Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Joy of Misinterpretation

image So I finished Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood the other day, and I have so many thoughts about it, I don't know where to start. Today I'll leave all the issues of womanhood, and talk about how I felt about the whole art thing.

The main character, Elaine, is a painter with repressed memories of childhood. It's fascinating to see how Atwood balances the child and the adult telling the story, back and forward in time. The child Elaine tells the reader all the betrayals the adult Elaine has repressed.

That which she can't remember shows up in her paintings, and while we, the readers, see the connection and remember their significance, Elaine does not.  

Not only does Elaine not remember the significance of what she paints, but those who view her paintings wildly misinterpret them. Her scathing hatred of Mrs. Smeath, for example, shows up on the canvas as unflattering portraits of the woman, while the viewers tend to regard them as compassion for the normal woman.

Atwood writes:

Because I can no longer control these paintings, or tell them what to mean. Whatever energy they have came out of me. I'm what's left over.


Personally, I believe misinterpretation is not so much misinterpretation as it is a valid interpretation. At least half the joy of art is what a reader gets from it, no matter what the writer meant.

imageI admire writers who leave room in their stories for a reader's interpretation. It's like a journey we get to take together, hand in hand, rather than a guided tour.

I don't think I leave enough room.

I've never heard from an irate reader. I've never incited a scathing reaction from a reader, someone so angry they would take back the time spent reading my story.

I think I write too simplistically. Maybe I overwrite. Maybe I have no depth. I don't know.

I don't know: I write that a lot, don't I?

image I know I do work very hard to make the ending extremely clear, with every single tiny T crossed. You would be amazed at how readers want to know the ending exactly, even when you're certain you've explained it precisely and clearly. Even when it says right there.

But disregarding the ending, do you leave room for a reader's interpretation? Do you try to be as clear as possible? Do you try to leave no room for misinterpretation? How do you feel about this, as a reader? As a writer?

What are your thoughts?

PS: Thanksgiving felt so good this year, that I decided I would write one thing I was grateful for every time I blog. So...

Today I am grateful for cats that curl up next to me all night long.

21 bonus scribbles:

LaDonna 11/29/2008 02:05:00 PM  

Spy, lovely post! Your comment about, "a journey we take together hand-in-hand, rather than a guided tour," is so true!

I just write from the heart, and hopefully the reader will step inside my stories and carry away what they value and what touches them personally.

Since I'm not a plotter, it's how I view the process. I love coming to your place, cause I see so many facets. Thanks for sharing, Spy.

Aerin 11/29/2008 04:25:00 PM  

So I can't think about your questions well enough right now but I HAD to pop over and tell you to read "Surfacing" by M.A. next. I will be interested to hear what you think of that one.

Edie 11/29/2008 05:22:00 PM  

I love your gratitude for the day. Mine won't stay with me all night, just part of the night. She's too restless.

I leave room for interpretation. Even in decription. I don't need to tell exactly how the person looks. Just a vague idea, so if you mention ther heroine is a brunette and short on page 100, the reader won't think be upset because she's been imagining the heroine looking like Nicole Kidman.

Ello 11/29/2008 06:32:00 PM  

Ooooooh, your blog looks beautiful!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I'm so used to reading your blog on google reader that I haven't actually been by to see how pretty it looks! I'm so blown away by it that I completely forgot the comment I wanted to make! Brain fart!

But I really love the new look!

Robin 11/29/2008 06:48:00 PM  

Oh, there's nothing like a nice snuggly animal next to you at night. My dogs snuggle like crazy. I love it.

In non fiction I don't think I leave a lot for interpretation, and with fiction I'm not sure, yet. I was shocked at people who read the "Twilight" series, and were upset that it didn't end the way they wanted. To the point where they asked for a refund! I guess those readers had imagined a certain ending and were unhappy with the ending Meyers "spelled" out for them. It was so bizarre. I like both kinds of writing. Sometimes I like more guidance than others. But I'm damn sure I'll never demand a refund it the author doesn't meet my expectations for the moment!

Realmcovet 11/30/2008 01:47:00 AM  

I love when artists leave room for interpretation from the admirirers of the work. You are absolutely correct when you say that the reader gets joy from interpretation no matter what the artist's intent was.

As a child, my ignorance led me to believe certain songs had certain lyrics, and so I would sing these lyrics to my heart's content, and as an adult, discovering those lyrics weren't the lyrics I had lived by for so long, only dissapointed me because I had been perceiving in such a different way for so long. Heartbreak times a thousand, I'm tellin ya!!

So I totally get you on this.

But I don't blame you for wanting to spell it out for your readers either. You have a beautiful picture painted in your head of how you want it all to be, and you want to be able to share with your fans the same exact vision that you possess in your own mind as well.

NOTHING wrong with that. Just go with the flow that is "you". To thine own self be true!!

writtenwyrdd 11/30/2008 09:04:00 AM  

I like the new blog look, spy!

As far as interpretation by readers goes, I agree with you that there is no wrong take on the work's meaning; it's all valid. But I do find it irritating when I try to make an overt device clear and yet readers miss it. If some get it, then I know I didn't--entirely--fail to communicate what I needed; but some of them did, so I maybe didn't write good enough.

I discovered how others can see more than I intended in my work when I was writing poetry and workshopping it weekly in my writing class. I used lots of bloody and violent imagery because I liked the evocative nature of literally visceral writing at that point in my life. The much younger students in the class with me were uncomfortable, and the prof asked if I were suicidal, lol! (I wasn't, just so you know.) :0

Kath Calarco 11/30/2008 09:35:00 AM  

Leave room for interpretation, that's the ticket, but not so much room that the reader gets lost.

And I have to get my hands on this Margaret Atwood book. Thanks for the review.

Amy Nathan 11/30/2008 11:23:00 AM  

What lovely thoughts on Cat's Eye. I think you know it's one of my all-time favorite books and the one that made me believe I wanted to be a writer.

I think that my writing leaves a lot of room for interpretation, but sometimes I'll admit that since to date they are non-fiction essays, I am taken aback when they are misinterpreted. I realize it's a compliment to have someone internalize your writing and make it meaningful to them. I have to work on the effect it has on me. I guess I started writing to get out my own stories -- and have to let go of the proprietorship I feel. Not easy. I've only ever had a few people read my fiction, and maybe it will be easier to have that interpreted by others since I've skewed truths and, as I like to say, made up shit, to compose my story. I would doubt that you write too simply, but I do agree about endings. Unless you are writing straight literary fiction, people want endings with a neat bow. I think it's ok for an ending to lead in multiple directions though if the reader wants it to, if they look beyond the obvious.

Melanie Avila 11/30/2008 11:44:00 AM  

I don't like to overexplain things, but I also try to leave enough hints or clues so the reader can come to the conclusion that I want them to. Since I only have one novel under my belt, I don't really see how that can be misinterpreted (not that I mean the reader would be wrong) but there's only one way I see it going. I guess you can let me know. ;)

I'm curious to read this book now. I've only read Handmaid's Tale by Atwood. And I want a puppy so badly!

spyscribbler 11/30/2008 04:05:00 PM  

LaDonna, you are good for my ego, LOL! And it's amazing what writing from the heart can accomplish, even without full intent.

spyscribbler 11/30/2008 04:08:00 PM  

Oh no, Aerin, it's not available for Kindle! I've checked the button that sends a message to the publisher, begging for them to make it available on Kindle.

In the meantime, any second suggestions?

spyscribbler 11/30/2008 04:09:00 PM  

Edie, this was a shocker. This was Dixie, the flightiest one of all. I was in a lot of pain, did something weird to my back, and Dixie seemed to sense it, and cuddled right shoved against my back the whole night.

It helped, too, I swear to God.

spyscribbler 11/30/2008 04:11:00 PM  

Thank you, Ello! I'm glad you like it, although it seems a bit slow-loading to me.

I LOVE your blog. It is THE prettiest! Your website, too!

spyscribbler 11/30/2008 04:16:00 PM  

Robin, you're right. I'm not sure one wants to be misunderstood in non-fiction, LOL! That might not be so good. :-)

I will admit it: I once returned a book because the ending was horribly written. It wasn't even CLOSE to the standard the beginning set. I felt JIPPED. I've never been that pissed at a book before. I sincerely felt they'd cheated me out of my money.

spyscribbler 11/30/2008 04:17:00 PM  

Realmcovet, good words! "To thine own self be true."

It's funny that you write about lyrics. My ear is not that good at understanding lyrics, and back then, there was no googling them. So I misunderstood almost ALL the songs. I can't tell you how many times I've been annoyed to learn the actual lyrics are totally different, and hold quite a different meaning!

spyscribbler 11/30/2008 04:19:00 PM  

LOL, Writtenwyrdd, seriously? You don't strike me as a depressed personality, at least on the internet. That's so true, though. Especially in poetry, there is LOTS of room for reader interpretation. It's almost 80% reader, 20% writer. At least it seems that way, sometimes.

spyscribbler 11/30/2008 04:20:00 PM  

That's the perfect balance, Kath! LOL, I shoulda just had you write that as my blog post! :-)

spyscribbler 11/30/2008 04:21:00 PM  

Amy, it strikes me that the "room for the reader" might be less in non-fiction. I don't know, though, LOL.

I remember you mentioned Cat's Eye, but I didn't remember it was your favorite book or the one that inspired you to be a writer. That's cool.

I kinda wanted to be a painter after reading it, LOL. :-)

spyscribbler 11/30/2008 04:27:00 PM  

Oh, Melanie, I've been wanting a puppy, too. Or a new kitten. Or a BABY! Any and all of the above will do.

I'm thinking of reading Handmaid's Tale next.

Melanie Avila 11/30/2008 07:01:00 PM  

Weird, my back has gone wonky on me today. Good luck writing!