A story’s intent

[September 2008] I received a surprising e-mail a few weeks ago. It was from a grade eleven student from Nashville. As part of an English class on critical thinking, their teacher had assigned them my short story “One of Those Weeks” from the anthology From the Borderlands (originally Borderlands 5).

This isn’t the first time one of my stories has been read in an English class, but it’s the first time where I have absolutely no association with the teacher, the students, or the school. A couple of years ago, I was invited to speak to the Creative Writing class at the local high school. My daughter graduated from that school, so I knew the teacher. There was a connection that led to that speaking gig. In that case, the class read “Harming Obsession,” and I enjoyed the opportunity to speak with them about the story and answer their questions. In this recent situation, however, I have no idea whatsoever what led the teacher to pick my story.

Here’s the part of the essay where I sidetrack from my message and harp on something we repeat over and over, often without feeling like we’ve conveyed the message. From the Borderlands was a Time Warner paperback. I don’t know its sales figures, but it spent one glorious week on the USA Today Top 150 Books list, coming in at #82. I used to see the book in airports all the time, and even found it on the shelf at our local grocery store. In brief, it got serious distribution. A lot of people picked it up and presumably read the stories it contained. Though none of us got rich off that project, this was an instance of real exposure. An editor called me up to ask whether I had a novel.

And a class several states away studied my story in their class. The students were asked to come up with theories about the meaning of its ending. They presented numerous interpretations of the story, some of them intriguing to me because they certainly weren’t in my conscious mind when I wrote it—but whose to say that I wasn’t thinking that way at some level?

The student who volunteered to contact me believed it was possible that I had written the story primarily to create the type of discussion and thinking they were undertaking. That gave me a lot more credit than I was due—though I didn’t tell them that.

I was more than happy to take some time to respond to the e-mail and subsequent letter to discuss the story with the class. However, in formulating my answer, I discovered that the story meant something different to me now than it did at the time I wrote it. I identified a subtext that seemed obvious, but one that I’d never considered before.

My daughter is an English/Creative Writing major at university so, over the past few years, I’ve had the chance to read her essays on the subject of interpretation, and on the various intents of works. There is the author’s intent, and the interpretation that each reader assigns to the text, all equally valid, and finally there is the abstract notion of the story’s intent, as if it had a consciousness of its own. Until recently, I dismissed that concept as effete intellectualism, the realm of lit. crit. researchers looking for high-minded concepts to make themselves seem important.

By revisiting “One of Those Weeks” several years after it was written, edited, revised and published, I discovered that the story might indeed have its own intent as an entity separate from me, the author. One of the best encapsulations of the story I read came from a reviewer, who was able to summarize its essence in a cleverly crafted and insightful sentence. I liked that analysis so much that I’ve often used it when discussing the story.

However, in 2008, five years after the story first appeared, I see in it something completely different. Things that I’ve experienced in the interim opened my eyes to new interpretations of something I wrote before having those experiences. It still all sounds a little artsy-fartsy to me, but I’m more of a believer in the story as an abstract entity than ever before.

Try rereading some of your older works, even if you think you’re completely familiar with them. You might discover that your past self can send a message through time to your present self. It’s surprising and delightful when that happens.

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