The Study of Assumptions

Edgar_Allan_Poe_daguerreotype_cropI feel that perhaps I should expand on my last post, You Are Not Your Genre. When I was preparing to graduate from high school, it was of the utmost importance to my mother that I enroll in a post-secondary institution immediately. I wasn’t so keen. My best friend and I went to one of those open-house events in the school gym where universities and colleges from all over the province had set up booths with representatives and pamphlets and free pens. We strolled along, occasionally stopping at one or two, but since he had already been accepted into his school of choice, and I was less than thrilled with the whole venture, we mostly just looped the gym waiting for the bell to ring.

One of the representatives made eye contact with me as I walked by and started up a conversation. It was for a university that I had a bit of interest in, so I stopped, albeit reluctantly. He went on about my “lovely European accent” (amusing, since I don’t have one), and started to tell me about the writing program. I glanced at the reading list for the first year and realized that I had read more than half of them already. That meant that my time there would be spent making assumptions about authors and their families that were long-dead and from another era. Why didn’t this interest me? Because I spent too much time in high school dissecting Poe and Shakespeare and Orwell to want to do any more of it.

The writers that we studied in school weren’t people anymore. They were stories. We wrote essays about why Poe was so dark and twisted and guessed at the reasons. We spent hours discussing why Shakespeare wrote the things that he wrote, and who he wrote them for. We talked about them as if their stories were directly linked to their miseries, their lovers, and their lives. They were no longer just people who wrote a good story, we were being taught to learn who they were and what made them that way just by looking at their words.

This makes no sense to me. I understand that there will always be speculation, and sometimes I am sure that the speculation lands fairly close to the mark. However, to paint these writers as we do in school from knowing nothing about them other than the small amount we have been taught should not give us the right to decide who or what these people were. I don’t want someone to find an old story of mine someday and decide that I must have had a hard, miserable life. I don’t want people to think that I suffered beyond measure because I wrote a piece of horror. I don’t want people to look at my work and try to guess at what fueled my fire.

You see assumptions made that Tolkien must have based LOTR on Christianity. Poe must have been depressed for most of his life (except for the apparently happy time during his marriage). Shakespeare must have been in love with another man. Margaret Atwood wrote everything from a feminist viewpoint. We are taught to seek reason behind brilliance, but sometimes it just isn’t there. Sometimes brilliance is just brilliance and that’s that.

There are millions of other examples out there of how we are taught, and society encourages us, to seek deeper meaning behind popular stories. That’s what I don’t want. To have my personality decided based on my writing. To have non-existent reasons linking me and my stories together. This, to me, is the study of assumptions.

What are your thoughts?

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22 thoughts on “The Study of Assumptions

  1. I think sometimes you can draw parallels between authors and their work, and sometimes people go too far with it. It’s a tough question that is difficult to answer, but in the end, if it helps you understand the work a bit better, why not?

    By the way, where did you end up going to college? Ohio State was my dream school, and I was so happy to get in and get the most financial aid from it. In a year I’ll be graduating (yikes!). That makes me both sad and excited for the future.

    • I suppose, but I never really understand the work any better. I like the piece for what it is, not what I think it should be. Guessing at parallels doesn’t make it any better or worse, for me.

      I went to Ryerson University in Toronto, but did distance education as I was living in another province at the time. I couldn’t wait to be done, but have often thought about going back!

      • I would probably just do a couple of courses that interested me or that would enhance my skills. I’m not really one for the long-haul in terms of school, but I’m not opposed to learning more.

      • That sounds fun, I was always interested in psychology. I took publishing, which included a million things like editing, marketing, production, etc. Someday I might take a few courses in teaching or something. Who knows!

      • Your post is very on point! Too often literary criticism has less to do with empirical evidence than it does the author’s own agenda (the critic). English is an endlessly interesting subject to me because it goes beyond what science can explain, but like you said it is pointless to sit and ruminate on fragments of biography and construct a “fact” out of it.

      • Especially when that “fact” is based on assumptions that aren’t even necessarily true. Shakespeare left very little of himself behind, so any “facts” that we have aren’t completely stable and could change in an instant if any new information arose.

  2. This is exactly my feelings. I started really developing main character Sharra right around the time my parents got divorced. In the story, one of my heinous villains captures and tortures her. But. That happens because that’s how the story goes. When my parents got divorced, yes, that was an incredibly painful time for me. But I’m indescribably happy nowadays with my marriage and stuff. That’s still what happens to Sharra. She still is captured and tortured. That’s just how the story goes. Her story arc of having her world turned upside-down and then the added fear of that villain heaped upon it, and then her overcoming her challenges and even overcoming the terror associated with that villain…that’s not a metaphor for my life. Even if I did overcome my own challenges. I will be writing that because that’s what happens to Sharra and has nothing to do with me. All my characters have challenges they overcome because that is what life is like. I don’t want someone to conjecture I’m like this because this happened to character X and they had reaction Y. I don’t want people to conjecture about my personality because I wrote about a psychopath or a rapist or a misogynistic douchebag. Or that I had a good person who did good things and was slaughtered, and a bad guy who did bad things and kind of won, at least for a good long while. I just want people to read the story and enjoy it. And maybe scream at it and throw it across the room. Or cry or giggle-snort in public because of it. When I put pieces of my actual self in the story, it’s usually (always?) really small things – like when I have a little kid who doesn’t like french-fries and only uses them as a mechanism to eat ketchup. Or when the realm has a famous storyteller, I give her long brown hair and green eyes, like a certain person I see every time I look in the mirror – and that’s where the similarities end. I’m trying to write real people, here, with their own problems, with a plot that is at least vaguely interesting. I’m not in that story. I’m not in any of my stories. You’d get a better idea of who I am by reading my blog than reading my book.
    So I feel the same way you do about this, if maybe just nervous people will pick it up through a different part of the story. Either way, I’m not what I write.

    • I think we sometimes write from experience, but not always. Our writing is influenced by many things, but in the end it is something completely different from us—unless we have directly written about ourselves or our experiences deliberately. Unless I admit that the story is based on something, I hope that no one assumes that it is.

  3. Why should writing be any different from all other aspects of life? It seems to me our brains are programmed to automatically make assumptions about whatever information it happens to be processing at the time. We see someone with a Mohawk haircut, we, unconsciously or not, make assumptions automatically about that persons lifestyle, genre of music, etc. We can’t help our pitiful selves. Besides, we can’t try to break down every bit of information into minute detail, just not enough time in the day, so we make quick assumption and move on.

    If writer tends to write about certain subjects, readers are going to tend to associate the writer with the subject he or she writes about. I guess if one doesn’t want those associations, one shouldn’t write about them.

    I’m not saying it’s write/right or wrong…it’s just the way it is, yo.

    Intriguing post.
    Write on…

    (I bet me ending a sentence with “yo” trigger the assumption (aka stereotype) generator in many o’ reader.)

    • You are right, it isn’t just in writing, it is in everything. I know that if I continue to write and publish horror, that will associate me with the genre in ways that may not be pleasing to me, but I’ll just have to accept it.

      It’s funny how some writers do experiment or thrive in other genres, but still continue to be placed in a category associated with their first popular piece. Take Rowling for example.

      I actually enjoyed the “yo”. Believe it or not, I use it, but you probably wouldn’t have guessed from my posts. Whatever it triggers for anyone else, thanks for the input, I appreciate it!

  4. I liked this post. To my way of thinking, it is a topic that should be acknowledged and talked about (although not in any depth), and then studiously ignored. Allow me to explain. Writers write for a variety of reasons; to entertain, to inform, to explain, etc. . . They rarely, if ever, care what those who read their work think of them as people. If they do, their work suffers. If they don’t, they allow themselves the freedom to create memorable characters, invent language, change perceptions and maybe (just maybe) achieve some degree of immortality for their work. Although I doubt any of the writers you mentioned in the post held any hope of accomplishing the last. They were (or should have been) more interested in having their stories published, read and (hopefully) enjoyed. To look beyond the stories these (or any) writers told, the characters they created or the styles they used, to their lives does, I think, a disservice to both them and us.

    • I don’t want people to make assumptions on my writing, but I know that they will. I think that writing only suffers when we write to please others, which I don’t do, and that is the reason why I dislike that some judgement will likely be laid at my door that has nothing to do with what I wrote.

      It’s almost impossible to write for only yourself these days, especially if you want to be published. Publishing houses look for ways to make your writing more marketable or enjoyable to a wider group of people to say the least. And we also live in a world that doesn’t always want to publish controversy or politics, even in fiction.

      I agree that it is a disservice to appreciate writing for anything than what it is. I like the writers that I like because I read and enjoyed their work. Not because of anything else. I try not to think beyond the words on the page, because it is amazing to me that they came from someone’s imagination and made their way to my own. That is beautiful in its simplicity.

  5. This is one of the huge reasons I didn’t major in English. People are so all-fired sure that they know the authors better than the authors knew themselves. Not only that, people fixate on their interpretation of the story and smack you in the face with it if you disagree with them, because it’s not like fiction is all about being open to multiple interpretations or anything.

    • Exactly! I’m glad to have a like-minded thinker. I remember, when I finally went back to school, we were learning to edit fiction. We took a short story and took it apart in groups. We didn’t judge the author like I was talking about in the post, but each of us got a different meaning from the story. I thought the main character was a serial killer, another one of us thought that another character was a serial killer. Two other people in the group didn’t think the story was sinister in the least. It’s all subjective.

  6. As you so often do, you have hit the nail right on the head, and I couldn’t agree more! Just as we cannot judge someone by their appearance, we cannot judge an author simply by their work. I’ve run across this kind of pigeon-holing a lot in my life – I’m a heavily tattooed woman, who often has brightly colored streaks in my hair. I’m happy with the way I look, and I don’t regret a single tattoo or piercing that I’ve gotten, but I get judged a lot simply because of the decisions I’ve made to modify my appearance. Many people look at me and assume that I’m a party girl, or that I’ve got a mean streak, or a dozen other things that couldn’t be further from the truth. It had never occurred to me before that people might make similar judgments about me based purely on the genre I write or read. You’ve also opened my eyes to the realization that maybe I’ve been guilty of making those same kinds of assumptions.

    • Thanks! You’re too kind. I try my best not to make assumptions about books, or anything else, but I’m sure it happens sometimes. I suppose it’s better to be conscious of it though, because I continue to be aware of it and can remind myself of what it’s like to have that judgement on me.

  7. I always found the writing of assumptions more of an exercise to keep the teachers happy on fundamentals of writing, and has little to do to remark on the writers themselves. Those assumptions keep everything shallow. My favorite professors would ask us how we would have developed the characters differently, or we would have to come up with alternative endings to the reading material.

    It at least helped with the creativity, especially if you got stuck with something not so great to read.

    When I write something from my heart, and it is misunderstood, or analyzed to death,it just ticks me off.

    What a conversation it would be if Poe, Shakespeare, and Atwood could give running responses to what people say about their writing?

    • Ah, if only my teachers had been like that. I had a couple of good ones. Atwood has denied feminism in some of her work already, saying that her intentions were not driven by feminist beliefs. Still, people continue to claim that they are.

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