Can we end without an ending? Doctorow did.

I just finished reading E. L. Doctorow’s “Wakefield,” a short story in his 2011 collection called, All the time in the world.  “Wakefield” is the tale of a successful middle-aged lawyer who “accidentally” (comes early, so not a spoiler) abandons his home, family, and job by secretly moving into the virtually unused storage space above their detached garage.  It’s an intriguing premise and executed as well as one would expect of a writer as fine as Doctorow.

But it’s not a finished story.  That is, the story stops at the very point where the reader yearns to know the consequences of Howard Wakefield’s nearly year-long absence and abandonment of his family.  He, Wakefield (and thus writer Doctorow) carries on this big change of life, then is instigated to change back, but he (and we) are literally left at the opened door.  It leaves me wanting to write at least the next scene, but since it’s a great writer’s story who chose to leave it “unfinished,” do I dare?  I can see it, perhaps, being used as an exercise in an MFA writing class.  I can see it being praised for its “literariness.”  (If Doctorow can leave me hanging like that, can’t I coin a word, even if it’s never used again?)

This technique might be called “in medias res,” Latin for “in the middle of things,” except that this usually refers to beginning in the middle of a story, not ending there.  Thrillers and mysteries often begin in medias res, but can you imagine one ending there?

If I were to read “Wakefield” as my own work to a critique group (temporarily as “mine” and presuming they didn’t already know it), I could expect to be flayed for not ending the story.  “This story is unsatisfying!” “Actions have consequences!”  “You’re copping out, Figler!  Don’t come back without an end to this story and an apple streusel!” etc.  Or, someone may like stories that end without ending.

What other published stories by good or great writers have ended without an ending (consequence, etc.)?  How did you feel about it?  How might your story be received if you did this?

ZAZEN (honor your muse and it will serve you)

I write at home in my office in my green chair.
…in my car parked on an ocean bluff.
…at Kreutzberg Cafe (San Luis Obispo, CA).
…while waiting at a doctor’s (or other) office.
…in any coffee shop or equivalent around the world, especially if it has comfortable seats.

I used to write in big city newspaper and wire service offices amid the clatter and clamor of typewriters (I’m of that age), wire service tickers with their bells, phones, amid shouting and threats (the empty variety, mostly), beneath the meaningless wind of cross-talk and curses and mindlessly spewed trivia.

The one condition in which I can’t write is the presence of one crying child. Two or more I can tune out. Children being children don’t bother me, nor do any number of barking dogs, nor our constantly clucking wild turkeys in mating season.  I suppose in the presence of crisis such as fire, flood, war, or riot, I would necessarily have a hard time writing.  I’ve been lucky enough to avoid those, although as a newspaper and wire service journalist, I’ve had to write during strike marches, court cases where boredom is the major danger, even at sports events from Little League to high school and university to major league contests.

My own sometimes-wandering mind gets in the way of a story’s progress more than almost anything external. But I’ve learned to control even that (generally), because these wanderings tend to be less engrossing than the story I’m writing.  If not, that tells me that something’s wrong with the story.  It’s a happy condition that working on a story—short variety or novel— even if only a few minutes, five to seven days a week, keeps my mind in the story in some gray corner, even while doing other stuff, such as exercising, sleeping, etc.

The trick to this is knowing and feeling that even five or ten minutes a day grabbed between other obligations or distractions is sufficient to keep me “in the story.”  I start to lose the story, voice, characteristics of the characters, etc. when I don’t touch the story for several days…or weeks.

What else should I expect if I neglect my story?  That whoever or whatever gives me the words will continue to visit when I ignore it? Merely thinking about the story is not enough.  The Muse requires ink or lead on paper (or electronic images on a screen).  It requires moving forward on the story, even if it’s merely a baby step. Which can be erased tomorrow if it turns out not to be good enough to keep.  Erasures or trash-canning is not lack of progress.  It is progress, though of the private kind at this point, just between you and your Muse.  What He/She/It requires is that you make the daily tangible effort.

I’ve focused on the brief end of a day’s writing time, five or ten minutes. What’s a “good” amount of writing time in a day? The answer is as much as you can.

I no longer define myself as a factory worker, student, journalist, baseball player, teacher, or laggard, all of which I’ve been. What I am now is a writer. I’m lucky that way. What stops me writing is severe pain in my back or butt or an unavoidable obligation or my beloved’s siren call. Also, fatigue from these things. Fatigue must be recognized and accepted. But as long as I’m sitting anywhere with pen and pad (or at the computer in re-write mode), I can and do write. I trust that ideas about words will come, and they do. They’ll come when you honor your Muse, which some writer/artists call “zazen.”

The following is from the Dharma Rain Zen Center:
Zen is the school of Buddhism that emphasizes the practice of meditation as both the means to, and expression of, awakening. “Zen” is the Japanese transliteration of the Chinese “Ch’an,” which derives from the Sanskrit “dhyana,” which means ‘absorption.’ This is the state of stable, focused concentration that grows from repeatedly bringing the mind back to the present. Dhyana is the form and method of zazen; the practice of letting go and returning to the present. Cultivating this prevents distraction, but it is not a way to escape or ignore the conditions around us.  Zazen happens in and with the world, not apart from it.

This rendition of zazen is somewhat askew from the traditional and eastern.  But the act of daily writing dwells in the ideas of “focused concentration,” “bringing the mind back,” “absorption,” “preventing distraction,” not to nothingness, but to the core of what you are doing in the moments or hours you make available for writing.  I consider it ‘plunging back into’ my story-in-progress, a daily dip into my favorite stream.  That’s my zazen time.

Can you not find at least a few minutes a day to write on your story?  If you find it impossible, please let us know how and why.  Also, let us know if you have a way to get that writing done in your hectic life.  We’re always learning and adjusting.