Can You Ever Really Tell a True Story?

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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. Continue reading