Do authors intentionally add all the metaphors, symbolism, and big-idea meaning that we attach to their work as readers? Do poets actually strive to layer meaning upon meaning? I would say no. I would follow with a qualifying, ‘most of the time’. I would argue that writers write what comes up through their consciousness, percolating through their awareness. Their ideas become shaped by their experiences, and polished by language to emerge as an articulated thought, complete with a meaning unique to the author. The reader, then, does the opposite. He/she ingests the language, chews it around a bit, forming a new meaning based on his/her experiences and consciousness and eventually produces a NEW story. The overall meaning remains the same, but its effect is unique to the individual reader, thus a ‘new’ story.
Take the western novel Shane, for example. I used to have my 7th graders read it as a novel study. Let me clarify: a teacher who grew up in rural, 1970s Montana required his 21st century midwestern suburban 12- and 13-year olds to read a novel written in 1949, but which takes place in 1889. Clearly, my version of the story is different than my students’. And my version is, I have no doubt, different than that of Jack Schaefer, the author. I understand that the novel is really about change, generational differences, problem-solving, etc., but did Mr. Schaefer really intend for that fool stump to be the huge symbol and metaphor it’s made out to be?
The last two days have been spent in a Workshop at the University of Missouri St. Louis (UMSL) designed to introduce the concept of the ‘InnoLab‘. Carmen Medina, a visiting professor from Indiana University, led us through an exercise exploring big ideas (in this case, immigration) through children’s literature. Her statement resonated with me so much that it became my main takeaway from the event: “Story interpretation is always the creation of a new story.” Her lesson’s text, Separate is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh, outlined the story of the Mendez family and the landmark Supreme Court decision. The experience (story), of Dr. Medina, a native Spanish-speaker, has to be completely different than my takeaway, even though we both experienced the story at the same time in the same conditions.
So, if every time we read text, each reader creates a slightly NEW version, how can we teach author’s purpose? We can discuss the author, guess at the effect of a unique set of life experiences, and surmise their language’s contribution to come up with a pretty good idea of their purpose, but I believe we have to understand the caveat: no one really knows for sure. I suppose one could argue that the closer we read, the closer we come to understanding author intent. But if the author writes in a flurry of creativity, putting to paper what sounds good in the moment, perhaps reading too closely broadens the intent, reshaping it into something more than originally intended.
I’ll save you (for now) from a rant on close reading. But let me say just this: Language allows us to make visible the invisible, but beware of assuming my vision as your vision.