How to Strengthen the Truths in Your Writing. Part 1: I Write Half?

By W.R. Gilmour

“I write half the poem, the reader writes the other half.” ~Paul Valéry

For many years, I have been intrigued by this quote from the French poet, Paul Valéry. It makes sense to me that there is an interaction between an artist and his or her audience, and that a poem’s meaning is created in a partnership in which both the poet and the reader have a stake in the outcome. However, people often have different interpretations of the same text. In such cases, I have wondered which interpretation is right. The short answer is: Yes. And that’s okay.

However, you may be wondering, “When I write something, do I get to decide what it really means, or is the meaning just crowdsourced and the truth relative?” Or, if interpretations can vary from person to person, is there still a way to most accurately communicate the truth you’re trying to teach? If you have a specific intent in your creation, is there anything you can do to avoid someone else hijacking your meaning and turning it into something else?

This becomes especially important in matters of truthspeaking –communicating content that invites tranquility and meaningful experiences. When your conscious intent is to inspire and uplift your readers, you feel a natural responsibility to get it right. You want your truth to be clearly understood. Isn’t that the point of speaking in the first place? You don’t want your words to be twisted and your message lost.

Hold onto the thought of “conscious intent” for a minute. It’s important, and I’ll be coming back to it.

When I looked further into what Valéry meant, I discovered the quote is attributed to him by the artist Pablo Picasso. What surprised me, even more, was that it was in the context of Picasso expressing his disagreement with Valéry:

“I want my paintings to be able to defend themselves, to resist the invader. Valéry used to say, ‘I write half the poem. The reader writes the other half.’ That’s all right for him, maybe, but I don’t want there to be three or four or a thousand possibilities of interpreting my canvas. I want there to be only one and in that one, to some extent, the possibility of recognizing nature.

Françoise Gilot with Carlton Lake, Life with Picasso, New York: Penguin, 1966, p. 252

Perhaps this feeling communicated by Picasso makes you feel a bit more secure, as it momentarily did for me—that there is a natural meaning the artist intends and anything else is just a misinterpretation. That would make artistic creation, truthspeaking, and the following interpretations a whole lot easier, wouldn’t it? A story or poem would mean “only what it means”. The trouble is, there isn’t only one objective meaning in nature, a single significance in everything for artists to capture. So, again, we face the dilemma: do poems and stories mean only what their creators say they mean, or do works of art and literature have infinite interpretations, or is there a middle ground?

Conscious Intent

From his insistence upon “resisting the invader”, it seemed to me that Picasso leaned toward the “my way or the highway” school of thought, but he didn’t always feel that way. He also recognized the partnership between creator and audience. During his Blue Period (1901-1904), Picasso wrote: “I just painted the images that rose before my eyes. It is for other people to find hidden meanings in them.”

And during his Rose Period (1904-1906) he said:

“When it is finished, [a picture] still goes on changing, according to the mind of whoever is looking at it. A picture lives a life like a living creature, undergoing the changes imposed on us by our life from day to day. This is natural enough, as the picture lives only through the man who is looking at it.”

National Geographic, May 2018, p. 120

I am convinced that what we create is, in part, a reflection of who we are. As well, what we see in the creation of others, and the world around us, is also influenced by our inner eyes.

Remember when I said to hold on to that “conscious intent” thought? Now let’s talk about it.

When you have a goal of truthspeaking, you want the truth you speak to be heard in the way you intend, but that is not the only way you speak the truth. Perhaps even more impactful are the many unconsciousways in which you share truth with others by simply being who you are. A long-held tenet of storytelling advises us to “show, don’t tell.” Being a truthspeaker is likewise more than just “telling” your truth. It also includes showing, which is accomplished by living and radiating truth through more than simply your narrative. That means your story communicates truth in unspoken and understated ways, not only because of what you write, but because of who you are.

The Chronicles of Narnia are as full of truth as they are because of who C.S. Lewis was. Would the world of Narnia have been as good if he had disregarded his faith? Or was the inner man the key to the power of the truths he allegorically taught?

Interestingly, it was J.R.R. Tolkien who brought Lewis back to faith after a period of inactivity. Yet, for all his supposed dislike of allegory, Tolkien’s own work is clearly impacted by his own faith; though it may be less obvious in its Christian influences.

Like C.S. Lewis, and Tolkien, as well as countless others, who you are as an author or artist, speaks between the lines. What you say in prose or verse, or what you create, is actually secondary to this foundation. Despite the ways that readers fail to see or choose to ignore what you are communicating, the reality is that those who have “eyes to see and ears to hear” will perceive more than you say. Be true to yourself. Be a truthspeaker. In doing so, it will be even more clear what you wish to say. 

When You are True to Yourself, You Create Other Truthspeakers

Paul Valéry is also credited with another of my favorite quotes: “A creator is one who makes others create.” He didn’t just mean that there are multiple interpretations of a story or poem or painting; but also, that those who read and view them are alsocreators. Your readers will create new works as they consume yours—as they encounter new understandings that carry unique meaning and significance for them. That doesn’t mean that your story is no longer yours after it leaves your hands. But it does mean it is no longer only yours. It is only a matter of time before the original intent of your work is seen differently by a reader, consumer, or observer, and made something else. Indeed, Valéry himself wrote:

“One must reckon with the element of misunderstanding which is a fundamental condition of literature. It often happens that an attentive reader…will discover in a given text intentions and hidden folds the author did not know were there and would never have seen without this reader’s intervention…. So, you see, a work is fashioned under such conditions that it completely escapes the author once it leaves his hands. It is virtually impossible for him to make an exact reckoning of the way in which that work will be received, judged, and understood…. Paradoxical as it may seem, inspiration is more likely to come from the reader than from the author.”

“Pure Intellect,” in Occasions, 213-14, emphasis added.

We Don’t See Things as They Are, but as We Are

Is it always a drawback to be misunderstood, or to have others find truths that you didn’t intend to teach? I would say, no. Independent of others, the meaning that an outsider sees in a creation can be unique because of what that person “brings to the table.” We don’t just see things as they are, but also as weare. That doesn’t change your original intent in creating, but rather it helps to make your work relevant to anyone who interacts with it. Sometimes your readers will see much that enhances and improves your work.

So, the solution? Be a truthspeaker not only in what you write, but in what you do. And, embrace what your readers learn as they bring their own experience to the table.

In my next post, I’ll explain how years ago, in a creative writing class in Canada, my work was enhanced and improved by what a reader saw.

Sothliche! (Truly!)

W.R. Gilmour