Yesterday I had a conference with my creative writing professor, and he mentioned that one of the strengths in my writing is humor. This surprised me: I do not think of myself as a humorous person. I mean, I recognize the importance of humor in social interactions, especially in our culture, so I crack jokes occasionally, but I tend not to find mainstream American humor funny (I don’t like SNL!), and I certainly don’t try to be funny in my writing. Yet somehow it has become a tool I subconsciously use to deepen the story.
I said this to my professor and then mentioned it would be interesting to see if I can do it intentionally or if it is really just something that rises subconsciously. His response: it’s probably better if you don’t do it intentionally.
This made me think about all the things that come through subconsciously in writing. Trained English majors often think that books are written with themes in mind, or that authors know exactly what issues they want to bring up. But most of the writers I know don’t intend to write the themes that end up in their stories. We simply work with characters or a plot device or maybe one theme and write a story from there. Without our help, the themes spring up right and left so fast that English majors can’t wait to start essaying (okay, maybe that’s just a daydream of mine). One of my professors once gave the example of Goldilocks and the Three Bears: a simple children’s story, yet if you want to, you can pick all sorts of themes out of it. Imperialism (Goldilocks is the West imposing herself on the indigenous culture of the Bears), a commentary on power structures (Goldilocks is the exceptional human whose gold hair could be interpreted as a sign of royalty while the bears are the peasants who live in a forest and work hard for a living), a critique of absenteeism (here the bears might be the ruling body, Goldilocks some other entity, and the house a country that is ruined because its rulers aren’t paying attention to it), etc. These are some pretty hefty themes, and they all come from a story of a little girl and three bears. Did whoever came up with the story mean for all these themes to be there? Did I mean for my stories to be funny? The fact remains that the themes are there, and apparently my stories are funny.
The lesson here, I think, is that after the writing is done, the reader will get what they will out of the piece. It doesn’t do to worry too much about whether they will get the ideas you want them to; if you lay down the clues, they probably will, and they’ll probably read their own issues into the story without your help. In fact, I think the best literature (at least from an English major’s perspective) is writing of ambiguity, leaving enough room so that anyone can pull almost any theme out of there if they work hard enough.
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