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READING BETWEEN THE LINES

September 29th, 2005 12 comments

David Niall Wilson

Throughout my life I’ve heard the term “reading between the lines” used to infer that a person has grasped some deeper, hidden secret buried in words someone else has written, or an untold story being ignored and glossed over with a less-than-truthful or fabricated façade. As an author, I’m often amazed when readers point out such things in my own writing. I used to ignore them, as a matter of fact, and tell myself they were full of crap – that the words were just the words, and that’s it. Robert Frost once told a University audience this same thing when asked about the poem “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening.” He said that it’s just a poem about snow, and the woods, and that this is enough. I have come to learn, even if the author believes this to be true, it can be deceiving. Reading and writing are interactive pursuits, and what a person puts into a work is not necessarily the guideline for what others will get back out of it.

Everything we do in life reflects who we are, what we think, where we’ve been, and where we are going. It’s been said repeatedly by many voices here at storytellers unplugged that you have to leak yourself into your fiction if you want it to ring true. Sometimes, if you aren’t careful, the leaks don’t get plugged so efficiently, and you end up revealing more than you intended – or realized. Wouldn’t it be nice if you had your own private Dutch Boy to block that sort of leak, or at least a Lois Lane to your Superman who could report on what you’ve done so you can be aware of it BEFORE you get broadsided on a panel at a convention, or by an interviewer, asking just what you meant? The flip side of this leakage is that you can’t predict how reading the words will interact with the lives of others, or what new leaks this might cause – so when someone tells you about their experience, it’s wise to listen.

When I was in the US Navy and had just completed the novel “This Is My Blood,” I considered it to be several things. I knew it was a unique take on vampirism. I knew that it was a jab at organized religion, using a character – Mary Magdalene – who knew absolutely that what Jesus said was true as a point of comparison to show the weakness of men and their faith – especially those men held in such reverence for their part as priests and apostles. What I didn’t expect, and came to understand, was that there were more words between those lines, and that people would find them.

I let several of my fellow sailors read the manuscript when it was completed. At the time I was immersed in writing other things, and was waiting for the new publisher who’d picked up the novel to get it into print. It wasn’t foremost on my mind. I was in charge of the mess decks on the ship, “Mess Decks Master-at-Arms”, and had to be in to work at 4:30 AM. One of the younger sailors working for me came to me soon after we arrived at work one day and plopped the manuscript back in front of me. He stared at me for a while, and finally I couldn’t stand it any more. I asked what he thought.

He started to tell me, and that was when I noticed. This guy was standing in front of me in a dirty uniform, ready to make iced tea for the masses and scrub the tables, and he was crying. Not sobbing, or anything like that, but steadily flowing tears. He explained it to me very slowly, that he’d found the message in my novel to be very powerful. He said that reading the gospel through the eyes of a fallen angel — seeing Judas as a man, not a symbol, and the way I handled each character’s battle with the supernatural and their own faith to be a reaffirmation of his own. He said a lot of other things that sort of faded out, but the thing he said that stuck with me longest was very simple. He said “thank you.”

First off, it had never occurred to me (beyond my arrogant assumption that I am a gift to the world) that what I was doing was important to others in the same ways that it was to me. I had also not been aware, until he pointed it out, what I’d done with the characters – how I’d built a message into this book that was never my intention. In other words, right up until then I’d have said it was mostly an intriguing story with some of the dissatisfaction I harbored toward organized religion at its core. After that? I thought about it for a long time, and I came to the conclusion that, if you read the book with an open mind and didn’t think too hard about the dark fantasy elements, he was right. The book could have been sold in religious bookstores if people had more open minded attitudes. It was a personal revelation.

Since then, I’ve paid more attention, after the fact, to what I’ve written. Excessive leaks of personality into plot aren’t necessarily bad, but they are something an author must remain acutely aware of. If you use your words to work through something that is currently eating at you, you run the risk of sabotaging your work. You can become obsessed with a particular plot line, insistent that it go the way you want it to go, and suddenly you have a new problem. Instead of leaking “truth” into your fiction, you begin trying to manipulate that truth, and the plot suffers. In the case of This Is My Blood, this worked to my advantage, I believe, but it could easily have gotten out of control.

The point of all of this is a simple one. Just because you wrote the story, that doesn’t mean you control it. Just because you plotted something carefully to infer one thing doesn’t mean that readers will not find something hidden in the shadows, or that they will even see your original point for their own trees. If you run into such a reader, one who has “read between your lines,” and are fortunate enough to have the chance to discuss your work with them – listen. See if you don’t learn something about yourself in the process – and see if your work doesn’t grow stronger for the effort.

David Niall Wilson