things that you never change. You know those few, unexpected things will stand. They’re truthful – they have the truth of the book.

But if too much forward planning threatens a certain rigidity, surely the opposite is also true, and a lack of discipline may lead to a fatal failure of direction. Some writers know their ending and work toward it: they know the size and terrain of the mountain they wish to scale, and prepare accordingly, which seems a distinct advantage over those of us unexpectedly caught clinging to a cliff face in our smalls.

the end Such vast differences in process suggest that there are creative forces beyond an individual writer’s control that probably decide some of these issues. All the practical how-to guides, esteemed guest lecturers and experienced insights in the world will probably have little effect on the way each author finally arrives at the end of each of her or his own books. Each writer has an individual responsibility to each unique piece of work produced. The bloody battle to the bitter end will always be fought alone, but it is consoling to know that it was ever thus. Writers are united in this peculiar solitude.


For more on the endlessly fascinating subject of endings, look out for Charlotte’s own very timely piece in the August edition of Australian Author magazine. Currently entitled ‘The End’ (though appropriately enough, this may change…), the article explores writers’ emotional reactions to having finished a book.

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NEXT MONTH: On Literary Allusions

'Curiouser and curiouser: managing influence in original work.’ We want to hear your experiences of writing and reading literary allusions embedded in-text. Do you find yourself compulsively gesturing toward treasured works when writing your own stuff? Is this a conscious or unconscious element of your writing process? Do you feel at all possessive of certain literary figures and their famous phrases? Is it pleasurable or irritating when you come across a multitude of literary allusions in one text? How do you feel if an allusion is one that you have used or planned to use yourself? Is it an act of fan theft to lovingly thread references to someone else’s writing into your own, or is there no greater tribute to a beloved writer’s work than giving it a second life making these guest appearances? How much is too much?

Alumni News

Alumna and memoirist Catherine Therese was front and centre for Lee Gutkind’s recent Melbourne appearance, when the American writer, editor and academic joined Varuna’s Creative Director Peter Bishop and Alumna Leah Kaminsky in conversation at St Kilda’s Glenfern House. Here Catherine shares her impressions of the night:

Two Gentle Men of Letters

by a beetroot-loving Catherine Therese

Peter Bishop, Leah Kaminsky and Lee Gutkind Leah Kaminsky, award-winning writer, doctor and all-round Wonder Woman, has been at it again, generously sharing her global network of writer friends. Last December the Varuna community benefited immensely from an introduction to Iowa University’s Robin Hemley (now working with Varuna on an essay competition and masterclass), and in June it was Melbourne writers, by way of an evening with Lee Gutkind – dubbed the "Godfather Behind Creative Nonfiction" by Vanity Fair. Lee is the author of over a dozen books, founding editor of Creative Nonfiction magazine, an old/new groovy dad, biker, organ transplant insider and Professor at Arizona University, who travels throughout the world giving workshops and readings, explaining the craft and the mission of the genre – and avoiding beetroot, which he hates due to the stain it leaves on neighbouring condiments!

The conversation flowed between these two ‘gentle men’ of letters, Lee Gutkind and Peter Bishop, on a blustery St Kilda night at gothic Glenfern House. In the company of 60-odd writers, a grand piano and wingback chairs, Lee spoke of many things, from his nonfiction way of life, truckin’ (living spontaneously around the world with his son Sam; the two of them have co-authored a wonderful memoir of their travels), to writing techniques, tips, style, substance – ‘substance being the deeper meaning, the story behind the story, the real reason for telling the story, that compels the writer to write’ – the importance of scenes as building blocks in stories, the author’s promise to the reader, tension, immersion, and the state of the publishing industry. He also spoke of his delight in finding such fresh voices in Australia, our range and quality of nonfiction writers; one of whom, Pip Newling, was in the audience and read from her compelling new manuscript.

The evening concluded with Peter gifting Lee with a selection of Australian nonfiction. Lee shared his hopes of publishing an Australian edition of Creative Nonfiction and a congenial mingling of writers and wine over supper. For more information on Lee, his life and work, take a look at his website.

On a personal note, I can’t recommend Creative Nonfiction highly enough. It’s packed with essays and interviews from the best writers in the biz. I bought a copy on the night and devoured it en route back to Sydney, scribbling madly in the margins. The current edition is themed ‘Immortality’ with essays ranging from ‘The World Without Us,’ Carolyn Forche's breathtaking meditation on her breast cancer, Phillip Lopate on imagination, to Dave Eggers’ ‘everythings.’ I subsequently subscribed. It’s a cinch to order online.

Sincere gratitude to all involved in making the night possible: Mary Napier for providing Glenfern as a venue; Deborah Leiser Moore, whose company Tashmada both hosted and promoted Lee and Robin Hemley’s events; and Leah Kaminsky and Peter Bishop, quietly scattering seeds with a ‘firm persuasion’ that will benefit Australian literature. Thank you for giving so generously of your time, energy and talents in making this a memorable, generative evening for all. How fortunate we all are at Varuna, having access to these opportunities, created by such daring, imaginative vision.

from Alumna Maryanne Khan:

Here's a link to a particularly good article by Wayne Burrows of the UK’s Staple magazine on why editors reject things. He has given me permission to circulate it. I thought it was very generous of him to write such an informative, frank piece.

New Works by Alumni

Six Impossible Things cover Six Impossible Things, Fiona Wood
Pub date: August 2010, Pan Macmillan
Fourteen year old nerd-boy Dan Cereill is not quite coping with a reversal of family fortunes, moving house, new school hell, a mother with a failing wedding cake business and a Thom Yorke obsession, a just-out gay dad and an impossible crush on girl next door Estelle. His entire life is a mess but for now he’s narrowed it down to just six impossible things. Dan's name is an anagram of Cinderella, and this is a modern-day fairytale about a boy who finally gets to go to the ball - or year nine social, in his case. Along the way he reconsiders and reconstructs life in his entirely changed world. A funny, emotionally honest story about first love, with a fairytale backbeat.

Read all about this new release Alumni title and more at Alumni Books.

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