Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Write Club: The Art of Interpretation

I was thinking about this the other day, and I've noticed that people aren't very good at translating emotions when it comes to reading works that are written a century or more before.  I fault modern schools and attitudes for this.  While I realize that every generation has a different perspective on past eras than other generations, I feel like this generation in particular is trying their very hardest to translate emotions in the most staid, non-comprehending way possible.

Be aware, from this point on I get ranty.  If you want to skip the rant, scroll down to later on to get into my writing point.

A lot of the time this concerns race.  Modern America (as well as other countries, probably, but I'll just speak of my own) are very hyper-sensitive about race.  The slightest word can set off a firestorm of media lynching.  For example, a lot of people freak out because the n word is in The Adventures of Huck Finn.  Honestly though, everybody knows that Mark Twain was in fact anti-racist, and the n word was just said a lot more then.  While I feel like editing works to be PC is wrong, I'm okay with producing a censored version without the word for use in public schools.  That, however, is a subject for another time.  Actually, I don't really like that story for unrelated reasons, but that also is another topic.  I've already ranted on why I hate school chosen books.

Thing is, people do that all the time.  They see an offensive word or opinion and just freak out and say they're racist or sexist.  C.S.Lewis had plenty to say about women caught in the thralls of modernism, but he also had a lot to say about basically everybody else.  He wasn't biased, he was saying things that are true.  I find the things he says on modern women particularly poignant, and that's weird because he wrote them all like fifty years ago and they're still true -- it's possible that the real issue with "modern" women is not modernity but our attitudes about being modern.  I'm a chick, I get to say this.

The thing I find most ironic about this attitude is that the public picks and chooses who they call racist.  They don't mention that Queen Elizabeth I saw both black people and the Irish as inferior.  They say nothing about the fact Charles Darwin's next book after writing "The Origin of the Species" advocated eliminating "inferior" races.  They don't mention that the creator of Planned Parenthood was a huge racist and that a disproportionate number of abortions are done on black people in America.  Nobody bothers to connect these two notions that history books claim: that humans are descended from monkeys and that life began in Africa.  Okay, children, what's two plus two?  No, it ain't five.

I'm getting ranty.  Really, I'm trying to make a writing point rather than a political one, but I can't help it.  The world is turning me into a dang conspiracy theorist.  I really don't want to be save me....

So anyway, one of the dumbest examples of this intentional bad interpretation is the false claim that the book of Genesis describes creation twice and is therefore proof that the entire Bible is wrong.  This is the most stupid argument against the Bible I've yet heard.

What really happens is this: the first chapter of Genesis describes what God did on a day by day basis, then chapter two opens up with a new summary of creation leading up to a description of the garden of Eden.  How in the world is that proof against the Bible?  It's called writing style, people!  It's a device used plenty of times.

This particular writing device is done so that the author can explain a more detailed, organized description so that the setting and tone can be established.  This is the purpose of the first chapter.  However, this description, while putting everything in perspective, doesn't lead to the plot.  Hence a summary of creation that's not as detailed, but refers specifically to that which will lead the reader to what's going to happen in this story and what it's about.  The second part doesn't contradict the first, it only accentuates a different aspect of creation (the making of man) so that the story can continue.  Even nonfiction must have a sense of story, or else you get public school education.

Alright, ranting over!  You can come back now!

A really good metaphor for this whole topic is in the movie Collateral. Jamie Fox is a marvelous actor, and in this his character has a stutter that pops up when he's really nervous.  If you try to listen to the specific things he says, you're liable to get confused.  But if you step back just a bit from what he's saying, you know what Jamie is getting across.

So let's look at some writing and see how we can interpret it.  Note that as a reader or critic you should try not to so much judge the writing by what you know, but by the emotions and ideas the artist is trying to get across.  A critic once said that Robinson Crusoe was motivated by money, and if you don't want to turn out like that weirdo, remember what your writer is trying to say.  Don't look at small details and judge a writing by them alone as if they're some sort of big point to the plot. What is the message of the writer?

I prefer novels, but for the purpose of this blog let's look at some lyrics.  This is the song "The Sound of Goodbye", the link to which I'll go ahead and point here.  It's very poetic.

And the lyrics:

"Every face I see is cold as ice
Everything I touch is pale
Ever since I lost imagination

Like a stream that flows into the sea
I am lost for all eternity
Ever since you took your love away from me

Sometimes, the sound of goodbye is louder than any drumbeat"

Now, we are all (I hope) aware that the dumbest way to interpret this is in a more literal sense.  Take the first stanza for example.  Think about it.  Every face the speaker sees (let's call her Anna) is cold as ice?  So....she's like, touching people's faces and they're cold?  Wait, why are they cold?  Are only their faces cold?  So, like, everything she touches is pale.  So Anna touches something and it automatically becomes a more faded tint?  Is this like a parody of the Midas touch?  And how in the world is she supposed to lose her imagination?  It's right there in her head.  Or does she have a headache or something and she can't think of anything?

So you see, this is no way to interpret the song.  If I went up to you and started asking these sorts of questions, you would immediately go sour and start telling me I'm missing the point.  Perhaps I'm stubborn, and I say in reply, "Well, look, Anna is the one who said every face is as cold as ice.  What do you mean that's not what she's trying to say?  That's exactly what she's saying!  Why would she say it unless she meant it?"

Hopefully you would call me an idiot (and take away whatever drugs I'm apparently on) and say that it's poetic: Anna is trying to call to mind emotions by using extreme examples.  For example, by saying that every face is as cold as ice, she's could be commenting on two possible things: that people are unfriendly to her (their action), or that no one is appealing to her (her action).  It would be very dull and ignorable to just say "Oh, people don't like me" or "I think people are so unwelcoming these days".  Those statements are emo, and Anna's statement is poetic.  The difference lies in the wording, and whether or not Anna (or your given speaker) is connecting with you or not.

When Anna next says "everything I touch is pale" she is indicating a lifelessness on the part of her actions.  She is helpless, dull, and ineffective.  "Ever since I lost imagination" is extra poetic, and you can't really understand this line, I think, unless you see the context.  But in any case, it indicates that her power of thinking and seeing the things that do not exist yet or exist only intangibly has faded out.  She can't appreciate beauty, feel poetry, or experience love, all of which are generally intangible.

She is incapable of future thinking (because of course all imagination consists of a future) because she is so stuck in her present circumstance.    Well, I get that last part mainly from reading the rest of the context: Anna has lost her love, forced to say goodbye when she was unwilling.

"But no," Druggie me tells you.  "Where all you getting all this from?  She's talking about ice and streams, not relationships.  She's 'lost for all eternity'.  Breaking up with a boy isn't all that bad now."

No, but it feels that way, particularly if Anna was close to her love.  Here it indicates that Anna must have been close to the one she loved (note that we can't say for sure that she's speaking of a boyfriend), because her identity is being absorbed away into non-uniqueness.

"Where are you getting that?  A stream isn't lost for all eternity.  It's there!  See, look, there it is!"

Surely you get the metaphor.  The specific water that flows in a stream isn't there forever.  It's constantly moving, heading downhill the shortest way to the ocean, where the water from the stream will be mixed in with all the other water in the world, and there is no way of telling what stream that water came from ever again.  The loss of identity, of individuality.

"Okay, so what's this about goodbye being louder than a drumbeat?  I guess a goodbye would be louder if the drums were being played quietly and someone was shouting goodbye."

Stop, stop, stop.  That's, again, the dumbest way to interpret things.  Drums by nature are intrusive instruments.  They bang and keep the beat, acting as a harsh sound versus soft sounds like harps and flutes.  They violently go in, increasing intensity of a song and refusing to be subtle.  The goodbye that Anna faces is as violent as drums, and yet worse than them.  It bangs in her ears, refusing to go away.  Her life can't go back to peace, as this goodbye cannot be ignored.  It fills her ears more than any loud drumbeat could, drowning out any happiness or not so bad aspects of Anna's life.

See, you have to interpret this on an emotional level.  It would be too simple to say "my love left me and now I feel horrible".  It's harder to connect to that.  By using extreme language, Anna is conveying her pain and exactly how this feels to her.  We can feel her disconnection with life.

On the level of songwriting, this is exactly what I was talking about with Disney movies; the ones that aren't specific but connect more to the audience are going to be remembered.  We don't know specifically what happened to Anna.  We have no clue who or what her love is, or why they left her, or why they were so important to her in the first place.  For the purposes of a song, we understand Anna better by her simple appeal to our deepest emotions.

So in any case, be aware of the way you interpret things.  Remember to choose an artful way to interpret it, and be careful of getting too attached to specifics.  I might have been talking about a song, but this applies to other things as well.  For example, I looked at this discounted book by some weirdo chick, and it was something like "One Year with Nicholas Sarkozy".  That thing wasn't worth the one dollar it cost.

The problem with the book was the way the author wrote it.  She basically wrote little snippets of very basic things Sarkozy did, like shaking hands or relaxing at the end of a hard day.  You only had to read 3 (if that) of her trite little comments to understand exactly how she felt about the French leader.  Conversely, you could read the whole darn thing and not learn two cents worth about Sarkozy himself.

So, as a critic of a story or interpreter of emotions there are some things you should remember.
1. Don't base your interpretation on nitpicky details.  What is the overall purpose of the writing?
2. Interpret what the writer is saying/person is doing.  Your audience wants to know about them, not you or your opinion of them.
3. Try to see what emotion the writer is trying to appeal to.  How does the writer want you to feel?

So yeah, that's my rant for today.  Thanks for readin'.

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