Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.
-Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
“I think you really really need to surrender to the fact that an essay requires a conclusion that is neat in a way that life is not,” my writing teacher said to me last year. I’ve been working with her for a while and she knows—I really really hate neat conclusions. To me, they seem like copouts. It’s taken me a long time to accept the true complexity of life and I desperately want my writing to reflect that. And when it doesn’t, I feel like I’ve failed as a writer.
A few months ago I submitted a piece about an old friendship of mine that seemed to have run its course. The editor accepted my first draft but wanted me to tighten up the ending. It was too vague, she said—which made perfect sense considering the fact that I was still ambivalent about the friendship and unsure of where we stood. I knew the general story arc: that we were best friends when we were young, that we had drifted as we grew up, and that time and thousands of miles between us had shifted things for us in a way that might not be reconcilable. I ended the rough draft on a vague note about how sometimes being an adult means not taking action, but rather letting relationships turn into whatever they’re supposed to be, and then bearing the uncertainty that comes with that. I believe that with all my heart.
Except that uncertainty is not usually what people want from their reading. Admittedly some people (and publications) are more comfortable than others with ambiguity, but generally speaking, readers (and thus editors) want some degree of resolution at the end of a piece of writing. If they wanted haziness they could just return to their own lives.
The fact is, storytelling is about making choices—it’s about choosing what to include and what to leave out. It’s about arranging the included events and facts in a particular sequence so that their meaning is accessible to the reader. Which means sometimes, telling a story is about providing a conclusion that might over-simplify a complicated issue fraught with doubt and confusion and conflict.
In the case of the article about my friendship, I decided to set up an overdue phone call with my friend to get some answers—both for the writer in me as well as the human. And when she bailed on the conversation at the last minute, I knew I had my ending—both as a writer and a human.
What I wrote in the article was that when I got the cancelation text I realized “we had both already moved on from the friendship.” That we’d both stopped relying on each other for any real support long ago, and that it didn’t feel like anything was particularly missing from our lives without one another. And that was all entirely true.
But also, it wasn’t.
Because I still had a nagging feeling that the friendship wasn’t really ending on a completely mutual basis, as I implied in the article. She had let me down several times in the past year, but because I didn’t want to appear bitter and because I felt guilty about a time when I really was a bad friend, I downplayed those incidents. I called them “the things that are just bound to accumulate in any longterm relationship,” and I said that the particulars didn’t matter when I thought about “all the times she must have felt let down by me over the years.” But the particulars did matter. My past indiscretions didn’t negate her more recent ones—they were all there, in the huge pile of every ugly and beautiful and remarkable thing about our relationship.
The truth—or as close to it as I’ve been able to get since the article’s publication—is that it was both an inevitable drifting and it was her not making the space for me in her life. It was mutual, and it was also the accumulation of those recent things she had done to hurt me. It had been coming for a long time before she cancelled our phone call, but the call also marked some boundary—some line of demarcation between the present tense and the past tense of our friendship.
It was real hurt that I felt, and it would have been ok to admit that. It wouldn’t have made me a bitter person trying to heave blame her way, especially because I was quite honest about my own shortcomings as a friend. And if I hadn’t been working within the confines of a deadline and a word limit, I might have been able to find a way to articulate a more nuanced story. I might have been able to get to the kernel of the thing: that we’d been drifting for years and that she no longer had the space for me in her life.
Before any conscious lie is told, a story always changes in the re-telling. I will never get a story exactly right because I am human and memory is slippery, and because no matter how many details I include, I will always be leaving some out.
I knew I wasn’t getting the story of my friendship quite right, but I also knew that I couldn’t tell the whole truth in under 1,000 words, complete with a neat ending. And, if I’m being perfectly honest, I just didn’t like the ending that I got. I wanted the story to be different than it was.
And so despite the fact that there wasn’t anything in the entire piece that was untrue, the truth of it was still off—not the color, but the shade. Not the substance but the texture.
Not the story that was told, but the one that was left out.