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:

But what do I *mean* by ‘the sky was blue’?

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!



7 thoughts on “Interpretation and Intention

  1. Kate Curtis

    This probably wasn’t your intention either, but this post is so completely true in my mind it made me laugh. I’ve sat in English class and thought with complete cynicism ‘you’re just guessing’ as we’ve interpreted poems or text. I’ve written poems myself that have been given way too much credit as often as they’ve been misunderstood. Humans by their nature seem to crave structure and meaning and we tend to create it when there is none. It is so true.

    I have no problem with ‘writing which is deliberately obtuse or heavily peppered with classical or learned references’ because I figure I wasn’t the intended audience. I know I’ve written poems myself that I haven’t *wanted* readers to fully understand. While I see this as the writer’s prerogative it is in the writer’s interest to appeal to a broad audience. It’s like watching children’s films that contain jokes for adults without affecting the children’s story.
    [Now that’s dumbing-down!]

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Glad I made you laugh, at least! It’s true, isn’t it – nothing makes you realise the uselessness of trying to understand texts like taking a course in English literature.

      I like your analogy about children’s movies with jokes that only adults would understand. That’s sort of what I mean – texts that work on multiple levels and bring enjoyment no matter what level you read them on. Also, the fluidity and multiplicity of texts never ceases to amaze me. I quite like the idea that different people will take different things from the same text.

      I’d better shut up before I start sounding like the pompous guy from my writers’ group! 🙂

  2. MishaBurnett

    I like to quote Sam Goldwyn’s reputed statement, “I make movies–if you want to send a message, call Western Union.” I feel that a story needs to stand or fall on its own as a story. I try to write so that anyone can pick up my work and be entertained.

    I loathe polemic in fiction. If I feel that the writer is making a statement I feel used. I try to weed it out in my own work. I would hate to think that anyone out there is reading my novel and thinking that I have some universal truth to share about love or violence or money or something. I tell stories for fun–that’s all they are intended to be for.

    That having been said, I do love dropping little literary in-jokes and references into my work. For example, in a list of books that my narrator finds in a closet is “Benway’s Guide To Endocrinology”. All the reader needs to know is that there are a bunch of old medical textbooks in this closet. However, it is my hope that some readers will recognize Dr. Benway from William Burroughs’ novels and get a chuckle out of the line.

    In my new novel I needed a bunch of names for companies, and most of them are taken from characters in Phillip Dick stories. Some folks might pick up on that, most won’t. I don’t think that those who don’t recognize the names are missing anything more than a moment of amusement at how gosh-darned clever I am.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      I totally agree that writing shouldn’t be didactic or polemical, absolutely. What I meant was more along the lines of what you’ve done with your ‘in-jokes’ (which are great, by the way!) And you’ve answered my questions perfectly. Your writing works on several levels, makes sense on all those levels, and delivers a great story no matter what the reader might bring to it. That’s great!

      Thanks for your comment – and yes, you are very gosh-darned clever. You also have excellent taste in books. 🙂

  3. Sam Seudo

    Like you, I usually just write to tell my story. I feel that trying TOO hard to be “intellectual” (like “Mr. Book-Learnin'” from your writing group) can serve to alienate many readers, and there are much more fun and creative ways to add layers of complexity to your writing. Mr. Burnett’s above example of “in-jokes” acknowledging the works of a favorite author is a fun option. My particular writing process seems to involve planning novels and then condensing them into short stories. While I only end up writing a small portion of what was originally going to be a broader story, this allows me to throw in little details hinting at both past and future events in the worlds that I create and in the lives of my characters. Even though I might be the only one who fully understands these little hints, I hope that they make my characters more three-dimensional and my setting richer. I also hope that they touch the reader’s imagination and allow them to infuse their own meanings, as well.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Hi, Sam! Thanks for your comment. I’ve never heard of anyone planning out a novel-length work and then condensing it to short story length. That must make for some extremely multi-layered, nuanced writing! I really like the way you put it – adding detail like that allows the reader to ‘infuse’ their own meaning. That’s a lovely thought. It means your text has so many lives, really, doesn’t it? It lives once in the mind of whoever creates it, but it lives afresh in the mind of every person who reads it.

      What a wonderful thing it is to write! 🙂

  4. Pingback: Writing Ethics | SJ O'Hart

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