A few years ago I saw an author speak an Houston. During her talk, she spoke about a friend of hers who had passed away. Her concern was moving; she didn’t need to memorialize her friend, yet she freely chose to honor her with her speech. However, her execution wasn’t perfect. If her testimonial had been a service, complete with instruments, then a couple of the musicians sounded jarringly out of tune. There was an edge to her stories; some of them portrayed her friend in an unflattering light. At first I thought it might just be me, but a friend who had also been in attendance that night later confirmed my impression. We agreed that the author’s words had a double meaning, in which the edges of her speech cut against the grain.
It’s true of the literature we read, too. Our writing has unintended effects; it can reveal more about us than we meant to show, or speak in tones we would’ve preferred to hide. Sometimes, it can even make our work better.
I often begin the school year with an exercise where I ask the children to write about themselves. When children are asked to tell their personal history, they will often adopt a clipped, deadpan, almost clinical tone. They are recounting events that to them seem mundane, even boring; they have long since merged with the wallpaper of their lives. When we teachers read them, however, the details often leap out and grab us by the throat. Some children have experienced losses that are truly tragic; after reading their stories, their ordinary difficulties in the classroom seem trivial by comparison.
Even when we, as authors, think we can predict the effect of our writing, the example of those children shows us that readers will often glean meaning we didn’t know was there.
posted by Julian Martinez, Writers in the Schools