On Interpretation and Art Being Subjective

One of the most important lessons I learned in four years of creative writing was this: you have no control over how people will interpret your work.

Writers are the first step in most projects. In plays, we write a script, and once it’s done, we send it to a director. At that point, it no longer belongs to us. It belongs to the producer of the play, to the director, to the actors, to the set designer, to the choreographer, to everyone working to perform it in front of an audience. They are free to do with it as they like, and they have no obligation to ask for our advice. Our work is done. We can pack up and go home.

That can be a very, very difficult lesson to learn. Last January, I was graciously invited to watch a rehearsal for a school play I had written. It was difficult to keep my mouth shut, to say the least: I didn’t understand how the actors could have so badly misunderstood their characters when I had thought that their personalities and motivations had been perfectly obvious in the script. Or how the director (who also happened to be my co-writer) could have envisioned each scene, each line so differently from me, when I was certain we had been on exactly the same page throughout the process. Conversations with other people involved with the project revealed that most of them were equally frustrated: we disagreed on the sets, the costumes, the music, the casting, every little aspect of the show. As it turned out, we had each envisioned the play slightly differently, and we were all convinced that our vision was the best one, the “right” one.

The play, in the end, was phenomenal. I realized throughout the process that my version of the story was not objectively the best one, nor the one that the audience would respond most favourably to. The director and the actors had seen something slightly different in it, and that’s okay.

I’ve submitted poetry assignments that I thought were empty, superficial and impossible to understand, only to get an excellent grade and a comment on how the poems really served as a window into my brain. I’ve made accidental references to media that I’ve never heard of. After the same play I mentioned above was performed for the first time, multiple people thanked me for a character whose storyline they had interpreted as a metaphor for disability, when I had never seen it from that angle. Every writer can tell you stories like these: sometimes people get something out of your writing that you never saw yourself. That’s part of the beauty of art. And, yes, part of what makes life as an artist so frustrating: sometimes people wildly misunderstand what you’re trying to tell them, and it doesn’t matter what your intention was, because you still offended them.

This is why I’m frequently frustrated with the discourse surrounding art in fandom.

Here’s the thing: in the same way that different people involved in the same play can each interpret the script differently, different people watching the same TV show can each get something completely different out of that show.

Crazy, right?

Maybe when you see your OTP on screen, you see a perfectly healthy and adorable couple that is so wonderfully progressive and groundbreaking that you think it should be considered the standard for TV couples. But I can almost guarantee that there is someone out there in the world who looks at that same couple and sees something abusive, toxic, and even dangerous. Those two characters with no chemistry whose budding romance is ruining the show for you? Someone is replaying every one of their scenes over and over again because they can’t get enough of them. That character you think is an offensive and harmful stereotype might mean the world to someone who’s never seen themselves represented on screen before.

And guess what? Everyone is right.

Art is subjective. Nobody has the right to tell someone else that they are interpreting something the wrong way. Writers do not get to brush off criticism by explaining to their fans that a problematic storyline really wasn’t intended to be problematic. Fans don’t get to pretend that their favourite TV show or movie or book is perfect and incapable of fault or, alternately, that something they don’t like cannot possibly have brought positive change to anyone’s life.

Speak up about what offends you, even if you don’t think the writers meant for it to be offensive. Be passionate about the things you like. Tell people why you like them, why you think they’re important. But also understand that the world is not black and white. Listen to what other people have to say about the media you consume. Understand that just because someone likes a character or a couple you deem problematic does not mean they’re endorsing the problematic aspects.

Maybe then we can all put the name-calling aside and have a real conversation about representation in media.


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