Tag Archive | high school

The Interpretation of Story

First off, fellow bloggers and readers, I send my apologies for not posting in a week.  I’ve been back and forth with some sort of stomach bug/cold, so needless to say with my head in a fog I haven’t been up to creating much of any writing lately.  

Second of all, I’m going to talk about poetry-specifically regarding its interpretation.

Back in the days of big hair and boy bands (*cough* high school *cough*), I sat in my English class going over a poem.  The assignment was to read the poem, interpret the stanzas’ meaning, and then discuss the author’s true meaning behind it all.

Simple enough, I thought.  I mean, how hard is it to read ten sentences and repeat what the author said?  

We read the poem, and as I read along I noticed how sad the tone was.  The author mentioned missing someone, a specific woman, and how his heart felt empty.  He even questioned if this thing called love was a benefit to him.  All I could think of was how it related to my parents’ divorce-how I grew up knowing how much my mom missed the good old days with dad and how her heart felt so empty before she met my step-dad.  I never was much on poetry, but this poem struck a chord with me-the words were so familiar and I couldn’t help but connect them to my past and my mother’s hurt.

When it came time for the class to discuss the meaning to the poem, I was the first to speak (I was one of the unfortunate kids who sat close to the front.)  I offered what I thought was the true meaning to the author’s poem-he was speaking of a divorce, about how much he missed his wife and how hurt he was that she was no longer there.  I went on to say I thought the man was starting to question love itself-whether it was worth loving her because of all the pain she caused him.

After I finished my speech, I found myself surrounded by blank stares from my classmates and teacher.

“Why on Earth did you think this poem was about a divorce?”

Being the logical person that I was, I whipped out the poem and began reciting all the words the author used that clearly showed the guy was a poor, heartbroken individual who lost the love of his life.

Everyone looked at me and shook their heads.  When the teacher pulled out the “real” meaning of the poem from the textbook, my interpretation turned out to be the opposite of the author’s: he was talking about loving the woman, not losing her.

(And so began a career in high school that involved me completely misinterpreting every poem and story I ever read…)

At first I thought my misinterpretation as a sign that I was a terrible reader.  Perhaps that was true to a certain extent as I freely admit I’m not the best reader I could be.  My second thought was that the writer of the poem was a terrible writer-after all, if someone like me couldn’t figure out what the guy meant, who’s to say others wouldn’t have the same difficulty?  It’s his fault his poem wasn’t clear enough, right?

But as I’ve gotten older and have been in the writing business myself, I’ve found that both thoughts were wrong.  My misinterpretation wasn’t a sign of terrible reading skills-instead, it was a sign of me connecting to a story in a different way.  My misinterpretation also wasn’t a sign that the writer was terrible-rather, I would argue that he was pretty brilliant.  Yes, he had his own meaning to his poem.  But the beauty of his writing wasn’t the fact that he told a story about loving a woman-it was the fact that his story had multiple interpretations, maybe even multiple stories, depending on the person reading it.

Like other forms of art, the beauty of story isn’t that it takes characters and a plot and weaves them together in a well-told tale.  Instead, the beauty of story is found in the audience who reads it and connects what they read to a part of their life.  In truth, even after hearing the author’s meaning of the poem, I still stuck with my interpretation.  It was more personal and allowed me to connect to the poem in a way I’d never connected with any other poems before.  Wrong or right, that’s what I stuck with.  But that’s where the beauty lies-not in the fact that I learned what the poem meant, but that I learned what the poem meant for me.

 

You Mean You Aren’t Part of the Sydney Carton Fan Club?

High school English class was fun.  We wrote journals, studied poetry, competed in spelling bees, and most importantly, we avoided diagramming sentences (no offense to anyone who liked that part of school.  All those lines still give me nightmares.  *shudders*)

But the most eventful experience of high school English for me was the reading of classical literature.  We read some popular stories like “To Kill a Mockingbird”, “Pride and Prejudice”, “Othello”, and “Treasure Island”.  But there was one book in particular that stood out above the rest, and that book was “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens.

I was a senior in high school when we read it.  It was during the Fall and it was one of our first big reading assignments for the school year.  We read certain chapters a day and eventually finished the book in a few weeks, but the conversations we had while reading it is what I remember the most.

I was sitting with a friend discussing the past chapters we read the night before.  Charles Darnay had been sentenced to death and Sydney Carton was in the beginning stages of putting his plan to motion to take Charles’ place in the guillotine line.  We were analyzing the chapters, trying to connect pieces of the story together and trying to gather both the literary and artistic meaning to the scenes the characters were in.  But instead of analyzing these aspects, all I could do was stutter.

“This story…it’s…it’s amazing!”

My friend looked at me, one brow going up in concern.  “Okay…”

“No really.” I blabbered on.  “The way Sydney whispered into Lucie’s ear, ‘A life you love’…my gosh, it’s so heartbreaking.”

“Y-eah…”

“And then I read ahead last night.  He dies at the end!”  And then I proceeded to quote the last chapter.  My friend could only look at me like I was some sort of over emotional mess watching a soap opera.

“This is seriously the best story I have ever read!  Don’t you think so?”

My friend paused for so long I could’ve sworn I heard crickets in the classroom.  “It’s…uh…okay.”

Just…okay?

I was flabbergasted.  Just okay?  One of literature’s greatest stories ever given to grace this beautiful earth is just okay?!

(Yeah, I was a bit melodramatic at times.  High school does that to some of us.)

When the class came together for a group discussion, I heard much of the same thing.  “It’s too much detail.”  “It’s so boring.”  “Who’s Sydney Carton again?”

One of my classmates put it best after the discussion.  She turned to me and said, “I think you’re the only one who likes this book.”

I went home that day not understanding why my classmates didn’t love “A Tale of Two Cities” like I did.  I couldn’t understand why they didn’t think of Sydney Carton as an amazing character, full of tragedy and heroism.  I couldn’t understand why they liked other books like “Ethan Frome” and “Pride and Prejudice” but couldn’t appreciate the other stories we read as well.

And that’s when I learned a valuable lesson about story-what’s considered a “good” story is different for all of us.

I once sat with the same high school friends years later and we talked of going to see a movie.  It was hilarious hearing our film suggestions.  One suggested a chick flick-there were a few nods of approval while me and another friend shook our heads no adamantly.  There was one suggestion of an artsy style independent film (only one nod on that one while the rest sort of looked at each other funny.  Sigh.  Why am I always running solo on these decisions?)  And then there was the suggestion of an action film.  Again, a split vote.

In the end we didn’t see a movie simply because we all wanted to see something different.  We all had our own tastes in story and had our own preferences on what we deemed “worthy of watching”.  Some thought the chick flick was the better film.  Some thought the action film was a great choice.  One artsy soul thought the independent film was at least worth a try.  Overall, we couldn’t agree on which was the better story.

But is there really a right answer to that question?

Some stories are clearly bad.  Others are clearly good.  But most stories fall into audience interpretation-what one person sees as a piece of brilliance may be a piece of garbage to another.  As a writer of stories, this is a hard truth to swallow.  No matter how good I see my story, someone will see it as not that good.  Someone else will see it as worthwhile.  It’s all up to the audience and what they think of it.

So here’s a question for a later post:  Do you write the story so that the audience will like it?  Or do you write the story because it’s the way you feel it should be written?

We’ll discuss that in our next post.  😉