Jane Recommends “The Case for Writing a Story Before Knowing How It Ends” via THE ATLANTIC

An excerpt from “The Case for Writing a Story Before Knowing How It Ends” by Andre Dubus III:

What writing asks of us is the opposite of what being in the American culture asks of us. You’re supposed to have a five-year plan. Young people now are so cautious. Oh, we can’t get married until we have a house. Oh, we can’t have a baby until we have 20 grand in the bank. These crazy, careful people! You know, look: Life is short if you live a hundred years. Better to die naked and reckless and with passion—and not be afraid to fuck up and fail.


Jane says: A lesson on craft becomes a lesson on life.

Jane Purges Some Books

“A book, too, can be a star, a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.” —Madeleine L’Engle

The Stars

Once upon a time, I used horoscopes as bookmarks. Every year, I bought a specific calendar, a page-a-day with a forecast for each weekday and one for the weekend. Two friends, a Pisces and a Taurus, shared in this tradition. When we talked about a missed bus; a three-table, twenty-dollar waitressing shift; a long look, a precarious link of words, we’d ask, “What did your horoscope say?” We’d answer by digging the slip of paper, as small as a business card, out of our purse or pocket; or by cursing then vowing to look when we got home, or reciting it to the best of our ability for further analyzing.

I forgot how much joy this seven-dollar purchase brought to our twenty-something lives until I found one peeping out of book I didn’t finish. Regarding June 21-22, the stars prophesied, “Do yourself a favor. If you’re unsure whether an endeavor is right for you, try to listen to that little voice within. It wouldn’t be wise to override your instincts and in this case your intuition is likely providing you the wisdom you seek.” 

The Books (Also Stars)

At any given time, there are at least five stacks of TBR books in our house. Here are the constants, which are as certain as debt:

  • The coffee table stack – The pretty ones mixed with our magazines
  • The carpeted step stack – The library books
  • The writing desk stacks – The loaned books, and the recently purchased or gifted books
  • The bedside table stack – The current reads, varying from one to five books

Those are just the TBR. My actual collection claims four spots in the house:

  • The writing desk collection – The ones I need close to me while I work; poetry, craft and oft-referenced favorites
  • The bedroom collection – The perfect-to-me ones I adore that I want to seep into my brain and skin while I sleep
  • The hallway collection – The ones beautiful enough to display under one of Waylon’s sarcastically baroque store-clearance finds
  • The guest bedroom collection – The not-so-pretty ones; abused teaching books, research books, coursework books and English anthologies

And because I am just one woman who works, writes, blogs, tweets, runs, cooks, cleans and loves, who can only read so fast, all of the stacks and collections give me all of the anxiety. 

The Purging

I contemplate each book, plucking the ones I thought I could live without, whether that meant selling them, donating them or adding them to the mysterious lending library at work. During this hard task—consider my books are a part of me and to relinquish one is to shed a part of myself—any of the following increases their chances of survival:

  • It was a gift
  • It is signed by the author
  • The author signed it under a personal, witty and/or inspirational note
  • It prompts a memory 
  • There is far too much embarrassing marginalia
  • It was written by a writer I like, whose book I stopped reading because of (maybe?) bad timing and I intend to give it another whirl

The Words

Of my collection, I was able to extract 16 books. Some barely cracked. Some badly beaten. In some, old AWP bookmarks exhibit where I just couldn’t anymore. In them are my paper trails (boarding passes, packing slips, receipts, class discussion questions from grad school, candy wrappers). Wanting to give them each one last chance, I placed them in a box and read their first sentences—compiled here—and sometimes I continued on. 

“My name is Eva, which means ‘life,’ according to a book of names my mother consulted.” Isabel Allende, Eva Luna 

“James Arthur Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924.” —Randal Kenan, The Fire This Time

“’When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets,’ Papa would say, ‘she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, walzing around her, hypnotized with longing.’” —Katherine Dunn, Geek Love 

“‘Shall we let them have a little music?’ asked Emily, and she wound up the musical box.” —Kate Bernheimer, House, Flower, Bird 

“It was the cruelest winter.” —Joshua Ferris, The Unnamed

“Rochelle appeared at the office one day looking young and somewhat frightened, walking with tentative steps on the arm of her husband, who soon broke away like a discreet booster rocket and disappeared down the stairwell door, leaving her to walk forward alone, more abashed, to meet the rest of us.” —Joan Frank, In Envy Country

“Around the grave in the rundown cemetery were a few of his former advertising colleagues from New York, who recalled his energy and originality and told his daughter, Nancy, what a pleasure it had been to work with him.” —Philip Roth, Everyman

“Early in the morning, late in the century, Cricklewood Broadway.” —Zadie Smith, White Teeth 

“I. Start with the Roman numeral I with an authoritative period trailing just after it.” —Ander Monson, Neck Deep and Other Predicaments

“In Millais’s painting, Ophelia dies faceup, / eyes and mouth open as if caught in the gasp / of her last word or breath, flowers and reeds / growing out of the pond, floating on the surface / around her.” —Natasha Tretheway, Bellocq’s Ophelia 

“It’s time to wash the elephant.” —Hannah Tinti, Animal Crackers

“I was born in the city of Bombay . . . once upon a time.” —Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children 

“Carla heard the car coming before it topped the little rise in the road that around here they called a hill.” Alice Munro, Runaway 

“Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.” —William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

“I am living at the Villa Borghese.” —Henry Miller, The Tropic of Cancer 

“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” —Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

Some books were inscribed by former owners, Lynn Reyer and Kim Wagner. Some owners included the date they obtained the book, May 1989. I found bookmarks: other’s, a metal cross, and my own. One was easy to give away, a present from a dreadful ex. I or someone else dog-eared the following pages: 11, 25, 27, 30, 99, 158, 189, 314, 445.

The Keepsake

Even though revisiting these books gave me a serious case of the feels, I hardened my heart and decided to let all of them go. Except one. A friend’s book.

A boring summer day, I pulled it off of the shelf and paged through it. She tossed her dark, wavy hair over her shoulder to look at me with her overwhelming eyes, all of her life at her surface, and said, “You can have it, if you want.”

Flipping through it cemented that it’s not something I can part with. Not when she has marked passages like this from “Index for X and the Origin of Fires”:

Questions, of which you have

many, of which I have many,

and as such you and I are in

this case equal to we, to oui, to

wee—is there anything we can

say to stand up to the machi-

nations of the text, or will it

have its way with us, will it

knock us to the ground.