Watching a program on PBS the other night, there was a discussion about the fact that the Bible, the Constitution and other important documents are interpreted very differently from one person to the next. Each of us reads through our own lenses, filters we have developed throughout our lives from our experiences, our upbringing and our teachings as well as the broader invisible cultural mores we absorb without even realizing. Because this accumulation process is transparent to us, we are often surprised when we butt up against someone with a very different opinion, and of course we tend to think that our view is “normal,” very often leading to heated discussions or even war.
In pondering this, I realized that reading any book or story is the same way. I, as the writer, set down what I believe is a story worth telling and tell it in a way that makes sense to me. I do my best to tell it so it is engaging, interesting, easy to follow and complete. When I judge that I have done that in the best possible manner, the book goes to print and is offered to readers. All that’s left is for the reader to follow along, reading my words so that the very same story is created in their minds. Right?
There can actually be a huge gap between the writer’s intent and the reader’s perception, wider or narrower depending on the agreement (or not) of those filters mentioned above. As a writer I have sometimes been completely blind-sided by a review wherein the reviewer tells details of the story that are not in the book. I remember reading one such review and wondering if someone took the cover off of my book and put a different book inside it, because what the reviewer was describing was not my story at all.
But it was.
Different filters. Different perspective. Somehow the reviewer’s brain had added details that seemed to make sense in the context of the story, no doubt details that were provided by some past experience or maybe wishful thinking. It was at that point that I realized that, no matter what I wrote, once I put it “out there” for the pubic, it was beyond my control what any reader perceived from my printed page. This even happened with an editor once. Before publication of another book, the editor sent me his proud draft of the back cover blub and again I had to wonder just what book he was referring to. The blurb was so glaringly wrong-headed, it made me cringe to read it. Luckily he was amenable to my “revisions.”
It’s not unlike doing a web page. You type in your information, align your text, pictures, and links in a pleasing configuration, preview it over and over as you tweak it and refine it, and when it’s perfect you upload it to the server and your creation is there for all to see. But then you visit a friend and ask her to check it out and when her browser brings up the page—it’s all wrong! The page is too narrow and the pictures have shifted and everything is out of place. Even the colors are wrong. What the … ?
Problem is, the friend’s monitor is not the same size as yours and the resolution is set at a different level, making all your perfectly-placed pictures small and grainy. This monitor has different color saturations, as well, so the colors that looked so complimentary on your monitor are all fighting with each other now. In other words, her monitor interprets the data differently than your monitor did. It’s all the same data; it’s just coming through two very different systems.
Just like our brains.
I remember once reading about a very well-known author (maybe Stephen King? John Irving?) saying that once he sold a book’s movie rights to a studio, he no longer considered it his story. I believe he (wisely) understood that the studio’s interpretation of the story was going to take it several steps away from his original intent, and then the studio’s presentation was going to take it further still. It’s a little like playing the old game Telephone. You whisper a phrase to the person next to you, who whispers it to the another, then another and another, and when the phrase finally comes back to you after twenty or so such steps, it’s evolved into something completely different. Perception.
The human brain is an amazing thing; it has evolved into something that can imagine, design and create something that never existed before. It can also hallucinate, become addicted, experience paranoia and hate, yen to destroy. It absorbs everything from languages to multiplication tables to celebrity gossip to physics. It seems to be hard-wired to embrace the divine, even if total understanding is beyond its grasp. And it even has the ability to study and understand itself. All these various abilities make its potential unknowable. It also just about guarantees that no two people will perceive anything in exactly the same way.
What’s an artist to do? Not a thing. It’s a given that our creations—books, paintings, music—will be perceived differently by different people. Everyone may not see the story I’ve told, see the shapes on the canvas, hear the harmonies. But some will. Some will feel the tug of those words, sink into the colors and shed tears with the soaring melody.
That’s enough for me.