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Land The Plane

Writing is hard work. We might discuss any number of examples to prove that statement. But let’s focus on just one: writing the ending to a blog, essay, short story, novel, “How-To” book, or grocery list.

In my previous life as a pastor, deciding how to end a sermon always presented a challenge. How about a poem? A quotation from a 16th century philosopher or theologian? A sports analogy? A funny quip from Saturday Night Live? Wait, what was that cute thing my five-year-old daughter said about the boob tube? How about “And they lived happily ever after?” No, I used that last Sunday. Besides, that wouldn’t fit with this week’s sermon on Adam and Eve getting kicked out of the Garden of Eden.

So there were occasions -and I hate to admit this – when one of my sermons flew aimlessly over the heads of the congregation for several minutes while I fidgeted with the controls. George and Doris in the front pew checking their watches; Two kids sleeping in the balcony; Alice in the choir’s alto section filing her nails; Bob the chief usher lifting the offering plates above his head. And still we flew on.

As the congregation and I greeted one another after church, Mrs. O., who always spoke her mind, said quietly, “For heaven’s sake, pastor, take some flying lessons and learn how to land the plane!”

I was reminded of this incident when the author of the mystery/thriller I’d been reading flew by several airports before crash landing in a field. The protagonist’s lover proposes. That’s a nice runway to land on. Nope. Potentially career-ending fight with boss is resolved. Great place to set down. Not. Father of murdered girl tells protagonist revelatory incidents of her early life. Nice. Let’s land there. The pilot disagrees. She wants to keep flying. Loving reunion with angry and alienated friend. That’s a terrific place to land the plane. The pilot shakes her head. She puts the plane on autopilot. I’m getting bored. It seems she might be as well. The plane continues on. Then: “Oops. We’re out of gas.” Crash.

Authors who run out of gas include some world-renowned pilots of fiction. Joan Acocella wrote of a few in her November 27, 2012 New Yorker article, “On Bad Endings.”

Acocella cites the endings – even the second halves- of Dickens’s“David Copperfield,” “Wuthering Heights,” by Charlotte Bronte, and Willa Cather’s “Song of the Lark” as examples of great stories that overshot the runway. “But the novel with the most shockingly bad ending,” writes Acocella, “is our country’s greatest novel, “Huckleberry Finn.”

I had forgotten the ending, and reread it. Ms. Acocella’s critique is correct. Instead of landing “Huckleberry Finn” at his intended and appropriate destination, Mark Twain executed a 180º turn and landed at the airport where he took off. Did he lose his way, or did he lose his nerve? Did he slap on a silly ending to ignore the tough, complex social questions of that time? I invite you to read the book and let me know your thoughts.

Reading a truly excellent novel or even a pretty good novel that lands badly or not at all reminds me of cutting off the end of a fresh ear of corn with a worm peeking out. Toss that end, and enjoy the rest of it with plenty of butter and salt.

Bailey Herrington

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