As a fitting last post, I thought I’d write about epilogues. My book’s epilogue was, perhaps, the hardest thing for me to write. After spending so much time reconstructing this history, now I was supposed to stand back and say something about it? Hadn’t I said enough already? I kept putting off writing it, agonized about it a ridiculous amount, then sat down one day and wrote it out. Phew, I thought, at last that is over. Except nobody liked it. It was fine. In fact, I turned the manuscript in to the press with my adequate epilogue. But I knew that if I could, I needed to come up with something better. I just didn’t know how.
This brings me to a brief segue into cultivating a group of supportive but critical readers. First and foremost for me was my editor Sally Gordon who pored over every word of the manuscript, sat me down for tough talks, and like an excellent coach, didn’t stint on pep talks or praise. I have also relied on writing groups. I formed my first during graduate school with a few people from my history program who were living, like me, in New York. At Penn, where I now teach, we have created a fantastic writing group that brings together faculty, fellows, and graduate students working in legal history. Whether what I received was helpful conversations about writing or a work over of a chapter, this group was invaluable in my book-writing process. But my secret weapon has been my good friend from graduate school, Dara Orenstein. She’s brilliant and astute, which has made for a handful of critically timed, incredibly helpful conversations, usually more at the conceptual level than about the nitty-gritty details of writing. Dara’s the kind of person I could call up and ask what a book cover should accomplish and I credit her for guiding me to my cover’s design. She’s also whom I turned to when I was stuck with my epilogue.
What follows is really Dara’s insightful advice, not mine. Dara gave my dull epilogue a quick read and, like a master diagnostician, broke its problems down for me. An epilogue, Dara observed, can do four things: First, it can summarize the history in the book. Second, it can offer a new slant on that history. Third, it can offer new information. And fourth, it can raise new questions entirely. An author can do a couple of these in an epilogue (e.g., offer new information and use it to raise new questions) but she can’t do all four. I, Dara pointed out, was doing all four. Further, Dara opined, summarizing, which is where I began, is the least interesting thing to do in an epilogue. And providing new information, especially when it is crammed in with so many other things, raises particular dangers. After providing a carefully wrought history, if you then skim across several decades or centuries in your epilogue, you risk jarring superficiality, not to mention outright errors.
I had to rewrite the epilogue, Dara prescribed. I couldn’t do everything; I had to choose. At a more meta level, she pointed out that summarizing and adding new information let me write the epilogue from a reporter’s remove. The strongest epilogues, Dara insisted rightly, use a strong voice, the author’s voice.
So we sat there over her dining room table and she made me talk about the book: why I wanted to write it, what I wanted readers to get from it, etc. When we got to something that resonated, I wrote it down. And after an hour or so of talking it out, literally in my own voice, I had a list of points I wanted to make in my new epilogue. That week, I turned the list into an outline and hammered out a new version of the epilogue. You’ll have to judge for yourself if I found my voice and if it achieves the right mix of goals. But I guarantee you it is a much better epilogue than the one I began with.
What epilogues have you found particularly effective? Are there other things an epilogue can or should try to accomplish? Comments welcome!