Writing for me is an activity aimed at a single possible encounter: reading.
— Elena Ferrante, Frantumaglia
The way I write is who I am, or have become.
— Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
Where do we demarcate the boundaries of writing? For me, writing starts with reading as I embark upon solitary research. Yet the ultimate goal of writing is also reading, conducted by my future self and, where publication has been involved, by other people too. In this sense, writing is the bridge between several acts of reading.
Writing, then, spans an interval of sense-making during which I have digested and internalised the work of various authors, filmmakers, musicians, scientists and philosophers, leading to personal insight and understanding. Writing is working things out, mulling over, or what Maria Popova refers to as figuring. It is then codifying whatever has been learned as a waymark to what is to be learned next.
Despite the author’s inevitable solitude during this period, writing is ultimately a communal activity. Conversation with family, friends and colleagues helps hone and refine ideas, bringing new perspectives to bear on the work in progress. Once that work has been published, writing can be seen as something that is wholly co-creative. The reader completes and expands upon what the author started. The publication is a contribution to an ongoing conversation.
The reader’s imagination automatically completes the writer’s.
— Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel
Perhaps the ultimate blank is the space between the reader and writer – or, more accurately, the space between the story we create and send out to the world and the story each reader perceives.
— Peter Turchi, Maps of the Imagination
By letting the listener or viewer fill in the blanks, complete the picture (or piece of music), the work becomes personalised and the audience can adapt it to their own lives and situations.
— David Byrne, How Music Works
The same can be said of other art forms. The canvas, stage, recording, screen and page serve as conduits between artist and viewer, listener and reader. This is one of the wonders of our cultural artefacts. There is an empathic connection. Two worldviews intermingle.
As co-creator, though, the reader, viewer or listener does not step directly into the artist’s shoes, for they can never wholly divest themselves of their own subjectivity. Nevertheless, when open-minded, they do allow the artist’s ideas to infect their own thinking, to challenge and expand it. They pick up where the artist left off, filling in the gaps, adding their own nuances. They revisit narratives, adding to and amending them, long after they have closed a book’s covers, watched the credits roll or exited the theatre.
That said, it can never be assumed that an author’s intention and a reader’s understanding are in complete alignment. One person’s signifier may not be another’s signified. We can all create different signs using similar ingredients, we can all pick up different signals each time we revisit a favoured book, film or song. After all, we are always changing. Every time we return to that old friend, the context has changed and our knowledge has moved on. We see with fresh eyes, listen with new ears, adjusting our filters as we go.
Interpretation invariably reveals more about the interpreter than about the interpreted.
— Maria Popova, Figuring
Nor can we control a sign by constraining its context – the potential for context is inexhaustible.
— Jonathan Basile, Tar for Mortar
- Margaret Atwood, On Writers and Writing (Virago Press, 2015).
- David Byrne, How Music Works (Canongate, 2013).
- Maud Casey, The Art of Mystery (Graywolf Press, 2018).
- Michael Chabon, Maps and Legends (Fourth Estate, 2010).
- Umberto Eco, The Open Work (Harvard University Press, 1989). Translated by Anna Cancogni.
- Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking (Sceptre, 2013).
- Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel (Faber & Faber, 1999). Translated by Linda Asher.
- Kenneth Mikkelsen and Richard Martin, The Neo-Generalist (LID, 2016).
- Maria Popova, Figuring (Canongate, 2019).
- Ali Smith, Artful (Penguin, 2013).
- Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby (Granta, 2014).
- François Truffaut, Hitchcock (Simon & Schuster, 1985).
- Peter Turchi, A Muse and A Maze (Trinity University Press, 2014).
- Peter Turchi, Maps of the Imagination (Trinity University Press, 2004).