It Don’t Mean a Thing: Listening at the End

Duke Ellington recorded his jazz standard, “It Don’t Mean a Thing” (lyrics by Irving Mills), in 1932. The opening of the song questions the value of music that doesn’t possess a certain measure of resonance:

What good is melody?
What good is music?
If it ain’t possessing something sweet

The lyrics go on to speculate on what makes a song memorable:

Now it ain’t the melody
And it ain’t the music
There’s something else that makes this tune complete, YES
It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing

 That swing—a certain something, rhythmically, that creates an unforgettable sound:

Makes no difference
If it’s sweet or hot
Just give that rhythm
Every little thing you’ve got

 I’m thinking about this advice because it seems relevant to a consideration for what happens at the end of a good piece of writing. The end often resonates because something opposite from what we’d expect rises. It surprises us and yet, when we think back through the essay, the story, the novel, the poem, the play, its appearance seems inevitable. I’m talking about matters of content here. Perhaps something in the situation turns in a direction we didn’t expect, and in that turning, an additional layer of truth rises and becomes something we can’t forget. At the end of my essay, “Bastards,” for example, a consideration of my father’s anger becomes evidence of something opposite—the only way he knows how to express love. As he works with his prosthetic hands to lock our doors after scaring off an intruder, he says, “You don’t have to worry now.” It’s the preceding narrative action that makes it possible for me, as a teenager, to take note of an opposing quality in my father, one that his anger tried to keep hidden:

In his bluster, I heard what I’d never been able to distinguish in the noise of all our fighting. He was proud. He was watching out for us. This was his secret. His world was always tilting. He was on guard. Let the bastards come. He’d be ready. Wounded, as he was, he knew no other way to speak of love.

My father, his life forever changed by the farming accident that cost him both of his hands, became a character, whose contradictions I still try to better understand. This essay, the title of which comes from my father’s reference to whoever had broken into our garage and stolen some of his tools, is but one attempt, one that paid off for what I found submerged in his character.

We have to slow down at the end of a piece of writing so the resonant thing rising will have the rhythm of language necessary to its appearance—so it will have, in other words, that swing. That word, “love,” at the end of “Bastards,” is a word we wouldn’t expect to be there given the ugliness between my father and me that makes up the bulk of the essay. But when it arrives, it seems right to me, and I want to do what I can with language to make that word stand out. Hence that series of short, declarative sentences to slow down the prose, a move that always announces that the end is coming. That slowing down tells the reader to pay special attention to what’s about to arrive. That last sentence is a riff off the staccato rhythm of the short, declarative sentences. Wounded, as he was, creates two pauses, thereby slowing the prose even more with a different sentence structure before gliding on to that final word, love. I hope the effect is one of being gob smacked with a truth we didn’t see coming, as I didn’t until I found myself writing that end. There is nothing else to say. I want the word to resonate in the silence that follows just the way a good song does when the last note fades, and as it does, it’s as if we can still  hear it, reverberating all the way back through the composition as the sound of that last note lingers with us.

Ending a piece is often a matter of staying open to the opposite of what you thought you were writing and then working with the language at the end to make that surprising, and yet inevitable, truth, stand out. The end should justify the piece’s existence, because without the essay, the story, the novel, the poem, the play, we never would have made our way to the precious thing hidden within our material—the thing that rises as we close.








  1. jack wright on February 18, 2019 at 12:11 pm

    This post is great in light of a similar one in the Washington Post yesterday.
    The 23 most unforgettable last sentences in fiction by Ron Charles (in his opinion)

    I hope sometime this year that I’ll be in a position to think about the last line of my manuscript.
    Thanks so much, Lee. -jack wright

  2. lee martin on February 18, 2019 at 3:58 pm

    Thanks for turning me on to that Ron Charles post. I haadn’t seen it. All best to you, Jack.

Leave a Comment