Monday, November 14, 2011

It's Not What You Think It Is

Twenty years ago I got a harsh lesson in writing: an author is not in control once the writing has left her hands.

I was in a poetry class in college at the time, and had been doing very well. The professor loved me. The class took to my poems well. Until one of the last assignments, when I turned in a poem about a relationship with my then-boyfriend, written as an analogy to a carousel ride. The poem was metaphorical, to be sure, but not cryptic. There were lines that made very clear - or so I thought - that this was about a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship about to end.

And the professor and half the class thought it was about sexual abuse of a young girl by a father.

Even as I write this, I am laughing, because that idea was so preposterous it left my head spinning. They sat in class for 30 minutes discussing this poem and the deeper meaning to it, when I could find NOTHING within the poem itself to lead someone to believe that was what it was about. When, at the end, I told them it was not about that at all, they STILL didn't believe me.

I got an A+ on that poem, and resolved never to write poetry again.

One could hope fiction stories are different. Most are not cryptic, nor do they lend themselves to requiring people to seek deeper meaning in them. But if I've discovered anything in the last year, other than the fact that I write pathetically slowly, it is that a book is not the sum of the words on a page: its meaning lies, to a great extent, in a combination of what the author brings to the page, and what the reader brings.

This is a hard truth for writers.

We want to be in control of what people are reading, of what they are thinking as they read. Mystery writers especially try to control the thought process - throwing in hints here and clues there while all the while also writing glaring neon arrows to lead the reader down the wrong path in hopes of surprising them.

But most writing does this to some extent. Water for Elephants, for example, deliberately sets the reader up to expect one ending and then delivers another. Authors like Suzanne Collins and Chris Cleave set out to write books with a message on war or immigration or the harshness of life.

But no one book is ever read the same, because no two people come to that book with the same experiences and perspectives. What resonates with me in The Things We Carry may mean nothing to you. What grabs my interest in The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time might not carry any significance for you. I read and love Mennonite in a Little Black Dress for probably very different reasons than my Mennonite friend will.

And what I've learned is that this is okay. It is okay to write a story and let that story take on a life of its own. How great is it that people can read my words, and find themselves in it?

I am currently working on a short story for my residency in January, and it contains four different characters with radically different political points of view. It is just a story to me. I wanted to write something that stretched me, that put some controversy between characters, creating conflict. I remembered a teacher once telling me long ago that the most interesting stories often are where very different people are trapped together and have to deal with each other. So that's what I did. I threw four radically different people into a room with violence ensuing outside while a person lay dying inside, threw a little politics and religion in the mix ... and waited to see what would happen.

I expect some of the critiquers in workshop will be able to see this as merely a story and not a political statement. It is just a story to me. I really am not making any point at all in it.  But some, I suspect, will focus on just one point of view that supports or attacks their own point of view and take issue with that. Some will see themselves on one side, some will see their own angry debates with friends or family, some will identify with the hopelessness, some with the rage, some with the loneliness, some with the compassion. Some will make rash judgements about me and what I believe.

For once, I'm not just begrudgingly accepting this. I'm embracing it. I'm writing for it. "Come, read," I want to say, "and find yourself in here somewhere."

As long as they don't think it's about child molestation, I'm okay.


  1. "Come, read," I want to say, "and find yourself in here somewhere."
    I love this take--as I have never given it much thought at all. But funny, when my CPs review my book, they always thing it means something other than what I did and I want to say that's not it! Why didn't I write it so you could get it? I saw it as a flaw in my own ability to get a point across--it happens on my blog too quite often.
    But your reasoning makes sense and it should be something to embrace.

  2. I've thought a lot about how different the story we write is compared to what people we read.

    When one of my favorite books was hacked to pieces in a lit class, telling SUCH a different story than the one I loved, I changed my major from English.

  3. This is interesting, and maybe something we writers forget sometimes.

  4. Terrific post, Heidi. I love how we all bring something different to our writing, and how each person will look at it through their own eyes.

    Writing is such a subjective business, in so many ways - from the authors to agents to editors to readers. It's really quite fascinating when you think about it!

  5. I never thought about this in terms of my own writing Heidi! You bring up a really good point about how our perceptions actually do color everything we read/see.

    You've brought back memories for me! I do recall waaaaay back in the day (as in my high school literature classes) wondering if the authors truly intended all the symbolism and significance behind particular color choices, etc. that my teacher was claiming the author did. I still do!