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  THE END IS THE BEGINNING IS THE END ONCE AGAIN.  
   
   
 

Find the end in the beginning.

This is narrative architectural advice.

It comes to you in any writers' workshop. Every writers' workshop. It is spoken by a person wearing both tweeds and flannel. Upon hearing it, your first thought is likely: "How hot and itchy and damp it must be to dress as a Jazz Age fishing guide here in such a warm classroom."

Your second, "But what does that mean?"

Like the other ancient chestnuts one is asked to examine and pass around in a writing class, this one is burnished bright from decades of eager handling, but hard to crack. There's a faded cigar box full of them over by the door. The Aristotelean Arc. Freitag's Triangle. Man Against Man; Against Nature; Against Himself. Not Man, but a man. Rising action, et cetera, denouement and so forth.

Find the end in the beginning.

It means simply to plant a seed at the beginning of a story that flowers at its end. To include in the opening of your novel or essay or article an idea, phrase, character, place, emotion or action that will recur somehow, or resolve, at the end of the last sentence of the last paragraph of the last page. Rightly done, it can produce in the reader a satisfying chill of inevitability and remembrance -- or at least of recognition. While easy enough to explain, it's hard, as most things are, to do well.

The corollary principle of the playwright is simpler still. Any gun shown in Act One must be used in Act Three. This accounts for the surfeit of decorative musket-installation scenes we find now at curtain-rise in our modern theater.

Simple. Bang or whimper.

Beginnings and endings are thus relatively manageable, it seems, at least on the page. In fact, your fishing guide will tell you that if you fashion a sufficient beginning and an adequate end, the middle will often enough take care of itself. Type through from one, 'til you reach the other.

Off the page and on the sidewalk, however, this is rarely true. Our beginnings and our endings are strict indeed, and bear few edits.

Once born, you die. It's the chaotic middle of our own story that has us stumped.

Americans, especially, suffer trouble with this, both individually and collectively, as compared to other, older cultures. As individuals, we are prone to fret the past, our beginnings, and kick ourselves for all the things we might have done but didn't, or all the things we were but are not now.

Or we fixate on the future, the end ahead in which all the riddles of existence are solved, weight lost, marriage mended, kids schooled and sweet peace comes to us at last on the wings of an angel, or in the form of a winning lottery ticket and a 60" flatscreen.

As a people, of course, our national habit is to gaze back longingly at the imagined innocence and harmless fireworks of our glorious past; or turn our faces to a very near future in which the mirage of our glorious technology will save us all.

In neither case do we honor or much act upon the very moment in which all these idle thoughts occur, the present. Which is why the American story seems at times to me a battered hammock slung low between the two anchors of our grand beginnings and our inevitable end.

From the ease of that hammock, it's difficult for me in my comfort to imagine an apocalyptic end to things, which was the fearful word that inspired the assignment of this essay: Apocalypse. That a big bang world born in apocalypse must end in one has the ring of science to it, or at least of symmetry. But I suspect that, like the universe itself, our apocalypse is constant. A steady state of chaos and order and joy and despair and destruction and creation, each rolling over us as regular and endless as the tides. So maybe the end of days for humanity is no more than a slow and incremental slide into the warm surf of a forgetful sea.

But if the capitalized Apocalypse does somehow arrive, four horseman borne forward by the sour winds of death on the plains of Armageddon, most of us will be alerted to it by the lower-third ticker on CNN -- followed not long after by an online poll as to our feelings in that howling storm of imminent doom. In a final instant of human clarity and perfect truth, I suggest we all select "No opinion."

To bring anything to life is to sentence it to death. Does it matter then if that death arrives in fire or in ice? Born astride the grave, per Beckett, life is only the moment of the fall. And yet somehow, stubborn in our hope, we all persist.

Thus for the tiny apocalypse that must greet each one of us in its time, enslaved by my training, I propose that we each find our end in our beginnings.

The last sentence of the last paragraph of the last page I would write for us all, if I could, is that we exit as we entered. That we go out bawling and red-faced and full of questions, swung aloft by the ankles, weightless again and without sin, gathered up and spanked by the hand of an immense and gentle stranger in a huge bright room ringing with the tears and the laughter of those who love us most, the noise of life resonant inside of us and outside of us, now again without care, and bearing in our pounding hearts, in that first and final moment, the original gift of our curious courage in the face of whatever might come.

 

Jeff MacGregor is the author of Sunday Money and a special contributor for Sports Illustrated. He is also a regular guest on "The Late Show With David Letterman."