Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Writer-Reader Collaboration

For over twenty years I have been of the opinion that writing is a solitary art. Sure, people read what you write, but they aren't involved in it. It isn’t a collaborative process. Knowing that has made it easier to remain solitary in my fortress of solitude crafting solitary works. I developed this point of view in college one summer.

The Ice Maiden of Esmeralda County is a play I wrote. It was produced during a summer theatre season. Part of the play festival included opening night critique panels conducted by faculty of both the Drama and English departments as well as a drama critic from a Los Angeles newspaper, and a television actress. One of the panelists from the English department was a literature professor whom I greatly admired. I had taken several classes from her that I didn’t need just because she was that cool. She was from New York and dressed in stylish tweed jackets and plaid wool skirts and wore scarves and I pretty much thought that anything she had to say about English lit from Brontë to Wordsworth was revealed divine truth. I even toyed briefly with becoming a double major in Drama and English so I could learn more seriously literary things (whatever they might be) and adapt a tweed and plaid skirt wardrobe. I still wear scarves to this day, and not just because it’s necessary in Minneapolis half the year.

The production went well, and I was eager and terrified to hear what the panelists might say, especially my goddess-like English professor. The drama critic liked the play very much, praised my artistry with dialogue and said the play reminded him of a favorite of his, The Rainmaker. The actress also waxed a bit on the play and said the love scene was one of the most beautifully written she had ever seen. The Drama faculty talked the finer and not so fine points of my direction, the acting and the production. So far, so incredibly wonderful…but what would Dr. Brilliant say?

For the next several minutes, I listened in rapt disbelief as she talked quite eloquently about the wonderful symbolism I had used throughout the piece. Complete with examples. I sat and heard all about what my (very successful in her opinion, by the way) intentions had been, how I had so skillfully rendered through use of language and imagery an iconic period in American history (the 1940’s) for a new audience. Dr. Brilliant thought I was gifted! I was Talented! Successful! And I had absolutely no clue why she thought I meant or intended any of it. Literally no idea. I had never “intended” or even given the briefest thought to rendering iconic anything, certainly never cleverly thought out all that symbolism. All I did was write down what the characters were saying in my head.

The conclusion I left with was that everything I had ever learned in literature classes about themes, and symbols and such in books was a load of horse pucky. The world shifted when I realized that just because a professor said something about a book, that didn’t make it true. All the things we as students had taken to heart about books, poems, or plays, we had accepted because an authority had said This Is The Meaning. If Dr. Brilliant thought I had meant all she said I did, and she was so incredibly wrong, then anything said by any English professor about any book or poem or play was forever suspect. In my mind at that time, only the writer would really know what was meant or not, and any other stated "meaning" had to be, by default, incorrect.

I felt this way until just recently, when I was having a conversation with a friend about a book we had both read but had very different opinions on. What I think now is that writing is not a solitary art. It is as collaborative as film making or theatrical production. We as writers craft something, but the reader completes the process by bringing their experiences, desires, biases, and emotions to their own interpretation of the work. As individual as each reader is, the ways in which our works are completed are myriad. A novel, story, poem or play does indeed stand alone when the writer completes it, but it stands so much stronger for the contribution made by the reader or audience.

Guess I’m not too old yet to learn some things.

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