Have you ever discussed a book with a fellow reader? Ever felt like you read completely different books even though the titles and covers were exact replicas? Even though the words contained within the pages were identical?
Welcome to the world of interpretation.
We bring our life experiences to the stories we read. These experiences, along with our moral compasses and our self-imposed belief systems, shape the way we interpret the written word.
Last night, Dear Daughter and I discussed speech and the scores she’d received over the past year. She wondered why her speeches seemed to fare worse than another competitor’s.
After exploring her topics, cuttings and judges’ critiques, we came up with a viable answer. It was one we had discussed during her speech preps: her topics are just so dang difficult.
Nay, not the topics themselves, but the discrepancy between her interpretations and the judges’ comfort levels with the delivery.
Speech One: our narrator related the story of a fellow inmate at the mental hospital. Inmate had tried to commit suicide by lighting herself on fire. This is dark material by anybody’s standards. However, nobody had an issue with the topic or even the vivid details of the scars the fire left behind. Rather, it was the narrator’s admiration for her fellow inmate that triggered the judges’ disquiet.
DD had accurately portrayed the narrator in that she admired the inmate for her ability to take charge of her own life and so concisely act on her impulses. Instead of understanding this perspective, the judges felt sickened that anyone could admire the gruesome nature of another child’s attempt at ending her life.
The gist of their comments were, “Don’t smile during this part. Show grief. It’s wrong to admire something so horrible. You should feel sad and disgusted at what Fellow Inmate did.”
Speech Two: DD performed the life of an emotionally neglected teen. While recounting her character’s vast sexual escapades, DD embraced one particular account with wonderment and warmth. Her voice softened. Her arms embraced herself as she retraced the images of her lover dressing her and gently placing her in a cab when the night was over. The judges scribbled furiously over this.
“She’s fourteen. He’s in his late twenties. Show her being ashamed of her actions.”
“But she’s not, Mom.” DD’s pretty astute for such a young lady. “It was the only time she felt loved. This was a special memory for her. It made her feel pretty and important. Like someone finally cared.”
Fellow blogger, Eric Trant, touches on this topic with his post: Viscerality: What is too much? In it, he explores which topics are taboo. Or rather, which portrayals of said topics are taboo.
I guess we all want to know the answer to that question. What is too much? How much of the down and dirty are we allowed to show as writers? At what point does our character’s truth upset the delicate sensibilities or our readers? Should that matter?
Do you, dear writers, white-wash the emotional impact of your story to keep your potential readers from walking away? Does reader interpretation even enter your mind when penning your prose? If so, how do you balance the final product with the truth of your story? Do you have a secret manuscript you’re afraid to unleash because you fear people will interpret your words differently than they are meant?
Do you think more credence is given to the actual words on a page and not enough thought goes into how or why those words were delivered? Do we need to be more aware of this so our intent is clearly spelled out or does that blatant telling cheapen the story?
Sheesh, so many questions. I can’t wait to hear your answers.