A friend and her husband came up to me after shul recently, and she told me (a tad overgenerously) that she really liked my last column. It made her cry. “Especially the ending,” Dina added. “I didn’t think you were going there.” “Me neither,” I responded.
I wasn’t kidding. As I mentioned to her, I once read that there are different types of novelists. Some have the whole book plotted out before they begin writing seriously, while others just develop their characters at the beginning. And then they let those characters decide (as it were) where the novel will go.
I fall into both camps. (With columns, of course, since I’m no type of novelist.) Sometimes I plan the entire arc — stories, discussion, applications, musings, conclusion — before I begin to put pen to paper or, more accurately, fingers to keyboard. (When I began my legal career, I actually would write out my memos and briefs longhand, in ink, on legal-size yellow pads; give the handwritten copy to someone from the steno pool to type; revise the typed copy, including cutting with actual scissors and pasting with scotch tape (that’s where “cut and paste” comes from, kids), and hand back my edited version to the pool for a second go-round. And then do it all over again. The good old days were not always so good.)
Sometimes, though, I begin with a conclusion in mind and work hard to build a column around it. And sometimes I just have particular experiences I want to share with my readers, and where I’m going with those stories comes to me only as they unfold on paper.
Actually, the column that had sparked this particular after-shul conversation was even a bit different from the last type I mentioned. I sat down at the computer with a lengthy tale and a conclusion in mind, but when I stood up after several hours of drafting, lo and behold, an entirely different conclusion ended my Word document. As I was writing and thinking and revising, my fingers started going in a direction different from the one I had planned. And, it seems, at least the three of us chatting after shul appreciated my actual final destination more than my planned one.
But that shouldn’t have surprised me. As a litigator, when I was preparing an appellate oral argument, I would carefully outline my entire presentation, point by point, in a way that made sense to me, building each point on the previous one, with the goal of concluding that my client deserved to win. It usually worked perfectly in my office. But once I stood up at the lectern in the courtroom and began “good morning, your honors,” the court often would tell me what points they were interested in, what arguments they thought were critical to the case, where they wanted me to go.
And, of course, that’s where I went, not where I had planned to go, though, hopefully, that path still ended with the conclusion that I had carefully bolded in my notes (remember the client who was paying my fee?). But to get there, I had to let go of my outline, my map, my legal GPS directions, and wend my way in a direction not fully in my control. I had to have an open mind and listen to others, the ones sitting on the bench in black robes, even if my ultimate goal was to convince them of what I had come into the courtroom to convince them of.
In other arenas, though, I’ve learned that I have to be open to more; to enduring not only an unplanned discussion but even, possibly, an unplanned conclusion. I’ve attended meetings — I’m sure we all have – that I knew were going to be intense, where an issue was on the table that was disputed among those in attendance, and a conclusion had to be reached that was not going to satisfy all. And it’s in those sorts of meetings that we have to hold all types of conflicting thoughts in our minds at the same time. We have to know what we want, what conclusions we think are best for the organization, and argue passionately and effectively in order to convince the others around the table.
But at the same time we also have to keep our ears and minds open to what those across from us are saying, the arguments they’re advancing, the conclusions they’re seeking. We have to be prepared to convince, but we also have to be open to being convinced. And we have to be honest with ourselves that sometimes, just sometimes, the other point of view is equally valid, or, perhaps, even preferable to ours. We may therefore emerge from some of these meetings with a different conclusion than the one we entered with.
There are yet more areas of gray; more complications to consider. We can still believe our conclusion is correct while learning that there’s also merit to the other side, so we ask must we, do we, can we take that merit into consideration? Or we may discover something about our adversaries — something deeply positive about their passion and principles and arguments that we recognize even as we retain our own. Or we may uncover something about how the whole matter could have been handled a bit differently at the beginning so that it might not have developed into a situation of winners and losers.
It’s not easy having an open mind. And, I’ll be honest, my knowing it’s important to have one doesn’t always mean I actually put that knowledge into practice. And I also know it’s not easy advocating for something, putting your whole heart and soul into defending your position, while understanding at the same time that there may be the rare occasion that the other side is as correct, or maybe even more correct, than you. But if life were easy, then it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting, and we wouldn’t have as many opportunities to learn and grow.
Real life isn’t always getting what we expect and then living happily ever after. Sometimes that works even with a surprise ending. What’s probably most significant in living comfortably with either ending, expected or surprise, is doing the hard work to ensure that our personal relationships with all those engaged in the conversations remain warm, respectful, and intact. Della’s hair and Jim’s watch in the “Gift of the Magi” weren’t nearly as important as the love they showed one another in selling these cherished possessions. O. Henry’s surprise endings touch his readers’ hearts; personal surprise endings can sometimes do the same for ours.
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work also has appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, the New York Jewish Week, the Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, the New York Times.