Sunday, September 23, 2018

What you wrote and what readers think you wrote.

When writers gather, one of the perennial topics of discussion is the comments readers make about our work. Sometimes readers understand exactly what we meant when we wrote the thing we wrote; other times, not so much. 

I've seen this in action when I've attended Q&A sessions with various authors. Someone -- often a fan -- will suggest connections between this scene and that, or similarities and/or differences between or among certain characters -- and the author will say something along the lines of, "Hmm. That's interesting. I never thought about that before."

Of course, sometimes authors run across people whose interpretations of their work are so far out in left field that you have to wonder whether they read the book at all.

Be that as it may, this phenomenon of readers reinterpreting authorial intent really bugs some authors -- particularly when it results in a fewer-than-five-star review on Amazon. The thing is, though, there's no point in getting upset about it. Once the author has written the words and put them out there for the world to read, his or her part is done. The rest is up to readers -- who, by reading the author's words, bring the story to life anew. And readers always bring their own life experiences and biases to the work. So it stands to reason that they may see things the author didn't put there consciously -- or things the author never put there at all.

It's not just a bane of writers; all sorts of creative types have this experience. This past week, I was on vacation in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I paid another visit to the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. O'Keeffe's work has been misinterpreted from the get-go; her paintings of close-ups of flowers, for example, were viewed by the men of the art world as abstract depictions of female genitalia. O'Keeffe hated that. She was interested in the shapes -- the lines and curves -- so she painted them. It had nothing to do with sex at all. 

Later in life, O'Keeffe traveled around the world -- to Japan and to Machu Picchu, among other places -- and she would paint the things she saw in her travels. Which brings us to this painting. It's called Tan, Orange, Yellow, Lavender, and it was first displayed at a New York gallery in 1961, when O'Keeffe was 74 years old. 

At the O'Keeffe Museum, a card on the wall explains that the dealer who owned the gallery thought it was a painting of a tree. It's not. It's a system of rivers O'Keeffe saw from the window of a plane. But she didn't correct the dealer: "As for me," she said, "they were just shapes."

What we as authors put on paper are also "just shapes." If we're lucky, our readers will see the same shapes we meant to put there. But not always. And that's okay. Really.

These moments of interpretive blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

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