Monday, June 26, 2017

It's all open to interpretation, or is it?




A friend who held a PhD in comparative literature once told me a writer is the worst person to analyze his own writing. We were arguing over a passage in a book in which I took what the writer wrote literally and he said it was a metaphor for something else. In my mind if someone came up with an interpretation other than what the author meant, indicated the writer had failed.
In a story about Ernest Hemingway a critic asked him how much he used symbolism in his work and the great author told him something like "I must use a lot because you people keep finding it in there."
Somehow through my early education I missed the interpretation part of reading literature. I read everything and took it literally.  Holden Caulfield actually envisioned himself catching children running through the rye grass before they ran over the cliff. The grass, the children, the cliff. He saw himself protecting them as later in the book he tried to protect his sister from seeing all the "fuck yous" written on all the walls.
It came as a complete surprise in college when literature instructors started opening the doors to interpretation and teaching us what the writer really meant by what they wrote. At  first I found it interesting and challenging but in time I came to resent it. Who were these instructors, the epitome of that saying about those who can't do teach trying to tell us what a writer meant by something or other. I remember sitting in classes wondering how in the hell a teacher came up with that. Without thinking much about it, I mentally rejected the whole concept and didn't do well in literature classes after that. What there was to learn from these classes was craft, art, how and why authors said this or that in a particular way, word choices, sentence construction, transition, point of view.
Now having been on both sides of the argument, I can see the truth in the meme attached to this post. I mostly write what I mean in large part because I have seen even the simplest metaphor go right over the heads of readers. I have also seen symbolism slide right by without the slightest notice. Sometimes I wonder if it is because people don't give me enough credit as a writer to offer up a symbol or at times it just goes past them without notice of the craft involved, all the time fearing that devastating classification as a "story teller" instead of a writer.
I'm not sure which of the two I prefer. Telling a good story that keeps people involved can be as much of an art form as writing a convoluted novel loaded with symbolism and sustained metaphors. Of the authors I have read I draw the line at William Faulkner. Any more wordy than that and to my mind it is just an author showing off what he feels is his or her superior intellect. Attacking a complex subject and making it understandable to everyone is a much better goal.
Years ago I worked at a newspaper that every day seemed to be half full of reviews, books, plays, movies, live shows; I used to swear if a street mime did a back flip we would have had a reviewer there writing about how he should have done it. In time I developed a chart of progression for critics. At first they write for the potential viewer, making a case for or against taking their time to see or listen to the subject. As the critic progresses, the next step is writing for the authors or the actors or the painters with a lot of advice on what they should have done. Following that the writing becomes aimed at other critics, writing in competition with contemporaries seeking out original and better ways to say what all the other lesser critics have been saying. One day in an interchange with one of the paper's critics I realized what the epitome of the genre was. He had written a rather long, convoluted sentence from which I had to look up seven words in the dictionary. Seven words in one sentence. When I finally had everything defined and understood, it turned out the sentence made no sense at all. I asked him to rewrite it to make it clearer.  When asked why I told him in the final analysis the sentence makes no sense. He looked at me and said, "makes sense to me," and that was that. It was then I realized the top critics write only for themselves.
I wonder if some of the great authors don't go through a similar progression. I remember the battles between Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer. I liked them both. Plus in writing what only they understand, they challenge those who interpret their writing to come up with some kind of understanding when there is none. Think how many professors have made their living trying to interpret James Joyce's "Ulysses." It keeps legions of literature instructors, who seldom write anything worthwhile themselves, employed.
An example of what I find in reading other authors incidentally comes from Norman Mailer – how to use adjectives. He always had a writing lesson or two in his books and one from "Tough Guys Don't Dance" stuck with me. He wrote something like "if I write a strong man walked into the room that is going to mean different things to different people. But if I say a man walked into the room, picked up a solid oak chair in one hand then with the other tore it into two pieces, you know something about how strong he is." I often use the difference in the meaning of "cold" to someone in California and someone in Alaska as an example of the need for specific adjective, but I learned that from Mailer.
I learned about human sensitivity from John Irving. He, in talking with a TV interviewer about "Cider House Rules," said I like to find someone portrayed in the news as despicable and give him humanity. If the protagonist in "Cider Rules had been a headline in the New York Daily News it would have read "Ether-addicted abortionist commits suicide."
But is the ether-addicted abortionist a symbol for god as an ultimate judge, doing the lord's work and the devil's work or is he simply a doctor who takes in unwed pregnant women and serves them as they wish? I prefer the latter. As I also prefer the gangster who when challenged to dance by heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano, tells him "tough guys don't dance." Going back to Mailer and adjectives, that one does the trick. And I wished I also could have scrubbed all the profanities off all the walls so my sister and later my children would not have to see them.
I realize not everyone reads the way I do, analyzing craft along the way, but these lessons are asides in otherwise riveting stories, deftly mixed into the narrative.


And then there is this about interpretation. Read any way you want to. Don't let a teacher  or a parent or a critic or even me tell you what something means, or what you are supposed to think after you read something. What's important  is what it means to you, the reader. What ever you draw from what you have read is all that matters at least when you are reading for enjoyment or enlightenment. (In other words not counting textbooks or scientific papers.) If what you take from a book is what the author intended then he or she has done the job correctly. 

Now the question, if you have read "Keep the Round Side Down," what do you think the killer whales symbolize? Hint: They are never referred to as "orca" in the book, only the boy is.

Comments from facebookBetty Sederquist Tim, when you were mentoring me as a writer, you didn't put up with any flowery BS from me in my writing. Lessons well learned, and now I know the origin of all that, those miserable literature classes. I would have majored in English, but found all those flowery metaphors in the classes a bit too daunting. I'm with Hemingway on this one. Interestingly, I think you and I have published WAY more than any of those English professors.

Jan Williams Simone Aw, I like a good metaphor once in awhile, not that I can come up with an example. But you two are my writing mentors. Even though I was not on the editorial side at ANWP, I picked up a lot from both of you. Every time I use an exclamation point here on FB I still can hear Tim's voice in my head saying (exclaiming?) to avoid them. If I were writing a blog or something more formal, they would be edited out. I wish I could go back and work there again, now that I have enough life experience to have something to say..

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Interesting quotations

"In the final analysis your life is only as good as the background music you dance to." – that was me

"Whether you think that you can or you think you can't, you are right." – Henry Ford

"You want to feel alive until the day you croak" – Frank Gallagher Shameless

"Smooth is good but sailing takes a brisk wind" – me

"I'm a drinker with writing problems." ~ Brendan Behan

"Religious Freedom is not about stopping persecution; it’s about being the one who gets to do it. Glory!" – Mrs. Betty Bowers, America's best Christian

It doesn't matter what you write, it only matters that you write.

"Give someone a book and they'll read all day. Teach someone to write a book and they'll spend a lifetime mired in paralyzing self doubt." – internet meme

"It's been a long time since I heard my backbone crack – Chuck Berry

“Don’t think you’re on the right road just because it’s a well-beaten path.” – JD

"I was the only person up on the hill with both racing numbers and a handicapped placard." – Kitty Delorey Fleischman, a grandmother who occasionally still races her Porsche in hill climbs.

Like most writers, I feel like a reprobate who does not deserve to live on any day that I do not write, but I also feel that four or five hours is enough to earn my stay on the planet for one more day. – anon

"Religion was invented when the first con man met the first fool." – Mark Twain

Shit happens; you just come up with a different plan. – Kitty

Your body is not a temple. It's an amusement park. – Anthony Bourdain

Never too late for a happy childhood – Berkley Breathed

A real writer doesn't just want to write, a real writer has to write. – Internet meme

"It was like the aftermath of an orgasm with the wrong partner" – David Lagercrants, "The Girl in the Spider's Web"

The non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity. – Franz Kafka

If the muse is late, start without her – Peter S. Beagle

We never comprehend how heavy the things are we insist on carrying until we set them down. jd

Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. ~Mark Twain Actually you could do the same thing with the word "really" as in "really cold."

If you are looking for an experience that will temper your vanity, this is it. There's no one to impress when you're alone on the trap line. – Michael Carey quoting his father's journal

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing. – Benjamin Franklin

It’s nervous work. The state you need to write in is the state that others are paying large sums of money to get rid of. – Shirley Hazzard

So far as I can remember, there is not one word in the Gospels in praise of intelligence -- Bertrand Russell

You know that I always just wanted to have a small ship to take stuff from a place that had a lot of that stuff to a place that did not have a lot of that stuff and so prosper.—Jackie Faber, “The Wake of the Lorelei Lee”

If you attack the arguer instead of the argument, you lose both

If an insurance company won’t pay for damages caused by an “act of God,” shouldn’t it then have to prove the existence of God? – I said that

I used to think getting old was about vanity—but actually it’s about losing people you love. Getting wrinkles is trivial. – Eugene O’Neill

German General to Swiss General: “You have only 500,000 men in your army; what would you do if I invaded with 1 million men?”

Swiss General: “Well, I suppose every one of my soldiers would need to fire twice.”

Writing is the only thing that when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.—Gloria Steinem

Exceed your bandwidth—sign on the wall of the maintenance shop at the West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Center

One thing I do know, if you keep at it, you usually wind up getting something done.—Patricia Monaghan

Do you want to know what kind of person makes the best reporter? I’ll tell you. A borderline sociopath. Someone smart, inquisitive, stubborn, disorganized, chaotic, and in a perpetual state of simmering rage at the failings of the world.—Brett Arends

It is a very simple mind that only knows how to spell a word one way.—Andrew Jackson

3:30 is too late or too early to do anything—Rene Descartes

Everything is okay when it’s 50-below as long as everything is okay. – an Alaskan in Tom Walker’s “The Seventymile Kid”

You can have your own opinion but you can’t have your own science.—commenter arguing on a story about polar bears and global warming

He looks at three ex wives as a good start—TV police drama

Talkeetna: A friendly little drinking town with a climbing problem.—a handmade bumper sticker

“You’re either into the wall or into the show”—Marco Andretti on giving it all to qualify last at the 2011 Indy 500

Makeup is not for the faint of heart—the makeup guerrilla

“I’m going to relax in a very adult manner.”—Danica Patrick after sweating it out and qualifying half an hour before Andretti

“Asking Congress to come back is like asking a mugger to come back because he forgot your wallet.”—a roundtable participant on Fox of all places

As Republicans go further back in the conception process to define when life actually begins, I am beginning to think the eventual definition will be life begins in the beer I was drinking when I met her.—me again

Hunting is a “critical element for the long-term conservation of wood bison.”—a state department of Fish and Game official explaining why the state would not go along with a federal plan to reintroduce wood bison in Alaska because the agreement did not specifically allow hunting

Each day do something that won’t compute – anon

I can’t belive I still have to protest this shit – a sign carriend by an elderly woman at an Occupy demonstration

Many people hear voices when no one is there. Some of them are called mad and are shut up in rooms where they stared at walls all day. Others are called writers and they do pretty much the same thing. – Meg Chittenden

Life should be a little nuts or else it’s just a bunch of Thursdays strung together—Kevin Costner as Beau Burroughs in “Rumor has it”

You’re just a wanker whipping up fear —Irish President Michael D. Higgins to a tea party radio talk show host

Being president doesn’t change who you are; it reveals who you are—Michelle Obama

Things sports announcers say

"… there's a fearlessment about him …"

"He's got to have the lead if he's going to win this race."

"Kansas has always had the ability to score with the basketball."

"NFL to put computer chips in balls." Oh, that's gotta hurt.

"Now that you're in the finals you have to run the race that's going to get you on the podium."

"It's very important for both sides that they stay on their feet."

This is why you get to hate sportscasters. Kansas beats Texas for the first time since 1938. So the pundits open their segment with the question "let's talk about what went wrong." Wrong? Kansas WON a football game! That's what went RIGHT!

"I brought out the thermostat to show you how cold it is here." Points to a thermometer reading zero in Minneapolis.

"It's tough to win on the road when you turn the ball over." Oh, really? Like you can do all right if you turn the ball over playing at home?

Cliches so imbedded in sportscasters' minds they can't help themselves: "Minnesota fell from the ranks of the undefeated today." What ranks? They were the only undefeated team left.

A good one: A 5'10" player went up and caught a pass off a defensive back over six feet tall. The quote? "He's got some hops."

Best homonym of the day so far: "It's all tied. Alabama 34, Kentucky 3." Oh, Tide.

"Steve Hooker commentates on his Olympic pole vault gold medal." When "comments" just won't do.

"He's certainly capable of the top ten, maybe even higher than that."

"Atlanta is capable of doing what they're doing."

"Biyombo, one of seven kids from the Republic of Congo." In the NBA? In America? In his whole country?

"You can't come out and be aggressive but you can't come out and be unaggressive."

"They're gonna be in every game they play!"

"First you have to get two strikes on the hitter before you get the strikeout."

"The game ended in the final seconds." You have to wonder when the others ended or are they still going on?

How is a team down by one touchdown before the half "totally demoralized?"

"If they score runs they will win."

"I think the matchup is what it is"

After a play a Houston defender was on his knees, his head on the ground and his hand underneath him appeared to clutch a very sensitive part of the male anatomy. He rolled onto his back and quickly removed his hand. (Remember the old Cosby routine "you cannot touch certain parts of your body?") Finally they helped the guy to the sideline and then the replay was shown. In it the guy clearly took a hard knee between his thighs. As this was being shown, one of the announcers says, "It looks like he hurt his shoulder." The other agrees and then they both talk about how serious a shoulder injury can be. Were we watching the same game?

"Somebody is going to be the quarterback or we're going to see a new quarterback."

"If you're gonna play running back in the SEC you're gonna take hits."

"That was a playmaker making a play."

Best headlines ever

Church Mutual Insurance won't cover Church's flood damage because it's 'an act of God'

Homicide victims rarely talk to police

Meerkat Expert Attacked Monkey Handler Over Love Affair With Llama Keeper

GOP congressman opposes gun control because gay marriage leads to bestiality

Owner of killer bear chokes to death on sex toy

Support for legalizing pot hits all-time high

Give me all your money or my penguin will explode

How zombie worms have sex in whale bones

Crocodile steals zoo worker's lawn mower

Woman shot by oven while trying to cook waffles

Nude beach blowjob jet ski fight leads to wife's death

Woman stabs husband with squirrel for not buying beer Christmas Eve