Tl:dr– Please don’t try to read my mind. It isn’t nice, and probably isn’t as interesting a read as you assume it is.
Back in 1993, James Taylor came out with his wonderful Live album, which was recorded during his 1992 East Coast tour. I was in college at the time, and a devoted JT fan, so of course I bought it as soon as I could. Over the past 27 years, I have gotten many hours of enjoyment from that album. I’ve seen James Taylor play live several times. One thing I’ve always noticed about him is that he truly loves to perform, even if he’s probably a more introverted soul when he’s not on the stage. Of course, I don’t know him personally, so I really don’t know how he is off stage. The truth is, even though I’m familiar with almost everything he’s done, we don’t know each other at all. I’m just a fan of his work, like many thousands of other people around the world are. I may feel like his biggest fan, but I’m probably not. There are most likely a whole lot of people who love his music even more than I do.
James made a quick-witted quip on his Live album, when an enthusiastic female audience member shouted out, “Love you!” to him after he sang “Something In The Way She Moves”.
His response was a deadpan, “Good.” Then he added, “I think it helps us not to know each other.”
I’m no “James Taylor” by any stretch of the imagination, nor do I make any assumptions that someone is going to declare their “love” for me at a concert, on a video, or in the comment section of a blog post. If someone ever did do that, it would probably really freak me out. I’m not comfortable with people who express that kind of extreme emotion toward me unless they are someone I know personally. And even then, it kind of freaks me out. I’m sure James Taylor has gotten used to those kinds of extreme declarations of love or disgust, though. Lots of people have told him they love him or hate him. That’s what happens when you put yourself out there. People tend to love it or hate it, and many of them have no compunction about telling you what they think.
Taylor’s wry response to his adoring fan on the Live album comes to mind this morning as I reflect on some of the feedback I occasionally get on my writing. Sometimes, I think people who are exposed to other people’s writing, music, art, or whatever else get the idea that they actually know the person who is presenting it. Sometimes they forget that an artist– for lack of a better word– is often a total stranger to them. They wind up projecting things on the person who presents their creative pursuits to the world. They make assumptions about what the artist is thinking or feeling at the time they created their piece.
This phenomenon was one quarrel I had with being an English major. As an English major, I was required to read different works of literature and write an analysis. I don’t think that was necessarily a bad exercise in that it taught me to look beyond the obvious. However, it always bothered me that I was supposed to look for things like symbols and hidden meanings as I tried to analyze a piece of writing, even though I could never really know what the writer was thinking or feeling when he or she wrote it. I got reasonably good at writing analyses of other people’s writing. I had to in order to earn the degree in English. But I was never particularly comfortable with it.
In fact, my discomfort with analyzing other people’s writing was kind of vindicated a few years ago, when I stumbled across an article written about the American author, Flannery O’Connor. The piece was about how, back in 1961, an English lit professor and his students were having trouble analyzing a short story O’Connor had written called “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”. The professor’s interpretation of the story was evidently pretty far off the mark of what O’Connor was trying to convey. He wrote this about O’Connor’s story:
We have debated at length several possible interpretations, none of which fully satisfies us. In general we believe that the appearance of the Misfit is not ‘real’ in the same sense that the incidents of the first half of the story are real. Bailey, we believe, imagines the appearance of the Misfit, whose activities have been called to his attention on the night before the trip and again during the stopover at the roadside restaurant. Bailey, we further believe, identifies himself with the Misfit and so plays two roles in the imaginary last half of the story. But we cannot, after great effort, determine the point at which reality fades into illusion or reverie. Does the accident literally occur, or is it part of Bailey’s dream? Please believe me when I say we are not seeking an easy way out of our difficulty. We admire your story and have examined it with great care, but we are not convinced that we are missing something important which you intended us to grasp. We will all be very grateful if you comment on the interpretation which I have outlined above and if you will give us further comments about your intention in writing ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find.’
Ms. O’Connor, flabbergasted by the professor’s interpretation, wrote back to him. Here’s a quote from her response that kind of speaks to me as I write today’s post:
“The meaning of a story should go on expanding for the reader the more he thinks about it, but meaning cannot be captured in an interpretation. If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable so long as it is not obvious, then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction. Too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it.“
As someone who likes to write and used to do a lot of fiction writing back in the day, I never felt all that comfortable with some nameless person reading my words and making assumptions about what I *really* meant. How can a person really interpret a writer’s true meaning if they don’t know the writer? Sure, you can learn about history. You can even learn a writer’s life story. But unless you are inside the author’s head, you can’t really know how he or she meant their work to be “interpreted” or even if such interpretations would even be welcome. And if the writer was writing many decades before a reviewer’s birth, I would think the lens would be even more skewed.
Sometimes this phenomenon even happens to nobodies like me. Yesterday, I wrote about an experience I had with my aunt’s brother a few years ago. When I wrote that post, I was mainly feeling kind of amused. But I guess amusement is not what came across in my writing, because someone left a comment that indicated they assumed I’m still “mad” about that incident three years later. The fact is, I’m really not “mad”. I wasn’t even that “mad” when it happened. I would say I was frustrated and annoyed, but not necessarily “mad”.
When I think of someone who’s mad, I picture a person who is irate and seething with rage. That’s not an accurate description of how I was feeling then, or now. How I was feeling in 2017 was a combination of irritated, disrespected, and exasperated. But once that incident was over, it was over, and I completely forgot about it until yesterday.
I wasn’t feeling any of those negative emotions in 2020, either, as I recounted the story about my aunt’s brother in yesterday’s post. What I felt yesterday was mostly levity, particularly when I found that picture of the yellow truck with the words “Fuckin’ Hick” on it. If I recall correctly, that picture was taken by a friend of mine who was annoyed that the truck driver had parked his truck in her neighborhood. She was worried about property values going down because of the profanity. I was thinking about Bill driving on the Authobahn, being annoyed by another driver who not only was driving her own car, but apparently wanted to drive Bill’s car, too. 😉
Yesterday, I didn’t feel like writing about COVID-19 or politics or any of the other issues of the day. Sometimes, I feel like writing about something that doesn’t have to do with current events. When I was writing yesterday’s post, I was thinking of people who might read it and get something useful from it– for instance, the part where I wrote that “at some point, it’s got to be okay to be who you are“. That was meant to be a supportive statement for those who have felt that others disapprove of them in some way, and it was more of the main idea I was going for, rather than venting about being disrespected. But obviously, some readers missed the point. Perhaps that is my fault for not being more clear. Yesterday’s post wasn’t necessarily supposed to be a funny story, but I didn’t really mean it as a vent, nor was it an indication of how I feel right now or a sign that I’m still fuming at my aunt’s brother. The fact is, I don’t even think about him very much these days.
I will freely admit that I often hold onto some emotions for longer than perhaps some people think I should. I definitely hold grudges when someone is egregiously shitty to me. I think it’s because I was forced to endure a lot of bad treatment when I was growing up and there was nothing I could do about it at the time. As an adult, I’ve been learning constructive ways of countering that kind of treatment. There are only so many times a person can turn the other cheek before they finally snap back.
I used to be a lot more aggressive when I “snapped back”, but lately I’ve been trying to be more assertive. Assertiveness is not an easy skill to master. If you’re aggressive, you might be able to bully someone into compliance with your wishes. Assertiveness is a better, more respectful, more mature communication skill, but you run the risk that the other person won’t appreciate the respect and will either not respond at all, or will respond with aggression. I had initially tried being assertive with my aunt’s brother by politely asking him not to be a language cop on my page. That didn’t work, so I resorted to what some would consider “aggression”. Dropping f-bombs to someone who clearly hates them is probably considered aggressive by some people. On the other hand, acting like a language cop on a middle aged woman’s Facebook page is disrespectful and patronizing, and yes, that can cause a person to get “mad”.
While a Buddhist would likely tell me I would have more peace if I just said “fuck it” and let it go, that’s just not the type of person I am. I am a deeply flawed human being, just like everyone else is (including James Taylor). But I think it’s important for most readers to realize that they don’t know me personally, and it’s not helpful to project your interpretations of how you think I’m feeling. If you’re really curious about how I feel, you can always ask me and I’ll probably tell you. But please don’t assume you know and assign specific emotions to me. I consider that disrespectful.
I’m one of those people who doesn’t like it when people try to mind read, particularly when they are people I’ve never met. It makes me uncomfortable. Or, if you do want to assign an emotion to me, kindly keep it to yourself. Assuming that I’m “mad” about something when you don’t even know me is more likely to make me mad at you. But then, maybe you don’t care if I get mad. Most people don’t, which is why I ended up in that situation with my aunt’s brother in the first place. 😉