Friday, June 10, 2016

How a Reader’s Inner Life Controls the Quality of Your Writing

My boyfriend and I broke up this last week.

It’s not just my story to tell and I only mention it because I want to limited the questions about what happened to moving to Australia. I’m not happy about it, and it’s hard for me to discuss.

But as I sat back this week and reflected on it… What could I have done differently? What could I do differently? Something hit me in the back of my head—a memory, a sudden understanding of a song. A song I use to judge.

I rather talk about that.

I was originally very critical of the Black Eyed Peas’ “Meet Me Halfway.” Mainly I had a problem with the chorus:

Can you meet me halfway, right at the borderline
Is where I'm gonna wait, for you
I'll be looking out, night n' day
Took my heart to the limit, and this is where I stay
I can't go any further than this
I want you so bad it's my only wish””

The song as a whole could be considered a pretty typical breakup piece about missing someone, thinking about them constantly, grieving over the things that once were. To relate to that wouldn’t be a shock in itself, but what surprises me is my complete change of heart towards the meaning of the lyrics.

Sure, it was a catchy melody, but when I first heard it, I considered it unromantic and perhaps a little bit selfish. I interpreted it as, “I will only do my half,” a sort of quid pro quo ideology, and thought that if you loved someone, you should go to the moon and back, you should give your all.

Without revealing too much, my own tune has changed. While before I saw it as her saying, “I will only go halfway, otherwise it isn’t worth it,” I now understand that you can’t go all of the way for someone. It’s not possible. The relationship can’t work. Love can be unconditional, it can be true without receiving it in return, but just because you are capable of feeling that way doesn’t mean that you can live like that. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

I’m not exactly talking about my ex here, at least not to the extent as implied. What occurred during the end of our relationship, especially in the long distance stage, left me feeling out of control and hopeless. There was something wrong and I couldn’t fix it. I couldn’t do solve it on my own, no matter how much work I was willing to put into it.

The same thing happened with an ex an another song.

“Grenade” by Bruno Mars sings:

“I'd catch a grenade for ya
Throw my hand on a blade for ya
I'd jump in front of a train for ya
You know I'd do anything for ya
Oh, I would go through all this pain
Take a bullet straight through my brain
Yes, I would die for you, baby
But you won't do the same”

At the time, I didn’t expect someone to be completely one-sided in a relationship—though I do remember thinking, “If you would really die for her, sacrificing yourself so she could live, then why is ‘you won’t do the same’ relevant? A sacrifice is a sacrifice, right?”—My skepticism focused on how the proclamations of unrealistic hypotheticals meant nothing. My then-boyfriend loved to say he would die for me, but if I needed him to take me to the airport… that was far too much to ask.

It wasn’t until this recent relationship that I understood Mars’ refrain, what it’s like to be so in love with someone that you’re bursting out of your skin to “die for them,” and yet realize their passion for you doesn’t even come close. It’s worse, in a way, than unrequited love because at least you can rip that Band-Aid off when they reject you. But when you’re actually knee deep in a relationship, it can be hard to come to terms with the great discrepancy of your feelings. Which is not to invalidate the pain of others who have been rejected, but I would much prefer that he had decided he didn’t want me within the first few months and we’d left it at that. Instead, I had to be the one to guess at his feelings, hoping all of the while I was misinterpreting what his actions told me.

When I first heard “Grenade,” I hated it. I hated when men made these great promises, thought these grand gestures of gifts and vows made up for the moments of neglect, not being there when I actually wanted them, needed them. Sure, some romantic words and presents can be nice, there is no denying that, but it’s not what I’m actually looking for. When I love you, accessibility and support is really what I need.

In the later years, I started to know what it was like to want to “jump on a grenade” for someone, what it was like to have them not want to do the same. Instead of seeing his words as insincere, shallow promises, I recognized them as indescribable feelings.

A song I had thought obnoxious and disingenuous became very true for the state of mind I was later in. My own inner life changed my interpretation, and with that changed my opinion on the overall quality of work.

I’ve seen it happen with other works as well, namely The Death of a Salesman where many of its bigger fans admit to hating it when they were younger. Something can be bullshit, boring, or unrelatable until something happens to you to put you on the same page as the author.

This is part of the problem with the way literature is taught in school these days, more so, how we teach the evaluation of books. “Good” writing is often judged on an “I’ll know it when I see it” basis, but professors will tell their students that the books those teens think are good aren’t, that you can’t trust your own judgement, and that you need to trust the teacher’s opinion until you get old enough to learn how to think for yourself—because that apparently comes at a magical age.

Which it doesn’t. Determining how you yourself evaluate good work, how other people do it, what subjectivity is and what factors into quality—What is a good book?—is a huge part of the process. It’s a struggle, and the more assured someone feels like they know what a good book is, the more likely that just don’t think to question their first impressions. These people often are hurt by criticism more than someone who critically questions his own opinion and recognizes the flexibility in what constitutes as good.

We are told that good art has “meaning.” Waiting for Godot is meaningful. Your peer’s one-act about Rubrics Cubes representing the homeless is not. The analogy of Lord of the Rings doesn’t count. Why? Because he didn’t intend for it. What did Antoine Artaud intend to do in Jet of Blood? Nothing. He was a nutcase.

I don’t think disliking something that is meaningful to someone else is a sign of poor perspective. I don’t think my original interpretations of the songs were wrong, exactly. I still believe that saying you’ll die for someone doesn’t mean as much as just putting down the controller when they need your attention, and I don’t think a relationship (in most contexts) should be split 50-50.

But there’s more than one way to interpret something, and how you see it is based on your own inner life. Writers need to remember that something meaningful may only be so for a few people who have had that experience; it doesn’t say your work is bad. Critiques need to remember that just because they found meaning, doesn’t make those who didn’t idiots. And just because you find something meaningless doesn’t say it is.

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