I once read something saying J.R.R. Tolkien expressly denied that The Lord of the Rings was in any way an allegory or commentary on the World Wars, despite many scholars and readers insisting the influence is clear. For a long time I thought it was madness to insist on a meaning that the author explicitly denied, and wondered how people could be so foolish. Who could know the work better than the person who wrote it?

A little while back I wrote a novella and shared it with my writing group over a series of meetings. When I got to the final chapter, reaction was mixed. Not about the quality but about the content; it’s an allegorical story and a lot of it is open to interpretation. I personally thought the ending was hopeful and, given the circumstances of the story, the best possible outcome. A good number of the readers there agreed with me.

To my surprise, a good number of them also disagreed. Some went so far as to say it sounded like the protagonist had ended up in some kind of purgatory or hell, which is miles away from my intent. I try to take the commentary and critique offered at my group in stride, and I know it’s not personal. I think I usually do an adequate job of that. This time though, I admit I found myself a bit defensive and trying to explain my ending. It seemed so clear to me that the ending was meant to be “good” in the context of what I’d written.

A few days ago I was speaking with a friend that just read this same novella. He very much wanted to know what the whole story and ending means. This time I found myself hesitant to offer my own interpretation, and more curious about how he took it and what it represented to him. I told him I’ll tell him what it means to me, but I want to hear his thoughts first before I colour them with my own meanings.

What I’m coming to realize is that writing is not a static thing. You can write it with whatever intent you want, but what it means to the people who read it is entirely out of your control. Symbols are tricksy things. A lighthouse might be a beacon of hope in the dark and the storm, but it might also be a monument to isolation and loneliness. I know what it means to me, but do I know what it means to you? Of course not.

Assuming a writer is completely correct about what the content of their writing means or symbolizes also assumes the writer is completely self-aware. Can I truly say I know the full thought process behind every word choice, every scene, every character motivation? The idea is ludicrous. Even at my most lucid, when I’m editing and honing in on one specific word or phrase, I can’t say I have complete knowledge of why I make the choices I do. Sometimes one word just sounds more “right” than another. I have to think that certain meanings or intents are creeping in unconsciously from time to time.

I also wonder how much intent really means. If I intend meaning X, but 75% of my readers see meaning Y, then can I really say meaning Y has no place here? If I didn’t tell the story the way I should have, then sure, I can go back and fix it to guide you to meaning X like I intended. But if I look at the writing and I think I’ve told it the right way, but it still took you to meaning Y, then maybe things just aren’t as clear cut as I want them to be. And ain’t that life?

I’m not sure anymore that rightness or correctness mean anything in a context like this. The character in my novella took a journey. I know what that journey means to the character, and I know what it means to me. I’m getting over the idea that it has to mean the same thing to you. I won’t deny that it’s lovely to have someone tell you that they see what you intended. But it’s also very interesting to see how the same words take different people to different conclusions. These days I believe that Tolkien never intended to write about the World Wars when he created Middle Earth, and I believe knowing his intent is important. But I don’t believe that an event so massive and life-altering won’t creep in around the edges of things created by the people who experienced it, whether they intended it or are conscious of it.

For myself, I’ve decided I want to hear what other people see in my work before I tell them what I intended. I’ve always previously thought of my writing as choosing little bits of myself and showing them to other people, a process totally under my control. I’m wondering now what I’m exposing without meaning to, and what I might learn about myself by hearing what other people see in my writing. What’s in my mind that I’m not even aware of, creeping out into the edges of my work to be seen only from the corner of my eye while I tell myself there’s nothing there? Let’s find out.

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