Thursday, January 26, 2012

Authorial Intention, Success, and Happiness

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!


  1. What a great post. More and more I realize how little...depth I've given my job as an author. I am passionate about writing and reading, I love the art of words...but I've never given INTENT thought. Not ever. But your post has made it clear how important it is to consider if the way in which we write, the way we put our words together, are going to actually lead the reader where we want them. We tend to just assume the words will do that. But I think there are enough examples of emails sent with one intention and read by the receiver as another to prove your point. I've had my fair share. Thank you for this though provoking post.

    1. April, Davin is really great at pointing things I never thought about before. I'm happy he did for you too!

  2. So true. I've reconciled myself with the fact that I'll never get my exact point across in my writing, but I know that I'd be thrilled if someone got it. ;-)

  3. April, Ugh, how I know what you mean about those emails! I find myself using emoticons far more than I'd like just to make sure people know when I'm joking. If only I weren't such a sarcastic individual!

    Misha, Yes, I'm not sure I'll ever get my exact point across either. But even close calls can be satisfying!

  4. Davin, so sorry I didn't get to your post until now! And where is everyone? This is an excellent post, and I love the different direction you've taken our subject. I agree with you and I don't agree with you. I guess when you say that part of an author's success comes through correct interpretation on the reader's end, I wonder how all of that is supposed to play out. It's one thing if you're sending your work to a friend/beta reader, and another thing if you're passing your work around a classroom for critique, and another thing when someone emails an author to let them know what they thought of a book, but it's quite different when a book is published. Something changed for me, then, especially when I decided not to read reviews anymore.

    I guess what I'm getting at is if an author is fairly hermit-ish, do you think it's important for them to seek out what other people are saying about their work in order to see if that work is reaching the success you speak of? Or is just a little bit of feedback enough? From the publisher/edit/initial readers before publication?

    I just see communication needing to happen between author and reader for that sort of success to be recognized, and that won't always happen or be available, especially if the author has passed on.

    But, that all aside, I do agree with you that an author should do all he can to guide the reader on the intended path. I think that's very important, and something I didn't even remotely touch in my post yesterday. Do you think that intended path can ever change for the author? Does that make like no sense at all? Haha.

    1. Hey Michelle, I think it's a good point about the hermit writers. I guess in one sense their success is the easiest to achieve because their intention was just to put their work out there! If they aren't paying attention to the feedback, then they are taking the opportunity to express themselves and let whatever happens happen. But maybe that's wrong. I guess you are able to partially answer that question since you decided not to pay attention to reviews to keep yourself from getting down, right? As for the dead, I'm not too worried about their happiness. Perhaps the happiness of the bacteria that are decaying their bodies is important, though.

  5. I might be tempted to reverse everything I said in my post and in comments to Michelle's post on Wednesday. I'll also paste here the remarks I made on Wednesday in an email to Davin and Michelle:

    Maybe we're being too intellectual about this. Isn't the author's undeniable feeling of ownership of a novel an important thing? Isn't our assumed authority valuable, at least to us? To whom does a book matter most, if not to the writer? Maybe Michelle crying on the drive home from a reader's group is an appropriate act and we should explore our feelings of possessiveness? I don't know.

    I told Mighty Reader last night that I don't quite believe my own claims about authorial intent. That the author must matter more than I credit him. But I don't know what to say about that. The reader's experience matters, sure. Most readers of a book won't be the author. But the author surely matters, right? Or not? The more I argue in favor of primacy of the reader, the less I feel like I believe it. What's that tell me?

    A couple of people have commented already that the author is in one way the owner of the text in that the author (no matter the editorial input from editors or agents or critique groups) is the single individual who has given birth to the text. The author--and as writers we all know this is true--has a unique relationship to the text that no other human has.

    I agree with what Davin says here, that the author's intent is important when judging reception of the work. How well did the writer communicate whatever it was he was putting out there? I'm reasonably certain that on more than one occasion a reader has talked to me about something I've written and I became aware that the reader either didn't pay attention to the story/novel, had wanted the story to be about something else and was pretending that's what it was about, or just wasn't smart enough to figure out what I was talking about. Because let's face it, some human beings are not very bright but they still have the cash and opportunity to purchase and read books and then they blog about what they've read but failed to understand. It happens and we all know it. As a writer, I feel fully justified in saying "that person just didn't get it, and the failure is entirely with the reader." Maybe that's just authorial ego, but maybe, you know, we writers sometimes do know what we're doing and maybe, you know, sometimes readers ain't so smart. Sometimes readers are lazy or prejudiced.

    I'm reading Opened Ground, a collection of poems by Novel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney. Heaney is a genius. I don't get a lot of his poems. Some of the pages might as well be blank, for all I understand. But I'm not willing to say that these are bad or meaningless poems. I'm willing to be humble and admit that his vocabulary is a lot bigger than mine, and his use of language is a lot more sophisticated than mine, and probably old Seamus is just a smarter guy than I am and I don't get the subtle meanings of his poems. Because I can at least recognize some of the beauty if not the meaning, so I know I'm looking at something that contains more than I can identify.

    I would also like to say in a quick aside to Anne Gallagher that I'm 100% sure your stories contain depths of which you are unaware because you are not a shallow person and you don't empty out your brain before you sit down to write.

    Am I done whinging? I think so. Hey, Davin! Do you have any photos of you in your band costume?

  6. Scott, I have to admit that I quite frequently say to myself, "That reader did not read carefully enough. That reader does NOT GET IT. That reader should not keep reading my work if they're going to read it that way. That way is wrong."

    And I keep saying these things to myself despite how much I believe that interpretation has been handed to the reader - by me - because I published my story and put it out there in the world. I think author ego is necessary, and I think there is something to be said about the author "being right." But I think there's a good balance, as well, when an author can let go of their work enough to allow other interpretation, even seemingly wrong ones, enter their world.

    I do think the author matters. Very much. But many readers just don't care. They just want a good story. Where does that put us?

    1. Maybe writers just have to hope that sometimes we'll connect with the right readers, but accept that a lot of the time we probably won't. And that's just the way it is.

      Look how many days and how much effort it took to get me to that bland little statement of the obvious!

    2. Hey, at least you/we came to a conclusion. Because I agree. :)


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