In the past two weeks, I have found myself sobbing as I read the final paragraph of a book. I’m not talking about a few tears brimming over my eyelids here and there – I’m talking full-throated keening, in the fetal position, unable to catch my breath.
I had to wonder, what’s up with that?
The books in question were both written by women — one fiction, Short Girls by Bich Minh Nguyen, and one nonfiction, Cheryl Strayed’s bestseller Wild. And while they differ in many ways, they both ended with a glimpse of the future. In each story, the future-telling gesture was such a delicate and understated thing, and yet I found myself wholly slain in the face of it.
It’s one thing in fiction; these are invented characters, after all, and their futures can be invented as well. I sensed, as I moved through the final pages of Short Girls, that Linny would be okay in the end, I hoped she’d move on. And I thought that would be enough. Still, as the novel’s conclusion blossomed well beyond my expectations for closure, as Nguyen’s elegant fiction satisfied my deepest desires for this fictional character …. surely, my keening was as much a desire for myself to be okay as it was in gratitude for Linny’s denouement. I hadn’t, until that moment, even been aware that I wasn’t okay myself.
The stakes are different in memoir, of course, and anyone who comes to the final pages of Cheryl Strayed’s lovely book these days does so with the clear knowledge that she ended up okay herself. She ended up better than okay, in fact, happily married, successful as a writer, friends with Oprah and Reese, exchanging friendly tweets with Diane Ladd. But she didn’t know it then, she couldn’t possible have known it then — not as she sat on a picnic table on that final day of her hike, not as she sat at the keyboard on that final page of her manuscript.
I’m not even on the final pages of my manuscript. I’m still so lost in the wilderness of writing that I don’t know what the end looks like. I’m not even entirely sure where I am most days. But if Bich Nguyen made it, if Cheryl Strayed wrote her way through the story, maybe I can too.
Getting out of the wilderness of life, however, that’s another matter altogether. That still has me keening.