Interpretation and Ownership

One of the most intimidating prospects about publishing your work is that once it’s out there, it’s out there, and readers will interpret your words in varying ways – sometimes not in the way you might have intended. Ideally, that doesn’t happen – the surrounding context should provide enough guidance and meaning in a story sense. But beyond the story alone, people will look deeper into your words and meanings, and make assessments of both you and your intentions.

In many ways, this is the point of writing – you’re trying to get people thinking, to see things from another perspective, so you want your readers to look deeper into the underlying logic. When people understand what you were communicating, that’s the ultimate for a writer, but when they misinterpret your meaning, or specific segments, it can be tough to deal with.

I had this with my first novel – of all the sections that got brought up, this one seemed to come up most often.

In a chapter where a group of young people are at a party, one young girl, Aleesa, speaks to the main character:

Aleesa smiles.  ‘Who’s your pick tonight?’ she says, turns to face the girls dancing on the carpet.

                ‘You’re looking pretty good,’ I tell her. She shifts her eyes slowly back to me, the straw from her drink gently held between her teeth. She holds her glass up to my face.

                ‘You gonna’ drug me?’

                ‘I don’t do that.’

‘Ha. Bullshit. All you guys do it.’

‘So why are you here then? Aren’t you worried?’

‘I can take care of myself.’

A young guy joins the dancers, rubbing his hands across the clothes of the girls. Aleesa catches my eyes watching them.

‘Some girls don’t really care,’ she says, and walks off into the crowd, looking back over her shoulder.

This, in some reviews or comments, was interpreted as the character implying that some young girls simply don’t care about the prospect of being drugged and raped. Which, in literal translation, I can see – that is what Aleesa says – but the point of this scene was more to show that Aleesa was strong, that she wasn’t scared of them. At this point in the story, the group is gaining confidence, they feel like they’re dominant, that they run things. In this context, the line was more about Aleesa taking the power from them, saying that people know what they do, but that doesn’t scare anyone. The implied ‘liking’ of it was more the gossip aspect, as opposed to being targeted.

But I understand why this was misinterpreted, and why it stood out as such – but even so, it can be difficult to read such interpretations and not comment back to clarify. But you can’t.

A very high profile author once told me that you can never, ever, respond to criticisms or reviews. It’s tempting, obviously, but no good can come of it. And he’s right – though there is some argument that a level of controversy could, maybe, help in a promotional sense (maybe, if you were high profile enough, responding to a critique could help you get more coverage, similar to how some celebrities hit back via tweet every now and then) – it’s very risky, and you’ll most likely just come out looking worse.

But really, the work needs to stand on its own. Once you’ve published it, released it – once it’s out there, it’s its own thing, and open to criticism on its own merits. Your ownership of it decreases somewhat – if the work can’t stand on its own, then you haven’t done your job, and no amount of supplemental information will cater for that.

So while you might be misinterpreted, you have to accept that, and learn to give your work its own life. The story is what it is, it’s its own thing. You have to let it be.

The key is that you have to be happy with what you’ve created. If you’ve done all you can, you can’t think of any other improvements and you’re satisfied that the final result best captures your vision for the work, then that’s it. Sure, there might be things you want to do better next time around, but that’s always going to be the case. Nothing is ever perfect.

It’s the push to do better next time that’s exciting, and ideally drives us towards creating better and better work.

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