Monday, August 28, 2006

Open To Interpretation

I haven’t heard this song in years, but it’s been playing in my mind for days, the question, “What does it mean?” gnawing at me. I used to think it was so clear, but now I find myself seeing another interpretation to the lyrics, and it has me wondering.

Exit by U2

You know he got the cure
You know he went astray
He used to stay awake
To drive the dreams he had away
He wanted to believe
In the hands of love
His head it felt heavy
As he cut across the land
A dog started crying
Like a broken hearted man
At the howling wind
At the howling wind

He went deeper into black
Deeper into white
Could see the stars shining
Like nails in the night
He felt the healing
Healing, healing
Healing hands of love
Like the stars shiny shiny
From above

Hand in the pocket
Finger on the steel
The pistol weighed heavy
His heart he could feel
Was beating, beating
Beating, beating oh my love
Oh my love, oh my love
Oh my love

My love

Saw the hands that build
Can also pull down


As a teenager, I was told this song was about suicide. There was more than one heavy discussion about whether it was safe to listen to it. I know that sounds crazy, but debating whether TV and video games were responsible for increasing violence amongst kids was common. Music has a huge impact on people, particularly teenagers, and this song was controversial.

Probably, in part, because it was open to interpretation.

I have never felt inspired to read about what the writer (I presume it was Bono) meant the song to be about but lately I’ve been wondering if it was about religious fundamentalists.

You see, people I knew interpreted the song as being about someone who’d lost their salvation, who’d lost hope, and killed themselves.

But you could look at it differently. About someone who had an opportunity “out” - they wanted to believe, but they were trapped. Because of family or the feelings of expectations or circumstances… for some reason, they weren’t able to break away from picking up a gun. Not to take their own life, but to kill someone else.

This might not seem terribly important, and maybe it isn’t, but I’ve been editing lately. And reading through the book the final time before it goes to ARC format has been a bit of a shock. There’s a lot of stuff I cut out. I was encouraged to do it – told the story could stand on it’s own without repetitions. And that is true enough on the face of it.

But I always give my stuff to fresh readers, and one came back to me with something they didn’t understand. I knew the answer, and knew it had been written into the original. But in the tweaking, it had been pared down to being non-existent in the current version.

This is the risk a writer faces. It’s all very clear in your own head what’s going on, because you know the story, but the reader doesn’t have the luxury of reading it through your eyes. They take it at face value and can bring their own presumptions to the story. For example, think of books made into movies, particularly where it’s been debated that the actor doesn’t look the part. Some people don’t like Hermione Norris as Carol Jordan, others don’t like Robson Green as Tony Hill and there was endless debate about John Hannah as Rebus. If you pick up a book that has their photos on the front cover, you can presume that appearance to the character, and you might be wrong.

I used to argue with my dad all the time about music. We were only allowed to listen to country in the house, but that changed when I started discovering rock music. Oh, not that it was acceptable to listen to that “crap” but I certainly did it anyway. I remember one of the big criticisms about rock – the songs weren’t about anything.

In many respects, the songs were about more. Some might say rock music was to country what literature is to pulp fiction (very hard for a genre writer to figure out how to word this without offending someone). Don’t get me wrong – I like country music. But a lot of rock songs have layers of meaning to them. Well, or they’re best understood high or intoxicated because they really aren’t about anything.

But U2 is certainly not a band I’d accuse of being about nothing. I find myself wondering now why I never considered alternate meanings to Exit years ago. I liked U2’s music from before The Joshua Tree and there is no doubt songs like Sunday Bloody Sunday brought a political edge to their music back then. It was clear they had opinions about what was passing for routine in the religious conflict in Northern Ireland at the time, so why didn’t it occur to me that Exit could have been as much about that as anything else?

I mean, maybe not. Maybe I’m overreaching, but I think some of the most powerful music/literature/movies in our lives are ones that stand the test of time. Ones that resonate with us and have us thinking about them years later. They have those layers of meaning – perhaps in some cases because they pose questions and don’t try to offer all the answers.

I recently had a bit of a disagreement with an author about a book they wrote. They felt they’d failed to address the impact of suicide on the living. I completely disagreed and started citing examples from their book – a book I read more than a year ago, but the names, the scenes, were all still there.

That’s power in a book, because there are some I read last month that I can scarcely remember the protagonist’s name from.

There seems to be a lot of pressure on writers sometimes, to wrap everything up in a nice, neat bow, but I think the books that often stay with us are the ones that leave a few questions lingering in the mind. A Question of Blood pissed me off to no end. Did the…uh, guilty, get off or did he get what was coming to him? Who knows? The reality is, at the end of one week of investigation, even with proof enough to proceed with charges, who would know? Court cases drag on for months. So, I was annoyed to know and yet know it was possible this person would get off for what they’d done, yet I wasn’t complaining because it was completely realistic.

I’d been debating whether or not to put an epilogue in Suspicious Circumstances. I’d actually written one. Kevin read it and came back to me and said, “Where were you going with that?” I said some people might be upset if I didn’t make X and Y clear (sorry, no spoilers folks). He argued he didn’t think it was necessary. Now, this would all make more sense if you’d read the book, but I think he makes a compelling case.

In thinking about books and songs and the deeper meanings within, I keep thinking about those magic pictures, where when you look at them a certain way you see another picture inside the picture. The moment when everything clicks into place and you can see it clearly. You don’t need someone to explain to you what’s in the picture anymore because you’ve found the trick yourself.

In many ways, we humans are strange creatures, because we try to assign meaning and structure to everything. Who hasn’t watched the clouds go by, labeling them a bunny or a duck or a platypus… something real, tangible, that we can define?

Sometimes, I think we’re very uncomfortable with what’s elusive precisely because we can’t put it in a nice, neat box and label it.

Not that I actually think my book is that way, at all. But it’s interesting to think about. I do love to mindfuck people in writing, occasionally (as anyone who’s read The Butcher knows) but that’s not my driving focus with SC.

But enough about that. I wonder if I’m the only one who has things that pop back into their head (ahem) 19 years later and starts wondering what they mean? What books have lingered with you, and why?

19 comments:

Dana Y. T. Lin said...

When I first read the lyrics, I thought he was pointing the gun at somebody else, maybe an ex-lover? That's when the music video comes in and shows you what it's supposed to mean, right?

Ahhh, music videos, that's a whole other rant. Kids these days who are hooked to them can't interpret the songs for themselves. My niece's most fav song as of late is "Promiscuous" by Nelly Furtado. She knows the lyrics by heart, but have no clue what 'promiscuous' means... of course all the gyrating the near-naked dancers do in the video should have given her a clue.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I have never seen a video for Exit - is there one? I mean, I certainly watched music videos in the 80s, but I don't recall there being a video for this song.

Videos can add a different interpretation. I remember Vince Gill's song Worlds Apart. I always thought of a relationship, but when you see the video you think of old and young, different ethnic groups, religion... all the things that we use to define ourselves as different that separate us. So the song could be about a lot of things, and there is a philosophy that what the reader gets from it is more important than what the writer intended.

Yeah, some of those songs kids listen to. It's a bit disturbing.

ivan said...

A poem should not state, but be?

Maybe it's just first-rate poetry.
Period.

anne frasier said...

lots to think about here, sandra. i'll have to pop back later, but this caught my eye:

"But I always give my stuff to fresh readers, and one came back to me with something they didn’t understand. I knew the answer, and knew it had been written into the original. But in the tweaking, it had been pared down to being non-existent in the current version."

this happens to me too much. something important gets edited out, but the whole darn thing is still IN MY HEAD so i don't notice the problem.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Ivan, I think I disagree to some extent. It has to mean something, otherwise it could just be random words thrown together, called abstract poetry, but it won't resonate with anyone. Because it won't mean anything.

Anne, glad I'm not the only one who has that problem! That's why these final reads are always so crucial. I think I'm going to buy fisher price people and for my next book, have toys named after each character and act out the story, so I can remember who's sitting, standing, looking out a window, whatever...

Anonymous said...

Ah yes, the days when all our favorite songs were leading us down the path to suicide. In my conservative suburban town the concern was Ozzy and Judas Priest. What amazes me is that songs written today are advocating just as much sex and violence as the ones written back then, but because they have a Parental Advisory sticker on them, it's okay.

I remember the ridiculousness of the PMRC. Having been a teenager, when the whole stupid music rating thing started, I have strong feelings about it, so I won't bore you with my ranting. I do know that when I listen to some the songs I liked back then, I think "What!!!"

Bookwise, it's more a question of seeing it from an adult perspective rather than as a child. It by Stephen King stands out in my mind because when I first read it, I was still young enough that the noises in the far corners of my room could have been monsters, so It was even scarier. Now, as an adult, I know there are no clowns waiting to drag children into the sewers, but it's the difference in years that make that perspective possible.

norby

Bill Cameron said...

Blogger, damn you! Damn you to hell!

(I had written about six inches worth of cleverness, and it vanished into the Blogger aether. My wit was beyond belief, and now it's gone. All gone. I am crying.)

Sandra Ruttan said...

Ah, I remember the Ozzy rants as well Norby. We won't even have the secular music discussion, will we? :)

Bill, blogger has been very testy lately. I've had problems with commenting elsewhere, so I expect the same here. I almost feel like telling people not to waste their time...

Hopefully your flash of wisdom will come back to you and you'll share it in a post of your own.

Bill Cameron said...

I was all over the map, stream of consciousness projectile blog commenting. Maybe another cup of coffee will bring it back though.

S. W. Vaughn said...

I heart U2. :-) Great post, Sandra!

Hmm. Books that have stuck with me for a loooong time? Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends, Stephen King's Eyes of the Dragon, Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, Johanna Lindsey's Savage Thunder -- for starters.

When it comes to rock songs, the list is endless.

Sandra Ruttan said...

So...I guess the coffee didn't take, Bill? :P

SW, great list of books! I'm a big fan of U2 as well. A Sort of Homecoming is still one of my favourite songs, although I'd be hard pressed to explain why...

anne frasier said...

sandra, i was thinking of something similar to this just yesterday. i'd picked up some ice tea from caribou and went for a walk above the mississippi. that tends to get me to thinkin'. and i was thinking about the shelf life of books. and how all but a very few have an invisible expiration code. some are milk. some are cheese. some are canned goods. (yes, sadly this all went through my head.) but the big thing is that we as writers know this. (not sure it's so much in the back of debut writers.) anyway, a huge majority of us are spending a year or years on something that might be in store for a month. maybe two. and i wonder if this is possibly one of the things at the very heart of the entire crumbling book empire. we know our books won't be around tomorrow. and we'll be writing another one that won't be around tomorrow. and another. oh, a few people might say did you read such and such? you have to get it. and a few people might go on that quest for this book somebody told them about. but for the majority, the book will be gone. a comet. no, a shooting star. we write shooting stars when we should be writing the sun or the moon. but deep down we know THERE IS NO POINT. THERE IS NO FUCKING POINT!

no, i'm not high or drunk.

i swear.

but i think i just said another thing i shouldn't say in public. *sigh*
i might have to delete this when my brain returns.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Anne, do you remember the post I did on BSP? And then the one that followed it here, a few weeks ago, when I talked about reaching new readers and had some comments from Ian Rankin included?

Because, you know, that's who I think about. Okay, you say, I always cite Rankin as an example. But he's a good example on this issue. I've been thinking about this, doing the edits to my book. Is it memorable? How much of an impression will it make? Will people put it down and forget it tomorrow?

I think there are a few things contributing to problems in the industry. One is that the industry looks within itself to who it likes and touts them. They get contracts, they get a big push. But it doesn't always listen to what readers want. And this is what I hear from readers - they aren't respected. They're talked down to and told what they should appreciate. And some resent it.

Then there's the fact that so many books are published that it's hard to get word out. It isn't that good books aren't being written, but a lot of them aren't finding their way to the readers who will appreciate them.

If Rankin had given up before he wrote Black & Blue, he would have disappeared, and so would the books. Same with Pelecanos and so many others.

We write because it's in us to write, we have to. For some, eventually that translates into a half decent living. For others, it's never more than what they're compelled to do.

All very discouraging for a newbie to think about. But I also think realistic. If I know one thing, if you put the book out there, sit back and cross your fingers and hope people will discover it, you need a reality check. It's harder and harder to get the book into the hands of readers who'll enjoy it.

And really, if someone reads your book and says they enjoyed it, that's as much as you can really hope for. Awards and top ten lists and bestseller lists aside, nothing is the same as hearing from readers that they enjoyed your work.

Daniel Hatadi said...

The first book I think about that has had resonance for me over the years, is DUNE by Frank Herbert.

The idea of religions being planted on newly discovered planets to control the populace, being able to see the future so clearly you don't need eyes, the noticing of minute details in every moment, humans as computers.

All these things come back to haunt me every so often. But it's a haunting I really appreciate.

For The Trees said...

The only book I have that I go back and re-read ever so often is Illusions by Richard Bach. It just sings to me.

But music! That's a different thing. I hear songs from the 40s, 50s, 60s, and some from the 70s. Hardly ever the whole song, more like a phrase or two, immediately upon waking. I will work that phrase over and over, trying to make sense of it in some way, and have finally come to see that it's more a comment on my dreams than a predictor of what the day will be, or what I'm supposed to think (a la horoscopes).

So it's a choice, I think, of what we want to make of the song in our heads.

Thanks for another thought-provoking piece, Sandra.

anne frasier said...

dune... that was a good one.

i can visualize where i was when i read that.

sandra, i agree that there are a multitude of problems within the book biz -- i think that's why it's going to be such a hard fix. i just wondered if subconsciously the short shelf life impacts the quality of books. that also ties in with how quickly we are expected to write them. for example, i was given 4 months to write the book i'm working on. i asked for another 2. even at that, 6 months will not give me time to write the best book i can write. there doesn't seem to be a concern about creating a GREAT book. that doesn't seem to be the focus. they want something solid. that seems to be the goal. they'd rather have 2 solid books from a writer in a year than 1 fantastic book. because 2 solid books will make more money (in most cases).

books that lingered... when i was about 11 i read a book called radio planet. and then i read it about 20 more times and still have it in a box somewhere. i actually still think about a particular scene sometimes. i was a kid. i don't think it was very well written, but i loved it. but the book that will always be THAT book for me is catcher in the rye.

anne frasier said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sandra Ruttan said...

Anne, I posted a fantastic comment and blogger ate it! Grrrrrrrrr.

It'll come back to me...

anne frasier said...

blogger is an ass.