When I was seven I heard Puff the Magic Dragon for the first time. The idea of this dragon losing his best friend and giving up on life was overwhelming. I tried to explain to my dad through short, sobbing breaths, but he didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t moving on.
My dad left the room. Dangling my feet off the edge of the couch, I wiped tears from my puffy cheeks with clenched fists. The stillness of his absence reinforced my sadness. I heard nothing except my own choked-back breaths. He came back with my brother, a pen, paper and the printed lyrics to Puff the Magic Dragon.
“We’re going to add a verse. You can’t change the parts already written but you can add more.”
We continued where the last verse ended and brainstormed the future of Puff and Jackie Paper. Our new verse reunited the friends at a costume party. Adult Jackie, dressed as a pirate, remembered the dragon when their eyes met across the familiar scene. Jackie introduced his dragon-friend to his family and young daughter. The girl continues adventuring with Puff where her father left off. If I possessed this verse, I would share.
When my mom opened the door I ran to her holding the paper in my small hands. Before she could put the groceries down on the table I was telling her the song had a new ending. In my young mind, our new verse was canon.
Throughout the years I continued rewriting stories. I didn’t change all the stories to have happier endings. I didn’t care if they were happy or sad, I only wanted them to be powerful. I wanted to feel and feel strongly. These changes often evolved into completely new stories. The more I wrote, the more I noticed about the strangers around me. Each individual a knot of stories intertwined to create a life. I watched and wondered where they were going and where they had been.
There are tears and sorrow written in the pages of our lives. Sometimes stories don’t end happily. How many pages we tear out to share will determine our readers’ feelings as they finish the last word. Whether we end on the victory or the relapse decides how our readers remember the story three months later when a stranger on the bus reminds them of our protagonist.
All stories can be happy. All stories can be sad. It depends on where you stop and that decision gives the entire story a different theme or takeaway. If you stopped reading at a certain line in any book, the novel would have a different emotion, a contrasting meaning, than if you had read to the end.
Would Titanic have been a success if the movie ended with Rose and Jack floating in the water? Would you feel the same way about Breakfast at Tiffany’s if the credits rolled after she threw Cat out of the cab? Would you watch Jaws again if the film ended with them leaving to catch the shark?
Even in our darkest moments, there is a beginning and an end. If I was the one controlling the pen (or keyboard) I had the power to decide where these stories start and finish. I could frame events to share emotion and empathy.
What I didn’t realize as I wrote (with dad as my scribe) the secret verse of Puff the Magic Dragon, was the power in pausing to remind yourself:
This isn’t how it has to end.