Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Genius at Work

“I feel that a straightforward statement of my original intent robs the listener of personal associations and replaces them with my own.” – Robert Hunter
My daughter’s class recently completed a unit centered on Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. As part of the unit each student interviewed a member of the community they admired, developed two pieces of artwork (which included films, paintings, sculptures, and photographs), a creative writing piece, and, finally, an interpretation/explanation of the artwork. A local gallery exhibited the work and they even staged an opening night event with music and food. It was a great night, and the students really seemed to enjoy themselves.
I had already seen my daughter’s artwork when she completed it, and I immediately picked up on a lot of the symbolism in it. At the exhibit I read her explanation and learned a lot more: why she chose the medium (colored pencils, which she hates); why the pencil lines are rougher in one of the pictures than the other; why she chose to leave faces unfinished in one part of her picture. When I told her I liked reading the explanation, she surprised me by telling me she thought explanations “cheapened” the work. Her preference is to leave it up to the viewer to interpret it themselves. Spoken like a true artist! (She did admit, however, that she liked reading her classmates’ interpretations of their work; she just didn’t like doing it for her own.)
My daughter’s words echo the sentiment expressed by Robert Hunter at the top of this post. Hunter is a poet, musician, and was chief lyricist for the Grateful Dead. He provided the above quote in response to an extended analysis of his song lyrics (the full text can be found here). Hunter recognized that there are as many ways to interpret song lyrics as there are listeners, and that every interpretation is valid. This applies to any creative piece, really.
I am fascinated with the creative process. I like to hear artists, writers, and musicians talk about what was going on in their minds when they wrote a story or piece of music, the effect they were going for when they mixed the sound in the studio or added a swirl of color to the painting. I’m a sucker for shows like Classic Albums or Behind the Music on VH1, not so much for the dirt — who was sleeping with whom, how many bottles of vodka were consumed during the recording of this album — but because it sheds light on how they did it (although I’m sometimes disappointed when someone says something along the lines of “Yeah, I wrote that song in about ten minutes, it was nothing.”). In the same vein I enjoy threads on Absolute Write where people talk about what inspired them to write a novel or story. It’s a window into the minds of others, a way to bring people closer together, and it gets me thinking about my own creativity.
Does interpreting the piece cheapen it, as my daughter stated? Not for me. I find it provides more depth to the piece than I originally experience, and gives me something more to think about. And thinking is never a bad thing, is it?

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