Resonance. That sound that still exists in your brain after a really long, or powerful note, at the end of a classical piece of music, or hell, classic rock for that matter (think: A Day in the Life by the Beatles)... that's what I'm talking about. Us old TV watchers know it as retina burn, when the Zenith got flicked off but images still remained like ghosts on the screen. Or we imagined they remained. I say old TV watchers, because I'm not sure it works that way anymore. Maybe retina burn of the brain after you just binge watch 6 seasons of Breaking Bad and you can't stop thinking about Meth (and the consequences of evil).
But before I slip into digression (too late), right at the start of a post, let me tell you how this relates to writing. Quite awhile back when I was working on a lot of short fiction, I struggled with the endings of stories. I was talking a course at the time through Gotham Writers Workshop (yes, I am the Batman), and an instructor told me that an ending should both be a door and a window.
The door was some sort of closure. I say "some sort" because this does not mean a didactic statement that wraps everything and tells you the meaning of what you just read. See: Aesop's Fables. No, a door answers the question the story has posed... it answers it just enough.
The window is about seeing forward into the part of the story that is not told. It can be a "what happened next" type feeling – wasn't there some kid's magazine that had those sort of pictures? My retina burned brain has somewhat of a memory of these pictures. But it is more than guessing what happens next, it is all the possibles of what could happen next, and how these characters, and even the story itself, continues on in some pan-dimensional fiction universe. Ok, I made that up. What I'm talking about is resonance. Yes, trippy.
What do you remember after you've read a story, or a novel?
There are certain stories that will always stay with me – I don't even have to look them up on the inter-web. Raymond Carver's Neighbors has a couple, locked out of their neighbor's apartment, whose place they were supposed to be taking care of (and end up taking advantage of)... when the door clicks, locking, and they slide down against the door, unable to stop, or turn back what just happened. Or in Carver's Fat, the waitress that comes home and knows her life is about to change. Or one last Carver, Cathedral, where the blind man helps his host draw a Cathedral while holding his hand, and the man says, "Wow. That's really something."
Now, I could pick up my various Carver collections and reread those stories to see how my memory is - but I don't want to (but you, yes, you should go read those stories). What I want to think about is why those moments have stuck with me so long. The final chapters of Moby Dick do the same for me – the Pequod sinking and swirling into the sea, and then Queequeg's coffin shooting out of the water – almost like it was spit out. And then our hero, Ishmael, clinging to it.
It's been years since I read Moby Dick, but I'll never forget that image.
I recently finished George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo – so maybe it is too soon to think about resonance in that novel, but I already know this book will stay with me a long time (as do many of his stories). The images of ghosts going into Lincoln's body to try and get him to revisit his dead son, and more importantly, bring a closure to death, is something I can barely imagine what it looks like. Yet, I can hold the resonance of that event, and many others from the narrative.
Now, you can't force resonance into your writing – Lord knows I've tried. Forcing resonance into a narrative is like you're shouting at your reader Owen Meany style: HEY, THIS NEXT PART YOU'RE GOING TO READ IS SUPER IMPORTANT. YOU ARE GOING WANT TO REMEMBER. MAYBE GET AN UNDERLINER...
It's more about being faithful to the story you are writing. And to know that resonance doesn't always happen either... so don't go searching for it. But when it does... wow.
I'm a film guy too, so I think about this concept in that medium. My son has a podcast called, Does That Hold Up? Where he and a guest view movies that were important to them in their childhood, and see if they still hold up. In a lot of the episodes I've listened to, the movies do... which surprised me. I've went back and re-watched things from my childhood and teenage years, and nostalgia aside, sometimes they just suck, and suck bad. Though, I could watch movies like the Good the Bad and the Ugly, All the President's Men, or Altman's, The Long Goodbye, several hundred more times... because, man do they hold up.
So think of a movie or a book that had a lot of resonance for you. Maybe it was just the ending, or even a scene (De Niro and Walken in the Deerhunter anybody?) One of my favourites to think about is the ending of Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation. Truthfully, this movie hit me at a time (turning 40), where it just nailed me. I know others gave it a a general "3 mehs". But when Bill Murray whispers into Scarlett's ear, and we never hear or know what is said... even when I watched it the first time, I knew that I would never forget it. Resonance in spades.
We could be here all night, so one more. The ending of No Country for Old Men. I knew it was coming, having read the book, but wondered if the Coen Brother's screenplay would hold to it. And they did. Some film watchers were confused. I was delighted, and immersed in Tommy Lee Jones retelling of his dream to his wife. Credit to Cormac for writing it, the Coens for staying true to it, and for TL Jones for nailing it.
I won't say that I had to fight for the ending of my new novel, Fall in One Day - but I did have to discuss with my editor why I wanted it to end that way. There is definitely a feeling of resonance in the final scene. I will be curious to see if readers share that opinion.
In closing... Ladies and gentlemen, here are the Beatles...
(skip ahead to the last note - or just watch the whole amazing thing).