I loved 99% of my English classes in high school and college. I could always tell that my teachers had a real passion for their subject, even if their presentation wasn’t quite exhilarating, or if a particular piece of literature wasn’t to my taste (The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock comes to mind…I still cannot fathom how T.S. Elliot, the creator of one of my favorite books of poetry ever – Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats – could have written Prufrock. I’m thinking maybe his evil twin wrote it…).
But there was one class…one teacher… He came across as very self-centered, and passionate, not about the subject he was teaching, but rather about himself, and hot chicks. He constantly flirted with the drop-dead gorgeous cheerleaders in the class to the point of trying to follow a gaggle of them (do cheerleaders come in gaggles?) to lunch afterward like some creepy stalker. He spent most of the class ignoring the rest of the students, expounding upon his own world view, and telling us how he would have improved upon what we were reading. To this day, I cannot appreciate The Great Gatsby, or watch it, or even think about it…it’s forever tainted by that class.
As you can probably tell from my posts, I was the kid constantly asking questions a little beyond the syllabus. Although at the time, I didn’t know it, my Learner strength kicked in big time in school, and I always wanted (and still want) to learn everything there is about something. But in this class, I rarely, if ever, put my hand up or joined in the very few class discussions (most of the class consisted of him talking). That’s how bad it was for me.
Then we studied Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost (here’s a link: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171621. It’s a beautiful poem, if you’ve never read it…the only poem that class didn’t ruin for me). He read it aloud and then started in on the most bizarre soliloquy ever. He was convinced that Robert Frost had written the poem about Santa Claus, and that Santa had a death wish. Seriously?! I blinked. I blinked again. No, I wasn’t dreaming. He was still standing there and still going on ad infinitum about Santa being suicidal.
Before I could get my hand in the air in indignation, someone asked whether Robert Frost had ever been asked how he got the idea for the poem. The teacher said yes, and that Robert Frost’s answer had been that he was driving his carriage home one night, had stopped in the woods while it was snowing, and was moved to write about it. Right then. I put my hand up. “If that’s what Robert Frost said he wrote the poem about, how can you say he was really writing about Santa Claus with a death wish?” His reply was that it didn’t matter what Robert Frost thought when he was writing the poem, only what the readers thought he wrote about.
While I completely disagree that only the reader gets to decide what you mean when you write something, and that the reader’s truth is the only truth, there is something in what he said. Many people (hopefully millions as your book gets to the bestseller list) will read your work and every one of them is going to have a different truth as to what you wrote, because each reader brings his or her own life experience along while reading. Your work is not really your own once it leaves your hands.
Note that I am not talking about plagiarism or copyright infringement or piracy here. Piracy is not a victimless crime. It’s not Johnny Depp in a hot outfit. It’s not ‘sticking it to the man’ and getting something free. The publisher, distributor, marketer, etc. may hurt a bit, but they have many other properties to bring in money. No, who really gets hurt is the author, songwriter, maker, or creative voice behind what’s stolen. They only get a fraction of what the product makes on the market, usually much less than 20% of the profit (not sales… profit), and they don’t get a dime if it’s stolen. Most creative types have 9-5 day jobs, and create out of passion. Their creativity is a second (or third) full time job. ‘Nuff said. Off soapbox.
No, once your work leaves your hands, it’s a shared experience. Every hand that touches it makes it better, be it editor or reader. But there are two things you can do to make sure you get your meaning across: be precise, and be sure to look at your work from the outside in.
Being precise includes sentence construction, and using the right word at the right time, preferably one without a double entendre, unless of course you mean to use one. Remember the March Hare telling Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland ‘Then you should say what you mean’. Alice gets flustered by what he says and replies, ‘I do…at least I mean what I say — that’s the same thing, you know.’ But it isn’t really, and the Mad Hatter tells her so in one of the best linguistic comebacks ever: ‘Not the same thing a bit…You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’
Take time to look up words that you’re not sure of. Not doing so can lead to embarrassment. Take for example an essay on pets we had to write and present in high school Spanish class. I had been practicing with my friend on the bus the day before, and she used the word rana. I didn’t know the word and asked her what it meant, but the bus was loud and I couldn’t hear what she said, so I asked her to repeat it. Instead, she smiled and bounced up and down. Aha! Sign language for rabbit!!! I gave her the thumbs up at my newfound understanding. I then presented my wonderful essay in class, telling everybody all about my two flop-eared, furry…frogs. I was lazy and didn’t look up the word before I used it because I thought I knew what it meant.
And that goes for research as well. Always go to the source rather than depending on a friend’s explanation, or definition, or something you read in context. The author may have been using a secondary or tertiary meaning of the word, or may have been writing an opinion rather than an objective piece. Spell check and grammar check are great, but don’t catch what you will catch if you proofread your work yourself. Wikipedia and Cliff Notes are awesome for a quick understanding of something, but there are a lot of actual experts with degrees or intimate knowledge of a subject. They will find you, and they will point it out (loudly) when you interpret or say something incorrectly. If I want my audience to have the same understanding of where my story is coming from, I have to give them enough precise information so that they can see it the same way I did as I was writing it.
I also look at my work from the outside in. I read it aloud, pretending I’ve never heard it before. Is there any conceivable way that what I’ve written could be taken any other way? If I’m too close to something, I’ll have a friend who’s unfamiliar with the subject or the story read it and then tell me what they think I meant. I tell them to hack it to bits. Yes criticism can hurt. This story is my blood, sweat and tears after all. But every hand that touches it makes it better.
Don’t get me wrong. Even if you do this, there will always be someone out there who will take your words and twist them around and judge you (because somehow, some people see you as your writing). They will assume that you’re racist, misogynist, juvenile, stupid, arrogant, and what have you. They will assume that you are unable to write a narrative from any point of view other than your own. But you can keep it to a minimum if you have an outsider look at your work for possible double meanings or themes that you don’t notice as you’re in the story writing it.
In the end, like Dr. Seuss’ Horton, my goal is always to get my work to the point where “I meant what I said” is as close as humanly possible to “I said what I meant.”