Friday, November 19, 2010
I'm Not The Boss Of You - Critical Reading/Critical Living
This past few months has been a season of enormously uncomfortable learning for me. Don't you love that? When you're such an obtuse person that you have to get bludgeoned with the Humility Stick over and over again before you get the point?
Not to make this blog a confessional, but I learned something significant today from the venerable Shannon Hale (author of "The Princess Academy" and one who has enough apparent humility that she'd probably not want to be called "venerable." But her insight today qualifies her as "venerable" in my book.) It is something that applies to everyday life--and the things I am painstakingly learning--just as well as it applies to writing and reading. Ms. Hale said the following on her blog:
"It's been interesting to hear over and over again what readers imagined the author failed to do. And I keep thinking, that's such a useless response. Unless you're getting a phd in literacy criticism and doing your thesis on that author, that's not helpful to you. Speculation about what the author was trying to do, or whether or not she was "tired" of writing, etc., is pointless. We don't know. Instead, it's so much more beneficial to focus on understanding our own internal reader, and therefore ourselves. Where did the story fail you? Where did it work for you? So, what does that say about you? What were you hoping for? What did you need from the story? If you're a writer, what does that tell you about what kind of a story you want to write? For me, this kind of responding is just about how I think about the book. Instead of thinking, "The author really dropped the ball on the ending," I try thinking, "What did I want out of the ending instead of what I got? Why did I want that?"
In other words, instead of looking with a critical eye at what another person has done, we can look with a learning eye at what we are feeling, why, and what that means about how we think and operate. What we hope for and desire. And this in turn can help us deal more peaceably with others, with our creations, and with our lives.
In the end, we can't change anyone but ourselves anyway. And what a wonderful way to learn how we operate and how to do things better, more kindly, more effectively, and in a way that is most true to ourselves and how we want to be.
In Shakespeare's Hamelet, Polonius tells his son Laertes the following before the young man leaves for France:
"This above all, to thine own self be true;
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man."
Scholars may debate, and Ms. Hale may or may not feel this quote relates to her statement, but to me, if we are true to ourselves by learning about ourselves, and have the integrity to act in accordance with that--making adjustments where needed instead of focusing a critical eye on others--then we, at least, will always be fair; in writing, in reading, in creating, and most important, in how we treat and regard others.