I May or May Not Have Meant to Say Something Like That or Quite the Opposite.

“It is not enough to make sense. We want to find the sense the author intended.” —C.S. Lewis

Anybody want to join me on the fence?  There’s plenty of room.

I agree with this sometimes, disagree sometimes.  This discussion always makes me think of Ray Bradbury explaining to disbelieving university students that Fahrenheit 451 was absolutely not about censorship. No, it’s not.  I wrote it, dammit; I should know! (Here I imagine Mr. Bradbury flinging paperbacks at college students’ heads.  His aim is impressive.)

bradbury

Let me give you a couple of examples from my own experience as a writer who deals directly with readers during the workshopping process.

Last year, I presented a fifty-word story to the community on  Scribophile.  I’d never tried microfiction before, but it was for a contest, so I gave it a shot.  Since I didn’t win, and my subsequent submission of the piece came with a note telling me that I don’t understand microfiction, I’ll share it with you here.

Waiting

I waited for him to come home. He did.

I waited for him to speak. He spoke.

I waited for him to stop.

Go to sleep, I thought. He did.

I waited for him to leave for work. Leave me alone.

Now I wait for him to return. He won’t.

A critique I received on this came with an interpretation that I would never have expected.  What’s your take on it?  My answer is below.  Please enjoy these puppies while you consider your answer.

Aaaaaawwwwwwwwww-Sweet-puppies-9415255-1600-1200

What did I write?  The narrator is waiting for hubby to come home, but then wants hubby to be quiet and go away, as he’s an annoyance.  The interpretation that threw me for a loop?  A man who comes home and rapes his wife every night because he feels he can as the man.

No, no, no!  Not only is that not what I wrote, I have no idea how it could be inferred from those words.  A year later, and I’m still baffled.

I did not correct that person, by the way.  I said thanks and walked away, scratching my head.

On the other hand, I’m sometimes pleased when people find things I didn’t mean, possible motives for a character, meanings for a story, connections between people and events that I miss.

I’m working on another story that I wrote last year, where the main character comes across an old friend.  The MC is successful, with a family of sorts, and his friend is a junkie/prostitute.  The MC purposefully gives his friend an overdose in the climax of the story.  I don’t overtly state why, which has caused different readers to suggest possible motives.  I’m seriously considering leaving it as is, because I find the idea of openness in this particular story fascinating.

(I didn’t mean to skip the motive; it was simply so obvious inside my head that I didn’t put it on the page. If you’ve read the story and are dying to know, I’ll tell you once it’s printed and you’ve purchased whatever magazine buys it.)

What do you think?  Does art belong to the artist or to the observer or to both?

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8 Responses to I May or May Not Have Meant to Say Something Like That or Quite the Opposite.

  1. It’s a fascinating topic. For that particular story, I always took it to be about a woman spends her whole life waiting on her husband — waiting for him to leave, to stop annoying her, etc — and when he finally stops coming home, she finds herself still, in a sense, stuck in the cycle of waiting…only now she’s waiting for him to come home. I figured she may have been surprised to find she missed him. Just what I thought when I read it.

    After hearing what the person thought about the dude raping her every night, I went back and reread it. I think they may have come to that conclusion from the lines, “I waited for him to stop.

    Go to sleep, I thought. He did.”

    I assume you meant “waited for him to stop” in response to the previous line (“he spoke”) — however, reading it with the knowledge that someone thought it was talking about rape, my mind grouped the “waited for him to stop” with the “go to sleep, I thought” and that’s where I realized it could, to some people — and mostly due to the line break — seem to indicate rape. But I never would have thought that without hearing you mention it.

    As for my own stories, I feel the meanings are usually pretty clear — however, I’ve had a few people come from seemingly out of nowhere with a meaning I did not intend. I usually find it entertaining. 😉

    • Mmm. Maybe I’ve always missed that because I don’t understand line breaks. The rejection letter I got actually suggested that it was closer to a poem, but I’ve never felt comfortable with any attempt to rework it into one. Your interpretation of it is exactly what I meant.

      Yeah, I’ve had two recent experiences with entertaining takes on my stories. My Spark entry got all kinds of meanings thrown on it. I enjoyed that a lot.

  2. Spark Editor says:

    I’m gonna have to say “a little of both.” There’s the author/artist’s intent, yes, but once a work is shared with another person, the interpretation (or misinterpretation) belongs to the reader/observer.

    The best outcome for the author is for the work to be constructed in such a way that the reader assigns the interpretation the author intended. The best outcome for the reader is to interpret the work in a way that is personally meaningful and moving—regardless of authorial intent.

    • I know it can be frustrating when you know for sure and other meanings are ascribed that for the writer simply didn’t exist. There’s a Crowded House song called “You Are the One to Make Me Cry,” which many people interpret as being about the death of their drummer, since many songs from that era alluded to that, but Neil Finn has corrected that on many occasions. It’s about a castaway, a true story he read in the paper.

      But whatcha gonna do?

  3. bacollins924 says:

    I agree with Alexis about the “stop” and “go to sleep” references, although that’s not what I took away from this piece. To me, the couple’s patterns had simply become routine. The phrase “I waited for him to stop” is the sort of thing one might look back on with regret or revelation.
    It’s certainly a challenge to write sparely and concisely, and not be misinterpreted or misunderstood. But everyone places their own transparency on top of your words, which makes a great case for strong verbs that take the wiggle room out of the reader’s interp.

  4. Cheryl says:

    I didn’t see rape there. I saw disinterest and then regret, perhaps, when he didn’t come back any more, even though the MC didn’t really want him there when he was.

    I don’t think there was any foreshadowing or subtext to suggest anything violent, so my mind didn’t go there.

    I think it would be lovely if every reader saw exactly what I was trying to say, but that doesn’t happen and I don’t think I can expect that. We all come to reading something with our own experiences, so therefore our interpretation will differ somewhat. I think I’d be happy with any interpretation as long as it wasn’t the total opposite of what I was trying to say.

    • It’s funny that sometimes I enjoy the interaction with the reader’s perception, while other times I want to go back and say, no! You got it wrong!

      When I was workshopping To the River (available in Spark; A Creative Anthology, Volume III in October), people wanted to know if the river actually existed, since it’s a semi-memoir. I think Scott is the only person I’ve ever told.

      So in the end, it’s partially my fault for being purposefully vague often enough that readers may think I always am.

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