Music, The Other Stuff

Looking for the Author’s Meaning (Or How I Pranked My Creative Writing Class)


What happens when a book, song, or piece of art is given a title that has seemingly nothing to do with the work itself? Or when something inside the work just doesn’t seem to align with the rest of it?

Apparently, our brains naturally try to connect the dots. We’ll come up with ideas and connections between the two seemingly unrelated things because we assume the author/artist saw a connection between them. And most of the time, they probably did.

But what if they didn’t? What if this is all just a joke played on the poor, unsuspecting audience?

Several years ago I had to write a poem at the end of a creative writing class. By that point I had become pretty skeptical of the crazy connections everyone was reading into the works we had studied (a common complaint in English classes) so I decided to have a bit of a joke on the class and teacher. I wrote my poem almost exclusively based on chance. I had to choose a few things, of course, like the online word banks I would draw from, but other than that I simply used random number generators on the internet to figure out which word to write next.

Our brains try to connect pieces of information like a puzzle.

When I got my teacher’s and classmates’ written feedback, it was just as I suspected: they
applauded my choice of words, assuming each one had been carefully chosen. At one point the teacher said she loved how I put the same word twice in a row because it had some sort of significance to her that I can’t remember now. In reality, the random number generator just told me to put it twice!

So how can we protect our minds from jerks like me who take advantage of our trusting natures to convince us there’s meaning where there isn’t? We don’t want to be bamboozled, duped into connecting ideas where there is no connection.
What I’ve come to realize is that that’s the wrong concern. In a lot of ways, it doesn’t really matter what the author’s intention was. What’s more important is how our brains go into overdrive trying to solve the puzzle of the implied connection. Isn’t that the very definition of creativity: making connections between two seemingly disconnected things? So what if the author never intended for us to make that connection or even if he or she purposefully slapped a random title on something or added a detail they knew would be overanalyzed to poke fun at a trusting audience? The connections your brain discovers between those things are still real and valuable.

Here’s a quick example to consider: one of John Cage’s piano pieces is titled, “A Room.” Why is it called that? What is it about the repetitive, almost hypnotic music that sounds like a room? There are so many ways you could connect the two, but ultimately the title and piece work together as a metaphor we’re trying to solve.


Disclaimer: There may be a specific reason Cage chose this title, but I didn’t bother to look it up. Again, what’s more important and interesting for me is how the listener is able to creatively connect the pieces his- or herself.

So do you think the reader/listener’s ideas are just as important if not more so than what the author/composer  intended, or would you disagree? Also, what kind of room do you think Cage’s piece sounds like and why?


PRACTICAL APPLICATION ALERT: Pick one of your favorite books. Then choose a random piece of classical music and listen to it as though it were about that book’s characters in some way. Then see what awesome connections you can hear between the two! Not only does it help you enjoy and engage with the music, but it may also give you new insights and theories about the book. If you’d like more specific inspiration, check out the Classical Music Stories section of the blog where I connect music to literature like Romeo and Juliet, Sherlock Holmes, and Jane Eyre.

Twitter: @ifmermaids

34 thoughts on “Looking for the Author’s Meaning (Or How I Pranked My Creative Writing Class)”

  1. Two things: (one) this sounds like reader response theory which has varying levels and is pretty cool; (two) I’m currently reading The Sympathizer and I had on classical music last night while reading. The movement of the symphony added a nuance and energy to the story that would have been different without it (esp. as it reached a crescendo). That too was cool.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. (1) I’ve vaguely heard of reader response theory but now I’ll definitely have to check it out! (2) That’s awesome! It’s crazy how adding another layer to something can bring out different thoughts and ideas.


  2. In the social world of the creative arts, I suspect that the creator’s intent is second to the audience’s interpretation. You have to figure in too, the purpose of your teacher’s reactions. I’d write in more details but will leave it so that the interpretation of my reply might be broader.
    Thanks for another interesting post.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ahh this does provide a bit of apprehension when it comes to my writing, as finding the moral of the story is the very concept my blog is centered around. However, as you point out at the end of your article the lessons we take from every story are dependent upon our own experiences. Not the authors 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s definitely a tricky thing. Obviously authors are trying to communicate and feel strongly about what the meaning is “supposed to be,” but for better or worse there’s never a clear communication of information from author to reader. But I guess that’s what makes it art! 🙂


  4. A very engaging consideration of the problematic question of author intent in writing. Honestly, I usually find that when students grow skeptical of an English teacher’s analysis of the “author’s intention” the problem is bad teaching and bad methodology rather than a wrong pursuit. Because, I believe that author intention is equally important, as is reader perception….but both need to be balanced. You can’t read whatever you want into a work of art, but at the same time the sole purpose of what you are reading/viewing/listening to is not to experience exactly what the creator was feeling at the time of writing. That’s why experiencing art is a dialogue, it’s not the author only who is talking, but also the reader.

    btw: I am not a huge fan of reader response theory, in small doses it is good…but it can also make art mean nothing but what you feel….which I believe is a very bad way to go in analyzing art. Plus that also tends towards the thinking that all art is good as long as it means something to you. Which is equally bleh.

    P.S. I would highly suggest reading John Ciardi’s, “How Does a Poem Mean” because I think he really gets at the problem of badly taught poetry….though it still doesn’t answer the problem of a poet who just strings words together at random. However, like you said – in that instance the creative interpretation of the reader becomes the artistic act, rather than the writing of the poem.

    P.P.S. Merce Cunningham – an incredible modern dancer who was John Cage’s partner and they would often collaborate artistically – was famous for his chance choreography. He would role dice in order to pick steps and order and he often wouldn’t let his dancers hear the music until they were performing on stage. If you still have any interest in creating chance art definitely read some of his writings/view his dances (I think they could be on youtube? I don’t kow). Because it is amazing the thought and philosophy he had behind his creation. It seems to be that when used chance is the middle ground between the audience and the artist – things left to chance really can mean anything.

    (Sorry for the excessively long response that doesn’t answer half your questions)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I love this! I definitely think a lot of the problem is how teachers present analysis. At the time I had the class, the analysis never felt grounded to me and it was more of an “anything goes” perspective. I definitely agree that authorial intention and reader response has to exist in some sort of balance, though. It’s such a fine line between the “everything is art” hippie-esque view and a rigid focus-on-author-and-author-alone perspective. And I love the idea of experiencing art as dialogue! As far as Ciardi goes, I know I’ve heard that title but I don’t remember if I’ve read it or not. I’ll definitely look into it! That’s also really interesting about Cunningham. Cage wrote some things by chance so that makes sense that they would be friends. This reminds me of something I saw a while back that lets you “compose” a waltz based on chance. Pretty interesting stuff! Thanks so much for commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. For sure, it is a tough call. I had one professor who had this great balance between the two and her classes were always really great because of that. That’s really cool about the composition based on chance! A really close friend of mine liked to brainstorm for choreography using Cunningham’s method, I think it is a great tool to get the brain flowing.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Funny… as I was reading my book last night (mystery, adventure, and such), my parents were watching a movie in the room below my bedroom. The music that went along with the movie actually made my book more interesting, causing me to tense at the climactic points as the music below was making its own crescendos.

    Thanks for the post!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is absolutely true – all art is subjective so, naturally, the most important thing we can take from a piece is how it speaks to us, the connections we see. We can never travel back to the original moment of creation (neither can the artist, even if they discuss something they’ve written or painted or play a piece again and again they can still never return to the exact moment of its creation so it means something a little different for them each time as well). I think this is as important as it is freeing when we try to engage with art.

    Also, this is one of those classic pranks you’ve mentioned before! Well played Aubrey, well played!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes!! That’s what makes live performances of music so great and interesting: you get to experience something that will never be experienced in that exact same way ever again. (Although that’s technically true for every moment of our lives…!!) And yes, haha, although this is easily the most philosophical prank I’ve ever pulled. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha you know, I thought about posting it! It’s at my parents’ house, though, so I don’t really have access to it. Although, it just occurred to me that it should be on my computer somewhere…if I find it I might post it!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. It makes me think of a nursery in an abandoned house where something sad happened. The repetitive up and down notes make me think of a rocking chair, a cradle or a swing, which could all be found in a nursery. Having said that, I would not want to visit this nursery…ever.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Interesting post.

    All Mass Media has intended and unintended messages. The context in which the message is received will influence how the receiver of the message responds. Some of that context can be the environment in which the message is sent. For example, my wife & I I watched the recent episode of Dr. Who. The Doctor has to deal with robots that communicate through emojis . The actual robots are nanobot swarms. During the commercial break a commercial for a new app for phones was featured. People in the commercial were slap animated pictures (upgraded emojis) on each other – lots of fun. In the context of the having just watched angry emoji robot faces and people being attacked by nanobot swarms, the commercial became memorable for the wrong reasons. 😀

    In terms of poetry and other forms of literature, the reader/audience brings a personal context of emotions, experiences and knowledge & understanding to the text. The message is interpreted within that context. That is why teachers are trying to provide enough information on the background ( historical, cultural, technical) of new material to students – it is an attempt to increase the student’s personal context . 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Love this! Great example with the Dr. Who emojis haha…meaning really is super context dependent and you can’t control for some of it. I like the idea of teachers trying to increase a student’s background, too! Although I think depending on your personality that may be more or less effective… In any case thanks so much for commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

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