Endings are hard.
When in doubt about how to conclude a piece of journalism such as a profile, a quote is often a surefire way to wrap things up. Not that it’s *always* the best, but it’s a handy device and usually does the job. (Again: when in doubt or when all else fails.)
With an essay, it’s not so simple.
You don’t want to repeat or summarize what you’ve already said. You don’t want to preach or get “lessony.” Most important, you don’t want to spell everything out.
I tell my students that you want an ending that will “haunt” your readers. Not literally spook them—though, hey, maybe sometimes!—but rather leave them with something to figure out, something that will linger.
It can be helpful to consider ending on either an image or an action. An image can be something you saw—a scene out the window, say, or an object on the table that suddenly looked different than it did before. An action can be the first thing you did when your antagonist shut the door: Did you pick something up, wash the dishes, make a phone call, start dancing by yourself? If so, how exactly?
Let those carefully observed details do the last bit of work for you.
When you’re writing a piece of creative nonfiction, have an idea of what you want to say. Or, perhaps less intimidating—especially with a personal essay—what you want to explore. Keep in mind the direction you want to go in. Jot down points, examples, details, anecdotes you’d like to include.
But don’t work toward a particular conclusion or, even worse, a specific last line.
Smart readers (they’re the ones you want, right?) can always tell when the ending is one the writer was planning all along. No discovery for the author = no discovery for the reader.
Go where your story or essay wants to take you. Listen to what it’s telling you.
This isn’t stream of consciousness. It’s consciousness.
When you come to what feels like an end, take a deep breath. Then go back and edit, delete, change, reorder, add, flesh out—and maybe end up in yet another place entirely.
Your own careful thought is your best outline.
Ending an essay or article with a quote can strike a powerful note, but it’s so much more effective to close on the speaker’s words than the attribution. (Same goes for the end of a section.) I’m struck by how often writers—especially journalists—seem content to send readers on their way with “. . . he says” or “. . . she says.”
It usually takes just a minor restructuring to conclude with the quote, and I can’t remember a single person complaining when I’ve edited a story this way. (I do it a lot.)
“And that,” he said, “is the truth.”