Choose Your Own Ending

I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction books about China these days, and Chinese fiction, because I was invited recently to Sun Yat-sen University’s inaugural International Writer’s Residency, which will convene this fall with a 28-day program that will include readings and workshops, but mostly three weeks of extended time for “reflection and writing.” This last part will take place in Yangshuo, as idyllic a spot on the planet as I’ve ever seen.

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Whenever the anticipation of travel kicks in, I turn to books—history and journalism, of course, but especially fiction, all to allow my ignorant eyes the opportunity of opening just a little wider. So many more books to go! I’m especially looking forward to Decoded: A Novel, by Mai Jia; another novel, A Dictionary of Maqiao, by Han Shaogong; and a science-fiction novel by Cixin Lui, The Three-Body Problem.

One of the best books I’ve read so far is Yu Hua’s memoir, China in Ten Words. Yu is the author of the celebrated novel To Live, made into an equally celebrated film. Yu’s memoir is filled with insights into the recent history of China, but the best parts for me are those where he recounts his budding love of reading and writing when he was a child living in an isolated town during China’s Cultural Revolution of the ’60s and ’70s. Even at a young age, Yu had a love of stories, and he’d scour the footnotes of Selected Works of Mao Zedong because they contained “explanatory summaries of historical events and biographical details about historical figures . . . Although there was no emotion to be found in the footnotes, they did have stories, and they did have characters.”

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During the strict fervor of the Cultural Revolution, books of fiction (“poisonous weeds”) were more often burned than read, and yet some did survive. These forbidden books were passed secretly from reader to reader, thousands of readers, and by the time one of them reached Yu, “they were in a terrible state of disrepair, with easily a dozen or more pages missing from the beginning and the same number missing at the end. So I knew neither the books’ titles nor their authors, neither how the stories began nor how they ended.”

An incomplete book was no deterrent to a reader desperate for the internal paths nurtured by narrative, but there was also a cost. “To not know how a story began was not such a hardship,” Yu continues, “but to not know how it ended was a painful deprivation. Every time I read one of these headless, tailless novels I was like an ant on a hot wok, running around everywhere in search of someone who could tell me the ending. But everyone was in the same boat. Such was our experience of reading: our books were constantly losing pages as they passed through the hands of several—or several dozen—readers. It left me disconsolate, mentally cursing those earlier readers who had been able to finish the book but never bothered to stick the pages that had fallen out back in.”

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And then came a moment for Yu when those difficulties no longer mattered, and their frustrations disappeared: “Nobody could help me, so I began to think up endings for myself . . . Every night when I went to bed and turned off the light, my eyes would blink as I entered the world of imagination, creating endings to those stories that stirred me so deeply tears would run down my face. It was, I realize now, good training for things to come, and I owe a debt to those truncated novels for sparking creative tendencies in me.”

This is a wonderful story of deprivation overcome, chronicling as it does the birth of a major writer’s imagination, a young boy lying in the dark and granting himself—as he might never have otherwise—the permission to invent.

Those missing endings that Yu learned to supply for himself could easily be adapted into a writing exercise. This summer I’ll be teaching a short creative writing course, “The Art of Revision,” and I think I’ll pick a short story from the reading assignments and cut out its last page. Then I’ll ask each student to write his or her own version of the missing ending. Comparing notes should be instructive on the multiple ways a story might be ended, how one possibility might be more satisfying than another, or if a definitive resolution suffers in comparison with a more ambiguous ending. I’m thinking here of Kazuo Ishiguro’s short story “A Family Supper,” in which the reader is left uncertain whether or not the patriarch of a family has served his son and daughter a dish of fugu, a fatally poisonous pufferfish.

There are other ways of reinventing the endgame of a story, such as the African oral literature form called a dilemma tale, but I’ll save that for another post.

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March 28th, 2015 by admin