Sometimes finishing a story is the most unsatisfying part of writing. No matter how hard you work on it, you may still feel something is missing. William Kenower discusses this dissatisfaction, the quest for perfection, and the importance of relinquishing your story to your readers.
I was seventeen, and I needed something new. I had just fallen in love for the first time, life’s horizon seemed a little brighter to me, and I was tired of all the heavy, self-pitying music I’d been listening to. I headed down to the used record store in Providence thinking I’d pick up a copy of The Court of the Crimson King by the band King Crimson. I’d seen the album once: it was brightly colored and vaguely psychedelic. Holding that image in my mind, I wandered into the store, began thumbing through albums, and plucked out what looked like the very thing I’d been searching for.
Apparently, I didn’t bother to read the title of the album or the artist because as soon as I got home and pulled it out of its brown bag, I discovered I had not bought The Court of the Crimson, but had in fact selected The Rise of Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars by David Bowie. It was as if I had hallucinated. Well, it’s different, I reasoned, and decided to give it a listen.
The first song on Ziggy Stardust is called “Five Years,” which is about how the world will soon be coming to an end. It’s apocalyptic, but the song’s narrator finds himself reflecting on all the different kinds of people in the world and how he, “never thought (he’d) need so many people.” I don’t know what Bowie intended when he wrote the song, but what I heard there in my living room, leaning into the speakers, enjoying Bowie’s theatrical voice and emphatic piano – what I heard was love; and not just for one girl, but for everyone. As soon as I heard this I found myself saying aloud to no one, “Thank you! Thank you!”
About thirty years later I was standing at the back of a crowded auditorium. It was the first night of a literary festival in Vashon, WA, and I was to give a short speech as a part of a pre-festival cabaret. I was extremely nervous. Though I had acted as a young man, I had never stood before a crowd of strangers as myself and told inspirational stories. My worry was so palpable that a woman standing beside me leaned over, laid her hand on my elbow, and said, “I’m sure you’re going to do fine.”
My name was called, I scurried through the crowd to the podium, and delivered this talk. Once I got going, once I got a few laughs, and once it became clear that no one was going to boo or march out, I enjoyed myself. There is something mysteriously electric about the performer-audience relationship. You feel the collective energy of all those people sitting in the darkness and it takes you somewhere you couldn’t have planned. The whole thing is alive and unique and then in the next moment they’re clapping and it’s over. You make your way back through the theater as if in a dream, still riding the energy you found on stage, and there’s the woman who had told you you’d do fine, and as soon as she sees you she says, “You wrote that for me, didn’t you?”
Sometimes finishing a story is the most unsatisfying part of writing. No matter how hard I worked on it, no matter how much I discovered, no matter how certain I am that it ended where it needed to end, I still feel something missing. When the idea for the story came to me there was a wholeness to it, a perfection even, that seemed to somehow have gotten lost in the translation to page. It happens often enough that I’ve had to make peace with this feeling, lest I ruin the story with unnecessary rewriting.
This experience is a consequence of being a reader as well as a writer. Listening to “Five Years” was not the only time a work of art has found its way to me at the perfect moment, answering some question I didn’t realize I had been asking. I always sense something holey when this happens, as if the poem or song or story was delivered by divine intervention to me—just to me—when I needed it most. That feeling doesn’t always last—I didn’t thank David Bowie every time I listened to Ziggy Stardust—but I don’t care. The discovery has been made, the question answered, and that’s enough.
What I feel I am missing at the end of my stories is the reader. Writers start stories, but readers really finish them. All those details we must leave out, all the fertile open spaces the details we leave in define, belong to the reader. They will use their own imagination to add color and sound that I did not, and they will use their own longing to find in my stories what they need. When they find it, when the right story makes it way to the right reader, a circle is completed. Neither artist nor audience can see the whole circle, but we each feel its totality.
If you ever sense that nagging incompleteness at the end of your stories, remember that you are not just a writer, you are also an author. You write to share your work with other people, particularly strangers you’ll never meet. Remember that the final step, after you type The End, is to mentally give that story away, to fling it out your window like a homing pigeon, trusting it will know where to go, will know the perfect shoulders to land on, guided in its journey by the same light that brought the story to you.
Learn more in William Kenower's online course: Fearless Writing — How to Create Boldly and Write with Confidence