Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Last Line

Last weekend I saw Robert Caro being interviewed on TV. Caro is the biographer of Lyndon B. Johnson. To date, he has written four biographies of Johnson and is at work on the fifth and final one. It has taken him thirty years to get this far. Thirty years devoted to one project!

Caro, now 76, expects this last book to take ten years. The interviewer tactfully asked if he worried about being able to complete this final biography. Caro replied, yes, of course, but one carries on anyhow. The interviewer then pointed out what is apparently a characteristic of Caro's writing process: he already has the final sentence written. When asked, Caro declined to share the sentence, saying that would spoil the ending for him. I completely understood that unwillingness to talk about a work while it is in progress. I've heard many a writer say they'd killed a project by over-talking it.

And yet I thought how different the process was for a fiction writer or a poet. I've heard fiction writers talk about the thrill of discovery and the pleasure of invention. I've heard of fiction writers who write towards a particular ending, but do any of them map out the entire journey or have that last sentence before the writing has begun?

Now I suspect that some of our highly prolific fiction writers, e.g., James Patterson, Stephen King, might very well pre-plan a plot. But where's the fun? There's a well-known story about a writer who lost the manuscript for her novel. When a friend said, Well, you can just write it over again, the writer replied, No, I couldn't do that. I already know what happens. (I can't recall who this writer was, but I'm counting on one of you to supply the name.)

I don't know of any poets who even want to have the final line in mind before writing. The excitement of writing a poem is precisely the not-knowing where it's going. I want the sweet surprise of the ending, that closing I never envisioned but somehow arrived at. It typically takes me days, weeks, even months to get that last line. But until I get it, the poem's not done. If I knew what it was ahead of time, I don't think I'd be interested in writing the poem.

How about you?


  1. I’m a poet and not a novelist and have that same need to be surprised by where a poem goes. The act of writing the poem is a discovery, it’s working out a mystery that I solve only when I get the last line, which, just as you, may take a long time. Every poem I wrote when I already knew where it would end turned out to be an utter failure.

    But one of my closest friends is primarily a novelist and I think the idea of discovery is very different in our processes. Novelists deal with character development, narrative flow, time, plot structure, etc. Poets – at least lyric poets – are not dealing with these. A poet thinks his way to connections through various tropes, images, phonetics, making connections without being bound by time or narrative structure or plot. It’s a different kind of thinking. I believe the primary discovery for a novelist is how a character responds to the plot. The plot may be fixed or slightly shift, but it is the character charted through time in response to the plot that is the discovery for the novelist. So the plot, that is, where the book is going, may be known all along, but how the characters will respond is what he needs to learn as he goes.

    1. Beautifully articulated, Michael. Yes, for a lyric poet the surprises emerge out of images and figures and language. Interesting what you say about the novelist looking for surprises in the way his character develops--kind of like watching a child grow. Novelist as parent?

  2. True.'s not uncommon for the final line to arrive very early in the writing, long before the poem is finished. Sometimes the poet knows it's the end, sometimes she doesn't figure it out for twenty or thirty revisions--or more.

    Fine post. Looking forward to more. Peace and all good things for you in writing and in life.


    1. This does sometimes happen for me, that is, the last line arrives early. However, I invariably later kill it or move it. I sometimes discover that the ending is really somewhere in the middle or up a few lines from the bottom of the poem. Other times, it remains elusive, still unwritten.


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