Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Words on the Page

Another shot of the artwork I showed in "Red Flag."

There have been times during writing groups, creative writing classes, or in 1:1 conversations when the person who has written a piece of work starts to explain what he meant. I usually clamp my mouth shut during these often long-winded explanations, but what I want to do is scream: you can't do that!

I typically have enough patience to wait until the speaker has finished his explanation before I suggest that he fill his readers in with all that pertinent information. What some beginning writers don't understand is that the words on the page must speak for themselves. In all likelihood, an author will never know how his words were perceived by the anonymous readers who read them. (Except in blogs.) He will probably not be standing over their shoulders or conversing with them about his work. The words on the page have to make sense. They must clearly tell their stories all by themselves.

That doesn't mean, however, that they will be read the same way by different readers. When a person reads, he brings his own life experiences to the pages. He interprets meaning through his own world view. I saw that over and over again in literature classes as each student shared his opinion/perspective on what the author meant by certain words or phrases. My husband and I actually met in this way. We were in a few college classes together and as we participated in class and analyzed pieces of literature, we found that our views were completely different. He often shared his take on a story and I'd think, "How could anyone come up with that?"

So I shouldn't have been surprised when he commented on one of my recent blog posts and reacted to it in a completely different way than I meant it. I'm referring to my fictional story in "Red Flag," about a boy expelled from school for hanging effigies of fellow students in the hallway. I thought I'd created a completely unlikeable character in the boy, but my husband said he felt sorry for him.

Sorry for him? Had I left any room in my words for compassion? I read back through them and still couldn't see what he saw. His reaction was certainly not what I intended. I've always wondered what authors would think about some of the ways their words and stories are interpreted. I'm sure that sometimes they would be appalled at the meaning certain readers ascribe to their work. The way people read something is not always the way it was intended to be read. Regardless, the words on the page have to speak for themselves. What follows that is literary discussion.


  1. "He often shared his take on a story and I'd think, "How could anyone come up with that?""


    A) I completely agree with you and have the same reaction when writers leap to defend their work. I *try* not to do it myself, but I think sometimes we just get caught up.

    B) I see where your husband is coming from in feeling sorry for the boy in "Red Flag." Because I don't think that *most* "delinquents" are just born that way (although some are). I think many children get lost in this world, and too few people try to find them. But, to your point, that's definitely my life experience and my belief system coming into play there, not just your words.

  2. To me, the boy was totally unlikeable and was what's wrong with the world today.

  3. Josie - you read it just like I wrote it.

    Kristan - your pity for the boy and empathy for wondering *why* he was a delinquent is exactly what drew my husband to him as well. Which is wonderful, because he works with troubled teens and knows that there's much more to the story than what we see on the surface.

  4. Great discussion here, Juliann. I get impatient with artists who try to explain what they meant...only if they don't listen when you tell them it should be apparent. I think it's useful in critique groups to say, "this is what I was trying to do...did I do it?" rather than, "here's what it's really about and aren't you glad I spent ten minutes explaining it to you?" going to read "Red Flag" now.

  5. Sarah - you got it exactly. An artist shouldn't have to say "here's what it's really about." We *should* already know.

    I also agree with asking for specific critiquing - which is totally different.