I recently read an article about my favourite poet Robert Frost’s poem ‘The Road Not Taken’. The poem is widely regarded as a metaphor for the risks and rewards of taking the road less travelled. However, as letters between Frost and the original recipient of the poem reveal, this was not Frost’s intended meaning. Frost had written the poem to his friend, Edward Thomas, to poke fun at the fact that Thomas always expressed regret at not having taken a different path during their country walks together. To Frost’s annoyance, Thomas missed the point and instead praised Frost for having penned such a “staggering” poem.
Frost’s frustration with the misinterpretation of his work is understandable, and something I’ve experienced myself multiple times over the years.
However, in time I’ve come to realise that, just because I’ve written something, doesn’t mean my understanding of it is the only valid one. Anything that is created, be it a story, song, painting, or film, means something different depending on who is experiencing it. I may have arranged the words on the page, but who am I to tell readers where those words should take them?
That’s the wonderful thing about creative works. They are not static. They do not have a singular meaning. Once a story is released from the author’s mind and written down for others to read, the author loses their creative hold over it. They will always have a material hold by virtue of owning the copyright, however, their ability to dictate how their work should be interpreted vanishes as soon as others read it.
Earlier this year, I had a short story published in the Almond Press anthology Apocalypse Chronicles. A number of my friends and family kindly read it, and many of them kept asking me who the character of Tom was based on. I guess it was obvious that Hannah, the protagonist, was loosely based on me, but no one seemed to believe me when I claimed that Tom was not based on any particular person.
At best, he is an amalgamation of a number of the boys I went to high school with, but I had no one specific in mind when I wrote his character. Yet, those readers who know me continue to make that assumption. It’s a peculiar fascination that they seem to fixate on. Surely, this character must be based on someone from my own life, especially since I set the story in my hometown. This seems odd to me, since I wouldn’t be much of a storyteller if I couldn’t conjure up characters from my imagination.
It is a common belief that a writer reveals more about themselves in their work than they intend (the same can likely be said for artists, filmmakers and musicians), and my readers’ preoccupation with finding out who I had based Tom on made me question whether or not I had, subconsciously, based him on someone after all. (After much thought, I maintain that I didn’t).
It used to annoy me when readers interpreted my writing in a different way than I had intended. As if I had somehow failed to express myself well, or they just didn’t “get it”. Now, I find joy in their various interpretations. If people can read what I write and find more than one meaning, then that means I’ve written something that has layers and can be appreciated in a number of different ways. That’s a compliment, not a criticism.
I write more for myself than anyone else, so my stories and poems will always have particular meaning to me, as I know what I had in mind when I wrote them. That said, it’s nice to know that they can take on a new life when read by someone else, and can have more meaning than I was able to see for myself.