The Quiet Post #23: On Decisive Endings

This is a legacy post from a blog I wrote in 2018 about language, storytelling, and the shape of things. Delivered here straight from the archives, please enjoy the following issue of The Quiet Post.

“Many of us feel a sense of responsibility to continue a web project forever. I think more web stuff should just end.” 

Craig Mod, Offscreen Magazine 18

I went to see Ira Glass speak a couple years ago, and he posed a question about storytelling that I continue to think about to this day. He began by describing a feeling, a very specific feeling. One I think you’re probably familiar with.

You’re reading a book. You come to the last page. You finish the last sentence, close the cover, and sit back in the chair. You breathe a sigh of contentment.

And here you have to imagine Ira Glass mimicking a heavy-shouldered sigh as all tension melts away. His eyes glaze over as he stares past the darkened auditorium, into the distant nothing. “Ahhhhhhhhhhh,” he says. “That was good.”

That’s the feeling.

Or maybe it’s not a book. Maybe you get this feeling when you finish a movie and the credits roll, and you turn off your TV and sink into the couch for a few minutes. Maybe you get this feeling when a podcast ends and you drive in silence for a while. Maybe, on very rare occasions, you get it at the end of a YouTube video.

Ahhhhhhhhhhh. That was good.

So, he wondered, what is it? What causes that feeling? What is the thing that makes us reach the end of stories and understand on a deep, instinctual level that what we just experienced was good and whole and satisfying and true?

I wish I knew. But these stories do have at least one thing going for them: they end.

You may have noticed that I never really came back from my summer hiatus. In a sense, I was actually being even more true to theme than ever before: I was being so quiet I wasn’t saying anything at all.

I think this is okay. Looking back on the twenty-two issues that make up The Quiet Post, I came to a realization. I said what I needed to say. Not that I don’t have more to say, but not here. And not now.

This project really only needs one more thing.

In 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write, Sarah Ruhl says, 

There is a natural dread of endings. One wants to feel as though endings contain beginnings, in spite of, or perhaps because of, their finality. But are we becoming inured to the idea of cyclical time now that we rely less and less on clocks and more and more on digital devices that have a linear progression? We no longer see time going in a circle, we see it marching forward, ceaselessly, soundlessly…

If there’s one thing I set out to do with The Quiet Post, it was to draw a shape around the world. So much of what I experience takes the form of a digital clock. Social media is boundless. Video games never end. Cinematic universes are interminable. I get it. We want more of what we want. Including me.

But the things I find myself returning to are the things that knew where the story ended. Things I can slip into my pocket like a coin and keep tucked away. Things that don’t ask for any more of my attention than what was promised in their beginnings.

Ruhl wonders whether changing clocks changed the way we perceive time. An analog clock makes time round. When time is round we know it repeats and that in each ending is a beginning. The shape is what contains the meaning. A digital clock gives no shape at all. It just keeps going. Forever. And I don’t think we can glean the meaning of anything until we know its edges. 

And so we return, like clockwork, to the very first issue, where I set out to write a weekly column about the shape of things. What I said there was true, and remains true. I have always found it useful to think about the world in terms of shapes. The shape of a story. The shape of a day. The shape of a living room.

Now, it is time to draw a shape around The Quiet Post. I’m not sure that even now I really see what shape that is, but maybe you do. I hope it is round.

Endings are everything. They make or break a story by recontextualizing all that came before. They can elevate a mediocre story to incredible heights, or sink a story that was floating perfectly fine beforehand. No pressure, I guess.

So, let’s see. How should The Quiet Post go out? In the first issue I looked at some of my favorite beginnings. Maybe I can learn from one of my favorite endings of the past few years: the final two paragraphs of Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie. Spoilers follow.

This is the second book of a trilogy that follows a soldier named Breq. Breq is an artificial intelligence who used to be a spaceship. As a spaceship, she was in control of hundreds of systems and hundreds of human bodies, each of whom was her, an ancillary unit of her consciousness. As a ship, Breq found meaning in the vastness of herself, in the connections between her different bodies.

Until the ship was destroyed and she was trapped in a single human body. The only ancillary unit to remain. The story of these books is the story of Breq reaching for what she lost, reaching for connection amid the frustration of being only a single, limited individual. Looking for a feeling of belonging that she senses, remembers as an inherent part of herself, but cannot find.

I think the parallels drawn themselves.

By the time book two rolls around, Breq has made friends who have been through thick and thin with her. The final two paragraphs of the book are a beautifully written tapestry of Breq observing these friends going about their lives. Making dinner. Taking baths. Cleaning. Arguing.

Breq sits in the middle of it all, and thinks to herself:

“It wasn’t the same. It wasn’t what I wanted, not really, wasn’t what I knew I would always reach for. But it would have to be enough.”

Condemned to a single body, Breq finds meaning in her community. In normal people doing normal things. The connections between her and her friends are an imperfect replica of the belonging she felt as a ship, but in drawing the parallel, Leckie seems to be arguing that the only meaning we can truly find as separate individuals is in the people we live life with.

So I must take a page from Leckie’s novel. And what I mean by that is this:

Thank you. Thank you for reading, for sending me your encouraging words, and for supporting this project.

You are the community that gives The Quiet Post shape.

The world is filled with good things to do. They are all worth your time. But taken altogether, they are overwhelming, and they are loud, and it is impossible to do them all. We must make choices. I’m honored that, for a season or two, you chose to spend some time with these monsters and fantasy maps, these trophies and magic circles. 

But life needs shapes, not lines. Ideas needs structure, not freedom. We need endings.

One choice left to make.

I choose quiet.

For now.