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Monday, 20 June 2016


I delivered a talk recently on writing and getting published. I intend to post bits of the talk over the next while. here is the first instalment.

A teacher of English Literature was lecturing a class of adolescents on one of the syllabus’s prescribed modern novels. She selected a short passage which included the following sentence:

“Vanessa’s passage was impeded by a blue door at the side of the building”

She read the sentence aloud and said to the class, “What did the author mean when he said the door was blue?”

Heads went down and none of the students would meet her eye. So the teacher went on, “What we have here is a clear metaphor for the angst, the anxiety, I might even say the Weltschmerz, that can afflict modern youth as they seek answers to life’s most basic questions. There is a specific significance in the use of the word ‘impeded’ here, with all its implications of psychological conflict, especially as it is linked to the unmistakeable nuance of melancholia so strikingly impressed upon the inner consciousness by the deliberate choice of the colour blue.”

It so happened that, a couple of weeks later, the writer of this book was doing a book-signing at the local bookshop. One of the students, a studious young male, went along to have the famous author sign his copy of the book. As the author was writing his signature, the boy said, “Do you remember that bit in the book where Vanessa was impeded by a front door and you said, ‘The door was blue.’”

The writer thought for a moment and said, “Oh, yes! I do.”

“What did you mean when you said the door was blue?”

The writer eyed the boy up and down, mystified by his question. “I meant the door was blue. What else could I have meant?”

Literary Deconstruction
Sometimes I wonder if literature teachers, in their enthusiasm for literary deconstruction, that is, reading hidden meanings into an author’s text and coming up with a host of hypotheses about intent, do so at the cost of creating a mystique around the nature of writing that can confuse young would-be writers and distract them from the essential need for clarity in writing. I had a literature teacher once whose outlandish explanations of what authors meant easily rivalled that of the teacher in this anecdote. It got to the stage where I could scarcely understand anything I was reading, so convinced was I that I was missing all sorts of significant underlying messages. And, of course, I always assumed that there was no point in me ever trying to be a writer because I would never be able to write anything that contained hidden depths, that contained meaning other than the obvious. But sometimes interpretation is nothing more subtle than accepting the meaning that is there. There may be, often will be, subtlety in a line or a phrase, but you will need support from the context before letting your minds run riot about it.

For me, interpretation of intent is nothing more subtle than accepting the meaning that is there. BUT, of course, writers do use words, ideas, characters, with specific nuances in order to manipulate the reader.  That’s what writers do.  It’s built in to their DNA. These subtleties are there to be seen by the astute reader.

 Other subtleties come almost unconsciously from the innate values, principles, and the attitudes that drive the writer’s normal existence We are all born into a certain kind of life – we have parents, siblings, peers, an neighbourhood with a specific environment, teachers, social circles… and we assimilate, unknowingly, attitudes and values from the milieu in which we have lived and grown up. These values will emerge in your writing and, until you are a very experienced writer, very aware of what you are writing and what you are saying, there will be all sorts of messages underpinning your writing without you realising that they are there. So, don’t worry too much about hidden meanings and symbolisms.  Future critics of your work will find loads of meaning that you didn’t know was there.  It’s there because any writers who writes honestly…who writes his or her truth… will inevitably leave parts of themselves in the pages. 

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