Sometimes, even at this late date, people ask me why I’m so fast to disregard Authorial Intent in a work.
It’s a fair question. After all — all creative people feel inexorably bound to their creations, for good or ill. It feels like a tiny chunk of you has been wrapped up in descriptive text, imagery, lyrics, melody or what have you. And for many (not all) people, there is generally something you’re going for. Something you want to say, whether directly or indirectly. Something you want to imply. Some meaning behind your words. That meaning may be prosaic — sometimes a running gun battle is just a running gun battle — or obscure. (Sometimes a running gun battle is a metaphor for the individual finding himself opposed by his own dark reflection while the world of conformity around him is shattered in collateral damage which rains down upon the innocent and guilty alike. Also there are doves. Just accept that part, okay?)
Regardless. You have innate investment in your work. You have innate intent in your work. And it is, in the end, your work. You own it. You have the copyright on it. And you were there when you wrote it. You know what it means.
I get that. I really do.
The problem is… no one else does. And more to the point, no one else really cares. Oh, some give caring lip service. They scour details of your life, your other works, your writing, the historical context you lived, work and created in, and all the rest. They want to add the ineffable support of authorial intent to what is, in the end, their interpretation of your work.
And that’s the crux. Each reader, each critic, each viewer who comes to your work walks away with their opinions, their understanding, and their interpretation. They get out of your work what they get out of your work, whether it’s what you intended them to get or not.
And there is squat-all you can do about it.
Oh, some try. They argue. They rant. They go on message boards and call people idiots. And they may even discredit some of their readers in the eyes of others. And their net gain in doing so is A) one lost reader and B) a reputation for being an asshole. Which, to be certain, some authors wear with pride.
But the next time someone picks up your book, or sees your painting, or hears your song… they’re still going to stubbornly interpret it according to their own life, their own perspective, and their own sense of meaning. They’re going to find things in the work that you never intended to be there. They’re going to find things that on third reading seem obvious that are the polar opposite of what you meant.
It happens. It’s going to happen. It should happen. Truly timeless work speaks to generations far beyond those that were there when you created the damn thing, and the only way — the only way — that happens is if the work can fit their very different lives. They need to be able to interpret it in a way that’s relevant to them, or else it will swiftly become irrelevant to them.
All interpretation is opinion. Every person who experiences a creative work constructs their own view of what it means or says and how well it says it. The critical theory I work from — and it’s far from the only one out there — says that so long as they can demonstrate their interpretation with evidence from the work, it’s valid. If they can write an essay that quotes your book or poem or lyrics or what have you and shows how they came to their interpretation, then they get to have that interpretation. And it doesn’t matter if the author thinks they’re full of crap and should die in a hole, because the author wasn’t there when they read it, and the author isn’t inside their heads dictating how they should think. The work stands on its own.
A folk singer named Melanie Safka (who professionally just goes by ‘Melanie’) put it really well when talking about her 1971 hit Brand New Key. Indeed, it summed it up way better than I did, put into a perspective I wish every creator had:
“‘Brand New Key’ I wrote in about fifteen minutes one night. I thought it was cute; a kind of old thirties tune. I guess a key and a lock have always been Freudian symbols, and pretty obvious ones at that. There was no deep serious expression behind the song, but people read things into it. They made up incredible stories as to what the lyrics said and what the song meant. In some places, it was even banned from the radio.
"My idea about songs is that once you write them, you have very little say in their life afterward. It’s a lot like having a baby. You conceive a song, deliver it, and then give it as good a start as you can. After that, it’s on its own. People will take it any way they want to take it."
That’s it, in a nutshell. This is your baby, and like a baby it involves a part of you, woven and developed and grown, and then you send it out into the world. But when it’s out there, it’s out there, and people are going to interact with it, change it, experience it, and do things to it you never imagined. It’s terrifying.
And it’s also wonderful.
Use your intent. Cherish your intent. Do everything you can to convey your intent in your work, but once that work leaves you and hits the world, accept that your intent doesn’t matter beyond you. It will stand on its own, and say what it has to say, and what people hear is going to be up to them.