Daily Archives: February 8, 2013

Interpretation and Intention

When you write, do you do so with an ‘intent’ – as in, do you write with a particular meaning in mind, using specific images and descriptions in order to express this meaning? Or do you just tell the story as it comes to you without worrying about larger structures of meaning and significance? Or neither of the above?

But what do I *mean* by 'the sky was blue'?Image: nansaawebs.blogspot.com

But what do I *mean* by ‘the sky was blue’?
Image: nansaawebs.blogspot.com

I’m wondering about this today because I recently wrote a couple of pieces of flash fiction for a competition, and everyone I’ve asked to read the pieces has been struck by one of the stories in particular – but all for different reasons. Everyone took a different meaning from the words I wrote, and no two of them interpreted the story in the same way. Some were confused and said they didn’t understand it, but that it grabbed their attention nonetheless; some (including my husband, who interpreted the story so cleverly) saw it as meaning something entirely different from what it means to me.

Normally, I don’t think I write with a particular purpose in mind – I just tell whatever story is in my head, and let the reader worry about meaning. But this time was an exception; I wrote this story with deliberate reference to things which are important to me, and I intended it to mean something specific. I didn’t anticipate that anyone else would pick up on what I was referring to, but it didn’t bother me too much. I just hoped the story would be enjoyable, regardless of whether or not you understood all the deeper meanings. If my test audience is anything to go by, I think I’ve probably succeeded there, and I don’t mind that nobody (so far) has understood the story the way I do. But would it bother you if people didn’t understand your work the way you intended it to be understood?

When I was at university, I was part of a (very snooty) group of people who’d gather every week to share their writing, and listen to readings from different members every week. I eventually left when I realised that there were one or two members who saw the group as their own personal soapbox and who were not interested in hearing the work of others, but before I got to that point I did have one opportunity to share a piece. It was a haiku. This was it:

Simplicity; I
crave it. Just you and I and
all our lives to live.

Not a very complicated piece, you’ll agree. Bear in mind I was a teenager (locked into hopeless unrequited love) at the time I wrote this. It didn’t really have much of a meaning besides ‘please please please go out with me.’ At least, I didn’t intend it to have much meaning, and I wrote it without a huge amount of thought. But, in this snooty group, there was one guy who really liked to show off his book-learnin’. He took this haiku of mine – this humble little string of clunky syllables – and tried to interpret it as though it was a piece of work on a par with Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot. He tried to suggest the white space I’d left around the words was indicative of ‘the poet’s isolation and bleak outlook on the world’ (it wasn’t – I only had one piece of writing on the page because I’d only managed to complete one piece of writing that week.) He tried to suggest that the word ‘simplicity’ was ‘in constant tension with the very notion of the complexity of life itself – the poet is creating a Gordian knot of impossibility within the poem’ (what I meant was, if this particular boy would go out with me, life would be simple – I wasn’t trying to be philosophical.) He babbled on about ‘authorial intention’, ‘the poet’, ‘the author’, ‘poetic significance’ and lots of other nonsense, despite the fact that ‘the poet’ was a spotty, awkward teenage girl sitting opposite him, looking ever more uncomfortable with his dissection of her work.

At the time, I was very embarrassed by this person’s interpretation of my poem. I knew he was doing it to show off to the instructor, and to show how much knowledge he had of the various schools of literary criticism. Nobody else knew enough to contradict him, and I was far too shy to say ‘actually, that’s not what I meant’. As time has gone by, though, I’m starting to wonder if I should’ve been flattered, a little, by his interpretation. Even if he wasn’t doing it out of a love for what I’d written, it was still amazing that he could get such depth of meaning out of what was, for me, a very shallow poem indeed.

It’s interesting to see what people will do with your work once you hand it over to them. A writer has no control, of course, over what a reader will do with (or think of) the work they produce, and all we can hope for is that readers will like what they read, whether or not they pick up on deep structures or oh-so-clever allusions. There are books which bear their allusions and references and homages to this great writer or that great writer like a crust on the surface of the words, which can sometimes be impossible to break through – Umberto Eco, much as I love him, can often be guilty of this, and it puts me off his work sometimes. It can come across as elitist and exclusionary.

Do you think writing which is deliberately obtuse or heavily peppered with classical or learned references is unfair to readers? A writer should be free to write in whatever way they wish, of course, but do you think the writing should be structured in such a way as to be meaningful, whether or not a reader fully grasps all the references being made? Or is that ‘dumbing-down’?

Well, that’s what’s occupying my mind today. If you’d like to share an opinion, please do!