A few minutes ago, I finished the outline of the final chapter of my novel. In some ways, I am relieved that the end is finally in sight. Yet I can’t help but acknowledge that a great part of me right now almost mourns the loss of that perpetuity, that ongoing storytelling process.
I’ve known for some time now that I love beginnings. That “once upon a time” magic is something that inevitably morphs into something else somewhere in the middle. You can’t sustain “once upon a time” until the end of the story. At some point, the story changes into a series of “and then, and then.” It all culminates with those fateful words: “The End.” But those first few pages of a story are the pages I most love to write, because I get into this authorial storyteller role that gives me the same high as most people get from talking about themselves. Besides, it’s just a whole lot of fun to break into a new story, to take someone away, to take hold of them and not let go.
As tough as the middle is, writing an ending is something I…well, not dread, but definitely now avoid dealing with until I have to. I’ve been pushing it off for a while now, even though it would end the toil and the plowing through page after page to get somewhere.
I guess that’s something about the 1001 Nights that I can appreciate more now. The magic of the Nights is that it’s all, on a macro level, one great big story that just never has to end. From a purely technical standpoint, the synthesis of so many different stories from so many different sources into one overarching narrative inevitably meant that some small stories would end up becoming a tale one character tells to another within the context of some larger story that is being told by Shahrazad, a story that is in itself being told to us. So every time we come upon one of these new stories, it’s a new beginning. Somehow, you never quite mind that the previous story is left unfinished and is diverted by this new tangent.
It’s analogous, in some sense, to what became a staple of The Simpsons and then of Family Guy: those pointless tangents, those daydreams characters have, those non sequiturs. We love stepping into that new, weird little world. We don’t care that it has nothing concrete to do with the main story. It’s totally redundant and inessential, yet it gives us our fix for the thrill of escapism. We watch these cartoons because they are an escape, and even then, we love those sidetracking moments because they allow us to experience yet another level of escape. The same goes for the Nights.
A.S. Byatt wrote, in her introduction to a collection of Nights translated by Richard F. Burton, that the Nights do not function on the same principles as stories told in the Christian world. Those stories all echo the “the one Book and its story,” that of the initial dilemma of Original Sin, leading through until the end of time with JC vs. Anti-JC, God vs. Satan, the Rumble in the Jungle, the Thrilla in Manila, where Good triumphs over Evil and everyone lives happily ever after (hey, the Fathers of the Church were Greek, so it’s only natural that they throw in some Aristotelian catharsis into the mix, isn’t it?).
The Qur’an, however, is not laid out in any sort of linear narrative fashion. Instead, it goes back and forth, often over the same subjects but in a different way or perhaps with new scenes or an ever-so-different light, or sometimes even with no real differences.
The Nights echo that Qur’anic structure, forgoing karmic narratives (i.e. Good must triumph in the end to restore the balance). It’s more mysterious. It’s more about the joy of discovery. Instead of building toward a catharsis, the pleasure and release come through in every new line, in every new gag and misadventure. Endings in stories come abruptly, because the storyteller was never building to that ending in some moral, karmic way. It’s more about weaving something new and unpredictable, almost like narrative jazz, a jam session or sax solo that lasts one thousand and one nights. The Qur’an works along the same lines: every surah is a new vantage point of a previous story, or perhaps even the same vantage point (because we enjoy rehearing the stories we love). The Qur’an definitely makes use of—in poetic terms—repetition, rhyme and (to borrow songwriting lingo) chorus. It doesn’t build to some momentous climax because the text of the Qur’an is not a single narrative. It is a series of stories and themes, parables and metaphors.
So this all comes back to what I’m doing. I’m writing a book that is built upon the idea of storytelling, in some sense. It touches upon the ideas behind fairy tales. And it is itself one big fairy tale. But fairy tales do end. And in the end, judgment is passed; a moral is delivered. But when you talk about fairy tales like the Nights, the end can come abruptly, with almost no build-up. It’s because they were written during a time when our modern notions of novelistic character development and story arcs and thematic lines didn’t exist. The Nights weren’t high art, even though there is a modern temptation to make them out to be that. The Nights were everyday lit for the common folk. They were vulgar sometimes, appealing to the crass and bawdy, and they were heroic and epic at other times, appealing to our aspirations. But they were not built upon the idea of a moral journey. In fact, the “original” story actually ended after some 271 nights. A brief paragraph then mentioned that everything turned out okay some 730 nights later. How’s that for anti-climactic?
The difficulty for me is that the novel is a format quite different from the Nights, and much longer and more complex than fairy tales. Some part of me loved that I didn’t have to end the story. But now I have plotted out the ending. It may not stick; nothing has been set in stone. But the story will end sometime, sadly enough. Then I will get to relive the perpetuity of continual storytelling, thanks to the magic of rewrites!
But for now, let me wax philosophic about it all, and realize that I really do love writing, that I love the journey it entails, even though it’s more painful than most people would ever realize. I once thought that real authors sat down and wrote beautifully the first time around, sent the manuscript off to the publisher, brushed their hands, rocked their heads from side to side to pop the kinks out of their necks, and ho-hummed merrily as they waited for the book to roll off the presses. But I know from personal experience and from the experiences of other writers that that is not how it’s done (unless you’re a machine like Stephen King). It’s something that takes a lot of time, a lot of monotonous work, and a lot of faith. And usually, it’s something that none of us really wants to come to an end.