Reading Into Writing
by Samuel Ben White
Sitting in a high school English class, listening to the teacher tell us that some prominent author’s use of flowers (probably nasturtiums, as they seem to always be on the ragged edge of polite flowerdom), is actually a metaphor for the blight affecting the inner city of Tulsa following World War II. The one question I wanted to ask was: “How do you know?”
As we explored (“explored” in the sense of “copied down verbatim notes on what the teacher said in preparation for regurgitating it back on a test”) the works of famous authors and writers like Shakespeare, Coleridge and Faulkner, the question kept coming to my mind, “How do we KNOW that’s what the author was shooting for? Sure, that line about a squirrel hide being tacked to the barn door MIGHT represent the crucifixion of our Lord, or maybe the author just had an uncle who tacked squirrel hides to barn walls and that’s always stuck with him and this seemed like as good a place as any to insert it in a story.”
Those of us who attended school in the 80s had teachers who had grown up in the sixties, which meant that some of our explorations were going to be to dissect the words of popular songs. Or, actually, songs that were popular when the teacher was in school, back “when rock-n-roll meant something!” So we were given a list of songs and told to find and listen to, say, three of them and try to discern the meaning, the meta-meaning, and the societal impact of the song.
One of mine was “Riders on the Storm” by The Doors which, I am convinced, is one of the greatest songs ever written. With his passion for Nietzsche and other bleak writers, Jim Morrison had crafted an almost perfect song for the short tragedy of his life. Still, I was convinced then—and still am now—that not every line was fraught with meaning. So few things in life are truly fraught, when you come down to it. The song itself is meaningful—even fraught, if I may be so bold—but some of the individual lines were, I am convinced, there to serve one primary purpose: rhyme. (Why, for instance, is “an actor out on loan” as bad as a “dog without a bone”?)
CS Lewis once wrote that he wished he had been clever enough to have put into his writings some of the things that people had found there. As a writer, I have had a little inkling of what that feels like and have found it to be something of a double-edged sword.
It’s fun when someone writes in to say they appreciate the subtle way you worked some deep thought into your book (or article or blog or cartoon), especially if you put it there on purpose. The two sides of the sword show themselves, first, on those occasions when someone appreciates something you hadn’t intended. “Um, why, YES, I did intend for the kid playing in the road to be a foreshadowing of the collapse of Jeffersonian diplomacy.” After which you run to a copy of your own book (in this case First Time: The Legend of Garison Fitch — find it at www.garisonfitch.com) to see a] if there’s a kid playing in the road (check) and 2] was it really a deep moment or was it just a brief device intended to move the plot from point E to point F? (Double-check, but where did he get that Jeffersonian thing?!?!)
The second and more frequently encountered side of the sword is where you, as the omniscient author, intentionally put something deep in the story but—as far you can tell—no one got it. Did you bury it too deep, or under too many layers of metaphor? Are the readers—heaven forbid—all dullards? Or is the reason no one got it just that no one wanted it?
Then, some reader does. Somebody in a town in West Virginia that you’ve never heard of writes you an email telling you “I got it” and then detailing that they truly did. For that one moment, you feel that particular West Virginian is the smartest, the canniest, the most intuitive person in the world and you, for that same moment, are Shakespeare, Coleridge and Morrison all rolled into one and you dream of the day in the future when some high school teacher tries to tell the class about the masterful imagery you created. And you’re so high on success that you don’t mind the thought that some of the kids in that futuristic class are going to ask disdainfully, “How does she know that?”
About the author:
Samuel Ben White (“Sam” to his friends) is the author of the national newspaper comic strip “Tuttle’s” (found at http://www.tuttles.net) and the on-line comic book “Burt & the I.L.S.” (found at http://www.destinyhelix.com). He is married and has two sons. He serves his community as both a minister at a small church and a chaplain with hospice. In addition to his time travel stories, Sam has also written and published detective novels, a western, three fantasy novels and four works of Christian fiction.
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