On False Notes and Forced Endings


By Ron MacLean

Sometimes you have to force it. Sometimes you have to fly in the face of your principles and do the things you advise your students—and yourself—never to do. It's the craziest part of being a writer: even the best advice isn't the best advice every time. Sometimes you've got to break your own rules.

I was reminded of this last week as I struggled to finish a first draft of a new short story. It's the last story in a triptych that sets a gaggle of guys boasting and bantering—and inadvertently revealing their inner lives—in a coffee shop.

I'm about to disappear for a month to revise my next novel, and I wanted to get a draft of this story in the can so it could percolate while I'm away. I had everything but the last beat. I figured it would come. I sat at the desk, fingers at the ready. I wrote one version. Another. Another. Paced the room waiting for inspiration. Re-read the draft looking for clues to the right closing note. And again. Nothing. Repeated the process the next day. And the day after that.

A week went by. Ten days. I wanted to force an ending. I'd done what I could with this draft; the story needed time in the drawer. But forcing it is against my principles. I channeled advice from Ron Carlson (the experienced writer is comfortable lost in the woods), Hemingway (write one true sentence, then another) and Michael Jordan (let the game come to you). I reached out to writer friends on Facebook: I'm about to force an ending to a draft, I said. Stop me. And they did.

What I'd forgotten, and neglected to inform them, is that this was a FIRST draft. Part of the joy of a first draft (for me anyway) is the freedom to write the wrong thing, as a placeholder, and see what that opens up.

My grad school friend Barbara chimed in on Facebook: It's a first draft. Force the ending, put it down for a week, and see what emerges from your subconscious.

That's the one that broke through to me. Force the ending. Play a note, even if I know it's the wrong note. Because I've had the experience that when I come back to a story and play that wrong, forced note, having forgotten it, my ear will register the wrong note and maybe, if I'm lucky, hear at least the echo of the right note behind it. And I can start to chase it down from there.


Ron MacLean is author of the story collection Why the Long Face? (2008) and the novel Blue Winnetka Skies (2004). His fiction has appeared in GQ, Greensboro Review, Prism International, Night Train, Other Voices and many more publications. He is a recipient of the Frederick Exley Award for Short Fiction and a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee. He holds a Doctor of Arts from the University at Albany, SUNY, and is a former executive director at Grub Street, Boston’s independent creative writing center, where he still teaches.