In the course of something else entirely, I stumbled across my notes from when I attended the 2011 MFA Winter Residency at my alma mater, Warren Wilson College. What stuck out to me from those notes was something a professor had said on the subject of poetry: “You know you’re getting to the end [of a poem] when themes from the beginning start showing up again.”
My notes revealed, further, that this was said to be true of poetry moreso than of fiction, that it was an indicator of the poem’s coming to an end, since, unlike in fiction, there is rarely some large ending action in a poem.
I think that in four years of studying writing in undergrad, this was the only time that anyone really talked about endings. I know that I learned a lot about writing in that time—if you go looking, you can find some of my old writing, pre-college, and while it’s not the worst ever, it is painful for me to look back on—but I don’t remember talking much about the mechanics of stories.
I don’t know a whole lot about poetry. It’s not my thing. I can appreciate a good poem, though “good” is, of course, very subjective (I think moreso than with prose). But I just wrote this thing down, four years ago, and forgot about it because I didn’t have anything to connect it with.
Mary Robinette Kowal, in her workshop, teaches a variation on the M.I.C.E. quotient. I’d heard about it before, chiefly from Writing Excuses, but I’d never really gotten it before that workshop (if you’re reading this, thank you, Mary!). As someone who works with computers and studied programming, if not computer science, in both high school and college, the idea that you have to close every element, be it Milieu, Idea, Character, or Event, that you open, and, critically, in the reverse order of their opening (<M><C></C></M> rather than <M><C></M></C>, for instance) in order to make your story work right resonated with me.
And that’s what that person was talking about in that classroom in the basement of Jensen four years ago. They probably didn’t know it. My experience with that MFA was often one of “genre” fiction being very much second-class, only occasionally able to “transcend genre” and reach the level of Art. I doubt that anyone there had read Card since high school, if ever. I very much doubt that there was a secret class about M.I.C.E.
Nevertheless, they hit the nail on the head, and not just for poetry. You can tell that a story is coming to an end when the questions/problems/whatever raised at the beginning are finally coming to a close. And if it goes on after that last element is closed, or if it stops before closing that element? Well, that’s what revision is for.