I agree that an author's intention during the writing of a story can have little or no impact on what a reader gets out of that same story. And I think a reader's interpretation of a story is perfectly valid whether or not it jives with an author's intent. The published story, the physical work that makes its way out into the world, becomes an independent, untethered puppy that is meant to fend for itself.
Still, I think author intention is important, and I think it's important because the ability of an author to convey his or her intent is a mark of success and, I think, will ultimately lead to that great thing all of us is searching for whether we know it or not: happiness.
Ah, happiness, that vaporous cloud of a goal that seems to dissipate as soon as you think you have it! Happiness, I contend, will come from a writer's internal satisfaction with herself or himself. More on that later...if I remember.
All throughout high school, I wanted to become a painter. But for whatever reason I didn't take a single art class. I ended up taking marching band. I played the clarinet. I wore a uniform with a big red A on it, which stood for Arcadia. A-R-C! A-D-I-A! A-R-C-A-D-I-A, Arcadia! Hooray!*
So, I went to college up in northern California, and I finally got to take art classes. I took a lot of them. Several were taught by this teacher who went by the name of David Hollowell.
David Hollowell was about 8 feet tall and one could see, if one looked deeply enough into his eyes, that he had the potential to kill people and bury them in his backyard. Being the person I am, I was intrigued by him. I took about four classes with him, each class meeting 2-3 times a week for 3 hours at a time and lasting for ten weeks. And, I swear to you, David Hollowell gave the exact same lecture every single day I went to see him. He would say something like, "I can tell you what I think about your piece, but you shouldn't care what I think about your piece, because what I think about your piece doesn't matter unless you're trying to do what I'm trying to do, which you probably aren't."
At first, his words sounded like adult-speak in the Peanuts cartoons.
Over time I started to actually recognize the words, even though the meaning behind the words were still lost on me.
It wasn't until my senior year, my last class with him, that I started to understand what he was saying. He was dealing directly with the idea of author intention (or at least artist intention).
He was basically saying that every artist should take the time to clarify her or his intention. Once that intention is clear, then the artist has a clear direction for how she or he should proceed to convey that intention. If a viewer or a reader is able to pick up on that intention, then the artist can consider himself or herself successful.
Now, there are a lot of intentions out there. A writer might intend to write a convincing murder scene, a murder scene that makes a reader think that it must be real, that the writer must have killed to be able to write something so convincing. On the other hand, a writer might have the intention of making a reader laugh or cry or donate money to needy causes. ON THE OTHER HAND, a writer might also have the intention of producing a piece of writing that is open for interpretation. In that case, the successful conveyance of that intention may be multiple interpretations. That's valid, as long as it's the writer's intention.
I said earlier that misinterpretation of a writer's intention is perfectly valid, and I still think that's true, from a READER's point of view. But I argue that a WRITER will be happiest when he or she is able to guide the reader to the intended interpretation. I argue that if I try to write a deep love story and the reader understands the story as a deep love story, I will feel better than if the reader interpreted the story to be a metaphor for unlawful taxation. For me, it's satisfying when a reader somehow follows the emotional path I attempted to lay out and arrives at the same place I did. My guess is that when a writer is able to "teach" readers how to read things his or her way, then that writer will feel a certain sense of satisfaction that will bring them internal happiness.
During my art classes, we had a guest speaker come in to talk about her sculptures. She showed us slides of these big things that weighed a ton. One I remember involved a huge cube with a huge spring on top and a chair bouncing up and down on top of the spring. I thought it was a cool piece, but I was dismayed when the sculptor said she displayed it in a park where anyone could climb on top of it if they wanted to. That was her intention.
I imagined people getting shoe marks on the beautiful surface of the cube. I imagined people pulling the chair down so far that it ruined the spring. "And...couldn't someone die if they tried to sit on the chair?" I asked.
"Probably," the artist said. (Or at least she said something along those lines.) "But I designed the cube to be big enough so that people can't really make it to the top."
For me, that communicated the idea of successful artist intention. The artist felt safe in putting her piece out into the world without any velvet ropes because she had thought hard enough about the proportions so as to have safeguarded human interactions with it. Her puppy could fend for itself.
When I write, I think about that, and I ask myself if I've done all I can to try and direct the reader along the path I have intended. I ask myself if I'm okay with the places that can be interpreted multiple ways. That's important to me, and, like I said, I'm happy when a reader comes to the same conclusions I tried to convey. It doesn't happen every time, and I view that as room for me to grow as a writer. Is it a problem for readers if they read a totally different interpretation than what I intended? No, not at all. But I'll feel happier if it doesn't play out that way.
*I have to give a little shout out to my alma mater because the director of 38 years is retiring after a great career. This video is a look at this years group, and they're pretty amazing!
And, as if this post wasn't long enough, I want to send out a big thank you to my brother! Being the supportive guy that he is, he tracked down yesterday my high school English teacher who inspired me to become a writer, and who I acknowledged in Wild Grass for giving me permission to tell the truth. I have been looking for her for a few years, but never could get a lead. I now have her phone number and address, and I'm so excited to get to thank her in person!