“I have no talent. It’s just the question of working, of being willing to put in the time.”
— Graham Greene
In this lesson we are concerned with the two final aspects of your book — Climax and Ending.
James Joyce of Ulysses fame said that all short stories moved to what he called an “epiphany.”
What Joyce meant was a single, climactic moment of recognition or understanding by the protagonist or the readers. In this “moment of truth,” the protagonist sees himself or herself as he or she really is and faces the truth that results from the complications he has confronted. Even if, as in some of the more pessimistic literary fiction, the protagonist never achieves this self-insight, the readers do learn these truths about the protagonist. In turn, knowing these truths also enlightens the readers about themselves and their worlds.Your book, however, has a much wider scope than a short story. In your book you have many characters and incidents. You will, in fact, have several “climactic” scenes. Such is the case with the books by RPCVs that I have cited in earlier lessons. However, one of these moments in these books (and in yours) is the most powerful, and this most powerful event is the true climax. In the books I have cited (and others by RPCVs) the authors reach a full understanding of what they have experienced in the Peace Corps.
Let’s look at the climax of your book in another way.
The climax is the central point that the story moves to and then falls away from. It separates the protagonist’s past from his or her future. [Remember, you are the protagonist!] It is the crucial point after which there is no turning back. By the time the climax has been reached, choices and judgments have been made that make all other possible ways the protagonist could go become significantly less possible.
A strong climax should be persuasive, interesting, and meaningful. It must come about in a way that seems both inevitable and surprising. Keep in mind, however, that no surprise is convincing if it depends on chance, fate, or assistance by gods from out of the blue. Skillful use of clues and foreshadowing can help make the climax and the resulting conflict resolution believable and acceptable to your readers.
Above all, the climax must be the inevitable result of preceding events. By the time readers reach the climax, you must have shown them dramatically, through carefully selected complications, all that they need to know to follow the story to this critical point. It must be perfectly clear to your readers how the protagonist has gotten to this point.
The climax is the protagonist’s biggest challenge, and you must present it fully in a scene. You might want to read this short section that we published on the Peace Corps Writers site entitled “The Last Ride” by Elise Anmunziata (Senegal 1996-99). This piece shows what it means build the material to a powerful finish and a last line that is is a killer.
Now having read all of this, you might say: but I had no “epiphany” in my Peace Corps tour! There was no major climax or dramatic moment. “I went; I worked; I came home again.” All true enough, but a book–your book–is the organization of everything (or almost everything) that happened to you overseas. By your prose and by the “arranging” of material, you will have written many scenes within the total book that have beginnings, middles, and endings, all of which will come together as a story; your story of your experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
Because we naturally bring order into our lives, whether it is as simple as making a grocery list, or as complex as handling a family, we all do it. You have to think in the same way with your book, ordering the events of the experience into stories that flow from point A to point B right down to X, Y, and Z.
In other words: you will have many small climaxes through the course of your book, and a final climax that will be your ending. FINIS!
Now we have been talking in this class of non-fiction and creative non-fiction. This explanation of how to tell the story sounds more like fiction, and I agree, but I have found that “novelistic” techniques in non-fiction make the most compelling story telling. It is for that reason that I stress the importance of a beginning, middle, and end for the scenes that you have been writing.
Now let us look at the endings of several Peace Corps books.
The Levitt Ending
The Levitt Ending
Let’s consider the ending of An African Season by Leonard Levitt (Tanzania 1963–65) about his first year as a Volunteer in then, Tanganyika. Remember how he started his book? Well, this is how he ends An African Season:
He starts his engine and we begin to move smoothly and quickly along the dirt road. And I have to hold on tight to keep from falling, that’s how fast we are going, as the trees seem to come up and touch the sky, as the ground churns by beneath us, racing in the other direction. And it is raining hard now, with a wind that smashes the rain into my face, but we are moving, the world flying beneath me, and I am heading home to Ndumula. I can see myself walking through the brick arch, the boys rushing to carry my little bag, Fedson grinning, and the Twak peering at me from behind his long black mustache and nodding his head, Very, very.
Yes, I think — Very, very.
At that point, Levitt was returning to his post from South Africa and about to begin his second year as a Volunteer. While An African Season is much more “novelistic” in approach than the other Peace Corps books we have been discussing, all of these Peace Corps books have the same sort of bittersweet, sentimental and sad endings.
The Erdman Ending
Sarah has two endings to Nine Hills to Nambonkaha: Two Years in the Heart of an African Village.
A personal ending to her story . . .
I lift my pen from the page. The fire sputters and stretches, searching for fresh wick. Then with a soft sigh, the flame goes out.
that is romantic, touching, and bittersweet. The author is going for a certain effect that sums up her experience. Perhaps that event did not happen at the end of her experience. Perhaps it happened to Sarah earlier in her tour, but it touched her and she remembered it and she used it as the final line of her story in Africa.
Then she follows up her story with a part about the war after she left the country. Why did she do that? Well, to bring the story, her story, into the present. All of us want to know, what happened next?
When I received the short essay “The Last Ride” fron Elise Anmunziata I asked her to “bring me up to date” on what had happened to the family she left behind in Senegal. It added another dimension to her essay. You might consider some sort of an “afterword” on your story, a way to bring your story full turn, once you finish the first draft.
The Hessler Ending
Peter’s River Town ends with this melancholy note:
And finally I stopped worrying about the future or the past, and I simply looked at the city for the last time. The buildings were gray. The mouth of the Wu was wide with the summer rain. A sampan sculled gracefully near the shore. Raise the Flag Mountain was hidden in the mist. Our boat picked up speed and we rushed away against the steady current of the river.
Now recall that Peter said he also tried to “cut” the sentimental ending of his story by including the humorous section about shouting swear words into the tape recorder and leaving that, too, behind in China.
Tell me, how many of you didn’t cry when you left your site for the last time?
The Tidwell Ending
Now, Mike ends Ponds of Kalambayi this way.
Near Tshibuma Creek, it began to rain. Mbaya got into the Land Rover, and I put on my raincoat and kept riding, raindrops popping against my chest and arms. Beads of water gathered on the speedometer glass as I rode. I glanced down at the beads. They were clear and empty. They were no fish inside them as Kayemba had once believed; no baby tilapia falling from the sky. There was just water. Just empty rainwater.
Peter and Mike have closely tied the endings into the main metaphors of their books: the river and fish! You can, in other words, select the final image that you wish to leave the readers with when they finish your book. Sarah with the dying flame in the heart of Africa; Peter with the river that will consume his village; Mike with the rain devoid of fish. A recurring metaphor is a powerful tool in prose. And Hessler, Tidwell, and also Levitt all begin and end their books with the same (in many ways) scene, the coming and going, from their Peace Corps sites. Think of something that works for you and that you can stitch through the narrative as you tell your story.
All three of these Peace Corps writers pull together the central metaphors of their books, tie up the endings, connect the metaphors, then draw the final curtains of their stories. You feel as if you have made these journeys with them, and that is the success of their books. Your Peace Corps memoir is like a play. The curtain goes up in chapter one and comes down at the final act. It leaves you to take a final bow. Peace Corps writing doesn’t get much better than that.
Write the last two or three paragraphs (or just the last paragraph) of your book. Katherine Ann Porter said that you really shouldn’t write the first chapter of your book until you have first written the last chapter. Is that true for you? Well, why not?
Get back to work!