There are times when I am “stuck” in my own writing for various reasons, but I always read. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t reading a book. I read for the joy of the story. I read to enter other worlds. I read to inspire my own writing. Reading and writing are two sides of the same coin for a writer. Both are requirements for the job.
Since August I’ve participated in The Painted Steps, a small group of writers who have committed to working together for six months, to inspire each other to keep our writing at the forefront of our daily lives, and to complete the first draft of a manuscript by the end of January. We meet via video conference every week. The Painted Steps is the brainchild of Andi Cumbo-Floyd, author of The Slaves Have Names. Over the past couple weeks Andi asked us to share some favorite “opening lines” in books and then “closing lines.” The “opening lines” was easier. “Call me Ishmael.” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” “I am an invisible man.” Choosing closing lines to share with my fellow writers took more time; more thought.
The successful ending of a story not only offers a conclusion. Successful endings offer beginnings to further contemplation of what has gone before and imaginings of what’s next. What follows are the closing lines from ten books that have had a profound impact on my thinking; on how I view the world. I hope these lines don’t ruin these stories for anyone who has not read them. I don’t believe they do. hopefully they inspire you to read…
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, is the first novel that cemented my understanding that racism was not only wrong – it made no sense. It was the first mainstream novel by a renowned white author in American history in which the hero was a black man. It was published twenty years after the Civil War had ended; when Jim Crow laws were becoming firmly entrenched as the law of the land and would last a century. And Jim is the hero. It was quite the novel for a boy in junior high school to read shortly after the Watts Riots had exploded thirty miles from my house.
“But I kept at him; so at last he says:
“‘Doan’ you ‘member de house dat was float’n down de river, en dey wuz a man in dah, kivered up, en I went in en unkivered him and didn’t let you come in? Well, den, you k’n git yo money when you wants it; kase dat wuz him.’
“Tom’s most well, now, and got his bullet around his neck on a watch-guard for a watch, and is always seeing what time it is, and so there ain’t nothing more to write about, and I am rotten glad of it, because if I’d a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn’t a tackled it and ain’t agoing to no more. But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”
Soon after Huck Finn I was introduced to Soul on Ice, by Eldridge Cleaver; an important book-end to Twain. It is completely different, and yet quite similar in its impact on my young mind. Then, in 1998, Cleaver died in the same hospital in which I was born 44 years earlier. I feel a strong connection to Mr. Cleaver.
“Black woman, without asking how, just say that we survived our forced march and travail through the Valley of Slavery, Suffering, and Death – there, that Valley there beneath us hidden by that drifting mist. Ah, what sights and sounds and pain lie beneath that mist! And we had thought that our hard climb out of that cruel valley led to some cool, green and peaceful, sunlit place – but it’s all jungle here, a wild and savage wilderness that’s overrun with ruins.
“But put on your crown, my Queen, and we will build a New City on these ruins.”
The assassination of President Kennedy, and my subsequent belief that my government lied about what happened in Dallas that day in 1963 when I was in the 4th grade, resulted in a lifelong skepticism about authority in general. George Orwell’s 1984 has been a good companion along my journey.
“Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”
Two nonfiction books epitomize for me this skepticism about my government in connection with Kennedy’s murder. One was Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover, by Anthony Summers. The other was Double Cross: The Explosive, Inside Story of the Mobster Who Controlled America, by Sam and Chuck Giancana. I’m convinced (and current events only strengthen my beliefs) that there is much we do not know about who pulls the strings of power. From Double Cross:
“There are some men, however, if we are to believe Mooney’s tales of Mafia-CIA counterintelligence activities, who’ve prospered and remained free. Amassing incredible power from careers deeply rooted in the CIA, these men have reached America’s loftiest positions of authority, from which they continue to influence world events.”
I’ve been a pacifist for as long as I can remember. I went to draft counseling as a teenager to make sure I knew how to avoid being sucked into the war in Viet Nam. The book that influenced my thinking on war and peace more than any other was All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque.
“He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come.”
Another book about another war and the deep impact it has on so many people that continues to haunt me is Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron.
“This was not judgment day – only morning. Morning: excellent and fair.”
I have mixed feelings about Leon Uris. Some of his novels (QB VII) are among my favorites. Others (The Haj) are ruined by the racism of the author. Trinity, with its universality, is by far my favorite of Uris’s books.
“When all of this was done, a republic eventually came to pass but the sorrows and the troubles have never left that tragic, lovely land. For you see, in Ireland there is no future, only the past happening over and over.”
To this point it is clear that I consider my world-view powerfully influenced by stories of oppression and racism and terror and war, and that is true. And there is more. My favorite novel is The Razor’s Edge, by W. Somerset Maugham. This story of a man traumatized by war in search of meaning in his life helped shape my own spiritual journey.
“And however superciliously the highbrows carp, we the public in our heart of hearts all like a success story; so perhaps my ending is not so unsatisfactory after all.”
The author who influenced my own spiritual journey more than any other is Richard Bach, particularly with Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah. From Jonathan:
“And though he tried to look properly severe for his students, Fletcher Seagull suddenly saw them all as they really were, just for a moment, and he more than liked, he loved what he saw. No limits, Jonathan? he thought, and he smiled. His race to learn had begun.”
Perhaps my favorite last line in a book comes from Still Life With Woodpecker: A Sort of a Love Story, by Tom Robbins.
“It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”
It is easy to see from the forgoing list that the biggest influences in my reading life have been men, mostly white men. I’ve been working to correct that over the past decade in particular, seeking out Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Maya Anjelou, Anne Lamott, Ralph Ellison, Randall Robinson, Khaled Hosseini, and others. I’m reading Virginia Woolf at the moment. And for my tenth closing line I choose a woman who not only changed my life, but saved it. When I was at the lowest point ever, Pema Chodron slipped quietly in with When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.
“Jean-Paul Sartre said that there are two ways to go to the gas chamber, free or not free. This is our choice in every moment. Do we relate to our circumstances with bitterness or with openness?
“That is why it can be said that whatever occurs can be regarded as the path and that all things, not just some things, are workable. This teaching is a fearless proclamation of what’s possible for ordinary people like you and me.”
We are all influenced by so many people and experiences. For those who read, at least for me, stories offer some of the most profound influences of all. As a writer, the books I read influence how I put words on paper. The authors above, and many others, had a direct influence on how I worked with Sharon Morgan as we wrote the ending for Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade.
“The lessons are in the quest. The answers are found in the journey. These are the ripples on a pond. They spread outward.
“And on we walk…”