“A little less Fargo and a little more Raising Arizona,” an editor wrote to me once about a story in which I’d killed off one of the characters.
First the editor buttered me up by saying that my story reminded him a bit of the Coen Brothers.
I was ready to put on hot pink lipstick just at the thought of my work reminding anyone of those guys, whose work I highly admire.
The film analogy was an especially apt one in this case, where I’d veered the story in too dark a direction for its overall tone. That comment stuck with me and has been a reminder of my tendency to write dark endings, whether or not they’re the right one for the story. The dead character was brought back to life in the aforementioned story, and the story was better for it.
But I keep having to learn the lesson over and over again with each new story. Recently, the Dogpatch reviewed a story of mine, which is due out this month in Clover: A Literary Rag, the gorgeous letterpress magazine published by the Independent Writers’ Studio.
In the small town in which I grew up, there was a guy we kids were afraid of for no justifiable reason I’ve ever known. My friend Cynda and I would ride our bikes really fast past his house on the way to school. That became the seed of the story “Dearest,” which started as my way to understand why we kids needed a monster to be afraid of, and why it was also fun to be afraid.
My usual flaw kicked in, and I wrote the story with one dark ending after another. It didn’t work and didn’t sell. Eventually, with the help of talented readers, I realized it was time to cross the state line into Arizona, although to be obstinate, I set the ending in North Dakota to have a little inside joke with myself and also because I love North Dakota and it’s always fun to write about it. I also have family buried there, so it was personally meaningful to have the talked-about headstone of the character’s dead mother placed there.
I just wrote a note to a writer (who is very good) that his ending is too tidy. In his effort to wrap up loose ends, he dutifully answered all of the questions in the story, leaving less for the reader to ponder over after putting down the book. This writer’s habit might be to be too neat in the end.
One of my favorite endings is Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which delivers hopelessness and hope side by side and with such grace and intensity that it’s impossible to forget after reading it. I don’t know if I’d classify Steinbeck’s ending as Fargo or Arizona, maybe both. I’d classify it as about as perfect as one can get.
The writer Dagoberto Gilb said in a workshop I attended that he always knows where’s he going when he writes. I can see how knowing from the start whether you’re in Fargo or Arizona would help a lot and whether to bring a snow shovel or extra water. It must, because damn, Gilb’s stories are pretty amazing. So maybe my problem is as much about the opening as about the ending.
Then there’s the middle—Colorado? Oregon? Wherever we end up, the journey is always wildly worth it.
XO Laurel Leigh