Dispatches | October 08, 2008

I’ve been thinking a lot lately of misinterpretation. As a student of literature and a participant in several creative fiction workshops, I’ve dealt with both sides of the issue—I’ve spent hours trying to unearth the true meaning of a poem or a passage, only to find that my interpretation is grossly different from my professor’s; or, conversely, I’ve suffered through a discussion of one of my pieces in which my peers interpret a character or theme completely differently than I intended.

I was eight when my first piece, a poem called “Painter in the Sky,” was misinterpreted. I wrote it while lazing in the car on the way home from my grandparents’ house—I saw the shades of sunset mixing in the sky and was reminded of the watercolors that stained my fingers during art class. “There is a painter in the sky,” I wrote. “By him the clouds are made.” When I showed the poem to my mother, she misconstrued the painter as an allusion to God, and my mother acted as if I were some young visionary. I had to recite it aloud to my Sunday school class, and later at my grandmother’s funeral as an elegy. In reality, I wasn’t referring to God or any divine being, really; I was just imagining some guy in the sky with a palette. In my mind’s eye he looked sort of like the Bob Ross from PBS’ The Joy of Painting. Not exactly the Christian concept of God. But I was eight—I wasn’t about to correct my family’s misconception, especially because their perception of the poem made it seem much more intelligent.

Last year in a fiction workshop, more of my work was misinterpreted—but this time, the misunderstanding made me feel slighted, diminished. A character I’d intended to be passionate yet still relatable was interpreted as shrill, manipulative, and almost mentally disturbed. Looking back, I realize why the character hadn’t translated well—I’d written the piece hastily, after a bad fight with my boyfriend, and tried unsuccessfully to convert my raw anger into worthwhile words. I hadn’t edited it well, and the character felt uneven. She lent herself to misinterpretation, and my readers didn’t feel that they could trust her. Obviously, it was a blow to find that my peers saw my protagonist as a psycho—but in a way, their misinterpretation fueled my desire to overhaul the piece and set the story straight. I finished the revision in a week and presented it for the workshop shortly after; it was one of the most thorough and successful revisions that I’ve ever done, and is my strongest piece to date.

Many of my classmates have complained about interpreting pieces, especially when they’re obscure and troublesome, or when their views don’t match the typical scholastic reading of the work. Particularly with classic texts, students will ask “How can we know what the author means when they’re long dead?” My response: interpreting and analyzing literature is no exact science; though scholars can speculate about an author’s intentions, ultimately their conjectures remain just that—speculation. And though misreading a piece can make you feel stupid once you realize how off you were, in a way these misinterpretations are a gift to the author, particularly if they’re in a workshop course with you. From personal experience, I know that readers’ misunderstandings can force a writer to examine what they need to change in order to communicate their intentions more effectively. That’s why I think that receiving comments from editors and readers is one of the greatest gifts—and why, as a reader for The Missouri Review, I strive to write the most thorough, thoughtful responses to our submitters.