On the (mis)interpretation of your work

Written by Emma Williamson

The Instagram DM came in when I was getting ready for bed, mouth full of toothpaste and eyes gritty with fatigue. Is everything okay with you and hubbie? I blinked incredulously at the message. Um, what?

Then it clicked. A friend had seen my latest Instagram post – something about heartbreak or relationships, I can’t remember now – and incorrectly assumed it was about me and my better half (let’s call him Bob, as he’s particular about his privacy). 

I heaved a sigh and began composing a response: The post is actually an excerpt from a poem I wrote years ago and no, I swear, it isn’t about Bob, we’re good…

And then I stopped typing. My stomach filled with dread. I pictured people sitting around gawking at me through their phones, making untrue assumptions and judgments about me, my life, and my loved ones. For weeks, I was too paralysed to post a thing.  

Then it happened again. I couldn’t stop picturing you and Bob, and it was really weird, my brother admitted to me after reading my very first published short story. I’m sorry

Maybe this has happened to you. As writers in the digital age, we bare our souls on the internet. And in doing so, we risk being misjudged or misunderstood…which in turn affects our sensitive and insecure artistic temperaments and leads to paranoia, paralysis and fear.

So, what do you do when someone – a stranger or a loved one – gets you wrong, or thinks your work is a thinly veiled journal entry about them?

Here’s what I’ve learned so far. 

Causing any sort of response in readers is ultimately a good thing. A talented musician friend of mine wrote a song based on one of my poems a few years back. When he explained to the audience what had inspired the song lyrics, I had no idea what he was talking about! My poem simply meant something different to him than it did to me. Another friend commented that she was uplifted by the end of a short story I’d shared with her. I had to re-read it to make sure I sent her the correct draft of what was, in my mind, a negative story from start to finish. Misunderstanding (or simply unanticipated reader interpretations) is always better than indifference. This means your work is causing people to form opinions. Accepting this reality can really help you move forward. Another alternative is adding disclaimers to your work – I have a habit of assuring my mother in particular that the things that happen to my characters have NOT happened to me. But generally, I believe disclaimers should be used sporadically. I mean, do you really need to tell people you really haven’t murdered anyone when you send them your sonnet written from the perspective of a killer? No! So why take on other people’s emotional baggage and assume you know what they’re going to think or believe or feel? Forget that!

Sometimes people just genuinely don’t understand what’s involved in the creative process. Some of our work is personal, right? But much of it comes from plain old imagination, and inspiration is everywhere! To write based only on our own experiences is boring and ultimately leads to navel-gazing. We HAVE to go deeper and wider than that if we’re going to call ourselves writers. But it’s only natural for a reader to assume that you’re generally writing about your own life and thoughts at least some of the time. Try to cut people some slack when they reach out or ask questions. They’re probably just curious and interested in your work.

When people incorrectly personalise your work or make wrong assumptions or judgments about who you are, remember this: they’re usually projecting. Anais Nin is famously quoted as saying: “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” If someone assumes your poem is about your girlfriend or husband or father, it’s probably telling them a lot more about their own relationship than they care to admit. The best thing to do when the commenter is dead wrong is just to smile, nod, and appreciate their view. Consider saying: “thank you for sharing your comments/reaching out. It’s interesting that you interpreted it that way – that wasn’t my intention. But I hope you enjoyed my work.” That’s usually enough to shoot down the conversation. And if the comment is personally focused, like the DM I got from a very well-meaning friend? You can always say that you don’t discuss your work in relation to your personal life. Or just tell them they’re wrong…if you want to. You’re not obligated to respond. You actually don’t owe anyone any explanations about anything you write. Your job is to write and put your art out there.

Use every reaction – good or bad – for your creativity. Sometimes people aren’t projecting – sometimes they’re right. So, what do you do when you publish a piece that’s about something deeply personal, and you’re called out on it?  How do you respond when you get that primal urge to defend yourself? How do you deal with those uncomfortable sensations of being vulnerable and raw and torn apart? YOU WRITE MORE. You write poems or prose or stories about how that person made you feel and your complicated emotions around putting a piece online and having people correctly guess what it’s about. You use those experiences to fuel your work. It’s that simple.  

Look. I hate to say it, but you can’t stop your audience from reading into your art. You can’t prevent people from imagining that your latest poem is about your ex or that you’re secretly in love with the barista who inspired your latest piece of flash fiction. You just can’t. But you can’t let that prevent you from creating and sharing. Put your work out there and let it go.

And if people react…well, isn’t that we’re here for? To make people respond and emote and reflect? Look at it this way. People will think you’re really mysterious and interesting. Super boring life full of Netflix and chill? Everyone on the internet believes you collect broken hearts and may secretly be an axe murderer! Now sit your bad ass down in that chair and get some writing done. 

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