Need a volunteer or two

Ok, this is a lot to ask, but I need a volunteer. Two actually.

So I’m taking “creative writing” and I have to do an analysis, with the professor, of two published short stories. Yeah, yeah, yeah, just buy a book. The problem is that I don’t like the idea of guessing what the author meant. So I figured I would cheat. Not really cheat, but provide validation to my work.

Here’s what I am asking my volunteers to do:
• Suggest a couple of short stories that you have written that have been published.
• Let me and the professor do the analysis.
• Tell me if we got it right.

Not too tough is it? Just prove to me that my theory of "you don’t know what the author really meant to say unless YOU ASK HIM! is right or wrong.

One thing, please don’t be offended if your story is not selected. My selection of story has to be approved by the professor.

What do you say? Any takers?

I tried to write an answer and got an SQL error … so the situation seems that I am not allowed to help even if I could!


I think “what the author meant” is really irrelevant. What does the story mean to you, and how did the author (technically) achieve those effects? Will the story be more meaningful to you, or less, if it turns out that you “got it right” relative to the author’s intent?

The challenge of literature is to take something that is deeply, personally, meaningful to the author, and make it universal. What matters is the universal nature of the story, not the author’s original impulse.

This idea of analysis as decoding is a pet peeve of mine, and why I have little or no interest in literary criticism.

Not mine, but story suggestions:

  • Ernest Hemingway, “The Old Man and the Sea,” which I guess is really a novella.
  • William Faulkner, “A Rose for Emily.” (Yeah, I know, everyone reads this. It’s still a classic.)
  • James Joyce, “The Dead.”
  • Tim O’Brien, “The Things They Carried.” (The short story, not the novel of the same name.)
  • Frederick Busch, “Ralph the Duck.”


“Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”

From the Authorial Warning that begins Huckleberry Finn

What Katherine said.

To add to her list: just about any of Hemingway’s short stories, but “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” in “The First Forty-Nine Stories” is a real cracker. Some critics have suggested that Margot Macomber in this story is a more complicated character than even Hemingway himself realised.

Also in this book: “Hills Like White Elephants”, a story whose message is dependent on the reader’s interpretation.

I’m currently taking a critical theory class, so I found this kind of ironic. The first statement seems to be a key tenet in much of literary criticism. I have some misgivings about the first quote, however, which is why I agree with the second.

No, you won’t get everything an author intended in a story unless you’ve been attached to him or her at the hip since birth. You have your life, and bring your own baggage to the story. That’s perfectly normal in my opinion. But when we completely disregard the author’s intent, I think it becomes too self-serving. It’s letting you off too easy. Then we start reading papers from critics who sound like the type of people who insist that Jesus appeared on their buttered toast this morning. They insist there are patterns in a given text, and they give credence to these patterns over any other meaning in the story. While it may be fun to play in that field for awhile, what good comes out of it? In the end, it elevates the critic above the author.

When I hear, “what the author meant is irrelevant,” it sounds too much like, “It doesn’t matter what you say, only what I hear.” That runs counter to what good literature is supposed to do. It’s anti-communication.

Sorry to hijack your thread, Jaysen.

I don’t presume to know precisely what Katherine – the author – meant, but it one item needs to be clarified.

is an inaccurate and misleading quotation. What Katherine actually wrote was

Consider the punctuation.


How about writing about this? IS the author on point or way off? I would assume you and your professor would get a hoot out of breaking this one down.

Kind of like standing in front of a mirror holding a mirror…

Here’s my thing. I agree with both ends. Mr Clemens had a right to say what he did. But did he really mean it? As an abolitionist was he just being himself (self-depricatingly humorous) while honestly hoping to point out that “whiteness” is not a skin color but a position of the heat?

I guess to me the question is not “what did the author mean?” but “what did I get compared to what the author meant?”. To do that you need to find the author and say “hey, what did you mean?”

As a reader for pleasure I have no issue being unable to find Hugo Cervantes and ask them what they meant, I just nod to myself and think. My pleasure. But, if I have the author, and I am FORCED to make the decision, isn’t it only fair to give the author an opportunity of rebuttal?

Critical analysis of craft is one thing. The wall is square. The tenses of the nouns and verbs match. But if the critical analysis is to extend to meaning without the author present for defense then you are only pontificating an opinion from the soap box made up of your own personal baggage.

That’s my opinion anyway, and since I have to pontificate, I would rather do it at the table, with a cup of coffee or mug of beer, and the author. Why guess when I can ask “did I get it?”

Speaking only for myself, I don’t want that opportunity.

Once the work is done, I’ve moved on. I’ve said what I have to say. How you interpret it is up to you, because I’m busy writing something else.

IMO, being encouraged to go over the same ground again and again is one of the worst things that can happen to an author. And succumbing to the temptation is creative suicide.


See, this is how I feel about almost all literary criticism.

[code]so much depends
a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Sixteen words. As close as English gets to haiku.

Thousands and thousands of words have been written arguing about what the red wheelbarrow means. But do any of those words shed any more light on, well, anything, than the poem itself?

Read the poem. Appreciate the poem. Read more poetry. Write your own, if you feel so inspired.


I am wondering. Is the thing you are to learn from this task really a method for your professor to put you in the passenger seat (reader) and guess where the driver (writer) is actually headed?

In doing so is the professor demonstrating that even when you write creatively your creations may have completely different interpretations when read by someone that is not actually inside your mind? That if you want to express something explicitly then you must use your skills to “explain” exactly what you mean but on the other hand (As kewms demonstrated very well) one may have a poem about a red wheel barrow but the author creates art and thus the interpretation is left up to the reader.

When one looks at a painting on the wall are they more inclined to ask themselves “What is the artist trying to say?” or rather are they more caught up with how the painting makes them feel.

A lesson in the differences between saying it bluntly or using innuendo…

Just so I don’t do it again, you should probably explain exactly how I was misleading.


I have the solution.

A shorty story that is published that you can ask the writer(s) directly about.


Time For Another

A short story that is “digitally published” on a professional forum (SCR Forum) written by many critically claimed authors (including your self) written under tight constraints (3 words at a time) that even has the letter already written…

I mean if that doesn’t demonstrate “Creative writing” in a modern sense I don’t know what does…

Maybe you should explain why you think I put the quotation marks in, if I thought they could be ignored. :wink:

I set the phrase in quotes because discerning “what the author meant” is often treated as a goal independent of the work itself, as if the only reason why stories exist is to provide analytical problems for critics to solve. As I hope my other posts demonstrate, I view this exercise as largely irrelevant to the literary value of the work, and only marginally relevant for a creative writing student seeking to use the author as a model. The whole is more than the sum of the parts.

I do not, however, view the author’s intent as irrelevant to the meaning of the work. Consider, for example, the instances where stories from The Onion have been misunderstood by people who do not know that The Onion is a humor publication. That’s an extreme example, but much of literature is enriched by knowing the original context.


Katherine’s line, “what the author meant” referred, in context, to Jaysen’s

It was a specific and therefore narrow use of the phrase. Your line,

is quite general – you allude to “good literature,” rather a large context – and applies to a much broader spectrum.

If you cannot see a distinction, perhaps you are not paying enough attention in your critical theory class.


Katherine, thank you for your clearly stated position. I agree with you on all points. Including the use of quotes. One thing that I am not sure I fully understand, and I am admittedly the slow one, is how willingly answering “what did you mean?” is “succumbing to the temptation of creative suicide”?

Just to reiterate, I get the other points. I even asked “does there have to be a meaning?” If there is a meaning in 90% of wait I write it would be a surprise to just about everyone. Especially me.

Wock, I’m honestly not sure. For me this was about learning the how of what I enjoy. Kind of like when I took a few lessons in classical guitar just to learn the “right way” to play the music. I’m kind of hoping what should be fun doesn’t turn into something like mucking horse stalls.

That is not precisely what I said… :wink: But close enough that I’ll answer the question…

Because, as often as not, I don’t actually know what I meant. Or at least not all of it. Trying to produce a coherent explanation requires digging into the workings of the creative part of the brain in a way that I don’t think is helpful.

And going over old ground – which is what I actually suggested was creative suicide – is a trap because it trades the comfort of the familiar for the risk-taking that I see as inherent in art.

Now, there are plenty of counter-examples. Monet’s grainstacks. Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. But I would argue that in both cases they were not repeating themselves, so much as teasing apart all the particulars of a limited subject. I would contrast this with, for instance, the endless parade of Tolkien-clone fantasy worlds.


I get it.

And I thank you for naturally understanding what I was unable to articulate clearly.

That said, may others still offer themselves up on the alter of “education”?

Fair enough. I’m only a undergrad, so I probably look like a toddler running through the room knocking stuff over to you. Just make sure to keep me in line. :wink:

That seems to be the paradox of literary criticism, at least to me. If there is some universal quality to WCW’s poem, then shouldn’t there be a universal meaning as well? Shouldn’t my interpretation and WCW’s interpretation more or less match?

Or what if there isn’t a universal meaning, and I have to bring my own experiences to find meaning. I have to interpret WCW’s words according to my own life. But then we could have an infinite number of readings of the poem. The more interpretations I can extract from the poem, the less meaningful it becomes.

How do I appreciate it? Why should I appreciate it? Why does this poem get elevated to the canon of literature? What’s significant about it? Was he making a casual observation one morning? Is there something deeper, like it’s the little things that count. Would the poem retain the same meaning if you replaced the red wheel barrow with a rusty blue wagon? The white chickens with a brown cow? What is the literary value of this work? AAAAHHHHHH!!! :open_mouth: :mrgreen:

Thank you for humoring me, Katherine. You may enjoy this poem by Billy Collins:

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.[/code]