Teaching Interpretation

“Interesting,” the student begins, “But did the writer mean to do that?”

I’ve heard the question thousands of times in thousands of forms… some not so deferential. Students are naturally skeptical about which insights belong to the teacher and which to the author, and, understandably, they want to know… how much of writing is intentional and how much is discovered?

Last year, we invited Joe Meno to our school and, in anticipation of his visit, read a few of his short stories. Class discussions revealed all sorts of interesting connections between his imagery and themes, between dialogue and the particular fate that befell characters, between phrasing and meaning. Subtle distinctions all.  However, when a student asked Meno, “What do you think about when you’re writing?  Do you plan?” the author said, in effect, “I let the story tell itself. I don’t plan at all.”

A few minutes later, he’d explain how important revision was to his writing, all the hours and millions of choices that go into making a story exactly what you want it to be.  By then, however, the damage was done.

Back in class, students wanted to talk. Some took Mr. Meno’s answer in stride.  Whether he intended what we’d discovered or not, they said, it didn’t negate our thinking or make our careful reading any less valuable, admirable, or fun for us. I heard the comparison I’ve heard so many times—a work of art is like a child. Once it goes into the world, it’s on its own, no longer the parents’ charge.

They were defending me, trying to reassure me I still had a job.  But other students said, “See? I told you we over-read everything,” and meant, “See? English is bullshit.”  My most defensive students crowed with vindication.  They’d been saying, “If I don’t see it, it can’t be there,” and “reading should be pleasurable. It shouldn’t require resourcefulness or insight.” Now they had proof.

I was just as defensive, only in a different way. I wanted to believe Mr. Meno was disingenuous and was playing the classmate I knew in high school who told me he never studied a minute for the AP European History tests. He thought greater virtue came from success—or greater protection from failure—if he hadn’t really tried.  Truth was, he studied as much as I did (a lot)… he was just cooler.

Mr. Meno, however, was being honest.  I couldn’t explain his answer away so easily. My own writing experience helped me picture the method he described, sitting down with little more than a clever phrase, a curious moment, or echoing anecdote.  I could imagine an unphrased question I wanted to answer that still can’t be phrased after pages and pages of composition.  Anyone who’s done any writing knows we write to think just as much as we think to write.

Yet, what do you tell young writers who rely exclusively on serendipity, who look for any excuse not to revise, rethink, or refine work?  How do you convince them writing can be work—and that good writers don’t mind the work?  How do you help them balance the accidental and intentional yin and yang of creativity?

In the months since Mr. Meno’s visit, I’ve been rethinking the way I approach interpretation. Though Joe Meno’s stories may seem unrestrained and unstrained, I suspect he plays AND plans. He may be open to possibilities as he composes but would be foolish not to take advantage of happy accidents as well. Revision creates that pull to focus, develop, and enhance what the subconscious churns up.  And Meno, like any author, must at least sense when an image, metaphor, or line of dialogue is right.  Even if authors don’t know why, even if they leave it to readers to explain their choices, the words and phrases they allow to remain have been approved, ratified as what some subconscious or conscious part of them wanted, intended.

I’m teaching creative writing this semester and am finding more comfort in this answer.  Talking about choices instead of intentions may be semantics but, discussing what authors say instead of asserting what they are trying to say is more relaxing.  If a writer can’t know his or her intent fully, a reader has to guess too.  It’s only fair.  I don’t want to stir up anyone’s defensiveness (theirs or mine) by providing “solutions” anymore.  I’d rather address why this word, line, or sentence seems right, how it contributes to the pleasure of interpretation.

1 Comment

Filed under Art, Doubt, Education, Essays, Fiction, Fiction writing, High School Teaching, life, Meditations, Teaching, Thoughts, Work, Writing

One response to “Teaching Interpretation

  1. I think you’ll have a lot more fun teaching the course that way, especially if you find it more relaxing. I think it’s a truer way than to teach “what the author meant.”

    And I think you might have a better chance to get those students’ synapses working. What word or phrase, of the available thousands, might they have chosen? …might they choose in their own writing? How does each choice change the flavor of the piece? So interesting!

    I’m really looking forward to hearing about this class!

    Some days I get closer to this ideal than others. It is a little like trying to remember to remember not to say “um” or “you know”—it’s been my habitual practice to focus on interpretations instead of interpreting. Some days I remember to focus on author’s choices better than others. Some days I still find myself teaching specific readings. I’m trying though!

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