Tuesday, January 13, 2015
They Aren't Our Stories Anymore
I recently did a critique exchange with an old school chum. He has written a corker of a novel about a Walter Mitty type character who discovers a means of making instant copies of himself. It's a brilliant premise and he has created a thought-provoking story that was a pleasure to read.
During the critique process, we exchanged a series of emails in which we discussed our efforts. He finished mine first (I'm a slow reader) and he sent me his critique. He liked my story even though he is an atheist. He was gracious enough to put his world-view to one side while he read my novel. He had one criticism, which we discussed.
A few weeks later (I'm a very slow reader) I sent him my critique. I, too, had one small problem with his story. We discussed it, although I did sense some frustration from him that I did not get what he was trying to achieve. He explained that I had to read it in a certain way and that this would resolve my concern. I felt his frustration because he is possibly the smartest guy I know and I could see what he was trying to do, but only after he explained it to me. While reading the novel, however, I simply just did not see it that way.
So was he correct? Did I make a mistake in how I read the novel? Did I miss my friend's intentions by reading the work the wrong way? In hindsight, the story did make more sense and my criticism felt a little heavy-handed, but this is one of the many challenges inherent in writing a novel.
In my school days our English teachers would sometimes assign a set book for us to read. Our task was to read the book, and then explain what the story was about. Most of the time we saw the book at face value. Every now and then, however, we uncovered deeper meanings buried in the subtext. I marvelled at how clever these authors were to craft stories with so much depth.
Years later, I heard of an interview with an author whose story had been selected as a set book for the school curriculum. When asked how he came up with such interesting themes, he responded by saying that he had not. All he had done was write the story. It was the readers who later "discovered" the treasures hidden within. It was their interpretations, not his, that they were seeing.
Just recently, I was watching the DVD extras for a dramatic film which explores how people react under stress. One clip was an interview with the screenwriter who discussed the differences between how he saw the story and how cinema goers interpreted it. What he said was that, once the script passed from him to the director it was no longer his story but the director's. Then, when the actors took over, it became their story. Finally, upon being shown at cinemas, the story belonged to whoever bought a ticket. By the time it hit the screen, he said, it had long ago stopped being "his" story.
I found this to be a fascinating insight and it has definitely changed how I see what we do. We may toil for months on a project, and we may certainly see its themes and nuances, but once it is placed in the hands of our readers, it stops being "our" story. The story belongs to our readers and it is up to them how they interpret it.
This, to me, is both exhilarating and a little bit scary. What if they don't get what we're trying to say? What if they miss the point? To be honest, it probably doesn't matter. And if we're lucky they may find hidden treasure that we didn't even know we'd buried there.
Happy writing for 2015.