In school as an English major, I learned how to interpret symbolism in literature. Take Moby Dick, for instance. My professor made a point, which I still remember, of how Ahab’s hat symbolized his manhood, which the whale stole from him. He likened that to the scene in Thelma and Louise when the girls blow up the trucker’s shiny big rig full of oil (like a whale, ha ha) and then steal his hat before driving away.
Finding symbols, making connections, trying to guess what the author wants you to know — this is what English class is all about. In studying literature, we are meant to be doing something “important,” which is why we spend so much time discussing what the writer intended and what the text really means. We are taught there is a right way and a wrong way to read literature, that we either get it or we don’t. No wonder so many people get turned off of reading.
In creative writing classes, however, I learned what I already had guessed –writers mostly wing it. They write from the gut, or the subconscious, if you prefer. They don’t think in symbols any more than I, walking through a mall, would see a pair of red shoes in a store window and think, “Ah, there’s a symbol of my lost youth, if I ever did see one.”
Today I’ve come to think of reading a book as having a conversation with the writer. It’s a conversation where both parties are separated by time and space, and the writer will probably never hear my side of it, but it’s a conversation nonetheless. The writer brings a lot to our conversation, of course — characters, setting, plot, theme — but as the reader, I bring a great deal as well. My life experiences, my beliefs and values, my current preoccupations, even what happened to me that morning or what I read in the news last night — all affect how I respond to and interpret what I read.
The writer has put something on the page, some words. Some time later, I read them. And together we decide what those words mean for us, in that moment when they are read. If I read those same words twenty years later, they may mean something entirely different, and then the writer and I will have a different conversation, even though the words themselves haven’t changed.
All those English classes spent trying to figure out what the author meant by such-and-such an image were probably pretty useless. The point is not to become preoccupied with what the words are supposed to mean, or try to guess the right interpretation. Any writer who’s overly concerned that his readers understand his precise meaning at all times is probably not a lot of fun to read, anyway. I think what’s more important is the meaning that is created between the reader and the writer when the book is read. A novel is not a lecture. It’s a conversation. Or at least that’s what it should be.