Your Part of the Story

comprehension

In secondary school, my English teacher gave us a block of text to read followed by a series of questions to test our understanding. This exercise was called comprehension. Correct answers were based on the text. To extrapolate from our life experiences and make connections beyond the confines of the text, in order to interpret it, meant certain failure. This standardization of meaning complemented the marking scheme, I suppose, but we don’t approach life this way.

When we listen, we not only hear the words spoken, but also the manner in which they are spoken and all that it encompasses. How these elements affect our emotions, also influences our understanding.

At work, while implementing a strategy that we’d been briefed about, my colleague and I came to a gridlock because we interpreted the briefing differently. When we sought clarification, it turned out neither of us were right. So much for clear communication, which is why at the end of a talk, a speaker says, “Let me recap . . .” or an avid listener practices reflective listening, “If I’ve understood you correctly, you said . . .”

Someone said, “Write it to eliminate ambiguity,” as if inanimate words on a screen do not awaken and grow wings in the minds of those who read. Perhaps in business writing where clarity and conciseness are pivotal, this is true, except when the writing is convoluted to deceive.

But, in October, I wrote fiction. In fiction, we abandon some of the rules of comprehension I learnt in school. I think that a good writer invites us to create our own stories within the bigger narrative that he or she is telling. Writers do this by leaving a trail of white pebbles that readers instinctively follow to figure out what the story is about, when and where it is taking place, and why the characters act the way they do.

Somewhere along the journey, readers abandon the trail for a meandering path to interpretation. The writer takes a secondary seat, having provided the framework for readers to build by making associations based on their experience, belief, imagination, or needs even.

When I began publishing fiction here, I was fussy about readers’ interpretation. Did they get what I was trying to say? The comments showed me that readers don’t always perceive the story the way I do. And now I’m okay with that. For one thing, no one is writing a comprehension exam. Moreover, to see the story through a reader’s eyes is to see the story again.

I will agonize over words for days on end—do my words lead to logical inferences, are they coherent? But once I hit publish, I understand that the piece of writing, the baby I carried, has been delivered to the world. It is no longer mine. Comprehension is the reader’s part of the story.

 

©Timi Yeseibo 2015

 

Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Timi Yeseibo and livelytwist.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

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74 thoughts on “Your Part of the Story

  1. The issue of getting the reader to participate in the story has always intrigued me. But these days, I find that no matter how you convey fiction, if it is vivid and engaging, the reader will inevitably participate in the story.

    I finished reading WAR AND PEACE not long ago. I found that despite Tolstoy going as far as telling us, in some scenarios, why some characters behaved or talked the way they did, I was still much captivated by the story to warrant extensive mental participation on my part. There were times I would pause and act out Tolstoy’s description of a characters reaction to something said or done. It was that participatory. By today’s standards, some of Tolstoy’s narration in the book will be written off as ‘telling too much’.

    A writer, for the most part, should focus on writing in the clearest and most engaging way he or she can manage. The depth and range of participation on the reader’s part will be a testament to the quality of what has been written.

    I enjoyed this piece, Timi. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ” … if it is vivid and engaging, the reader will inevitably participate in the story.”

      The ‘burden’ indeed lies with the writer. In a world awash with information and easy assess to information, we must become skilled in holding the attention of a global audience.

      Thanks Samuel. 🙂

      Like

  2. “I think that a good writer invites us to create our own stories within the bigger narrative that he or she is telling.” – this is true. Sometimes, I worry about that too; not just in writing, sometimes in chats too.

    Like

  3. So one of my professors from college once said that assessment is slowly moving from comprehension and understanding to reasoning. I do think that comprehension tests are annoying, because they instantly forget what they studied.

    What kinds of assessment can we use in schools to support learning (interview, presentation, paper)?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I remember that in studying poems, reasoning was encouraged. We were given background information on the poet’s life and the times in which he lived. We could then make connections with our present realities. Mind you, to pass the exams, I don’t think you could reason beyond certain parameters- I controlled my imagination if I wanted to pass. With thousands of papers to assess, examiners depend on the marking scheme, an objective standard. Schools don’t always nurture creativity, conformity is easier to manage.

      @what kinds of assessment can we use in schools to support learning? I don’t know. Do you?
      Thanks for broadening the conversation. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I see assessment in five big ideas: multiple choice (selected response), essay, performance, product, and interview. The one that gets used the most would be the multiple choice. I think the one that gets the least proper treatment would be the interview. I know of a college that conducts their assessments solely on interviews, and folks from that college actually come out being able to talk more about complex topics.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Clearly you were bursting with fiction, timi instead of ole non-fiction.

    I confess that I don’t read novels these days, even though I have a university degree in English Lit. Wishing you lot of spinning tales.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Hi Timi,

    I sincerely appreciate the message in this post.

    There are two sides to the comprehension coin. As a writer it is rewarding to see how the readers perceive what one has written, especially when they follow the trail of white pebbles and provide a fresh point of view that one didn’t even consider at the inception. Some of the things that I’ve written have been inspired by the comment section.

    But isn’t it a little disappointing if their perception totally deviates from the point that one was trying to make. Doesn’t one feel a little flat if they didn’t even get it at all?

    Regarding “Write it to eliminate ambiguity,” I agree with you, indeed, words will awaken and grow wings in the reader’s mind. I suppose the trick is to find the right balance between writing to reflect one’s level of intelligence and writing to also accommodate the reader’s own intelligence to absorb it.

    However, I strongly believe that what’s being written should not be so simplistic and utterly devoid of ambiguity that it almost insults the reader’s own intelligence and insincerely downplays the writer’s.

    Complexity should sometimes be celebrated; it stimulates reflection. The readers should have the liberty to do with the words as they please. 😀

    Have a lovely weekend.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Nedoux, I’m enjoying your comment.

      @isn’t it a little disappointing if their perception totally deviates from the point that one was trying to make. Doesn’t one feel a little flat if they didn’t even get it at all? Lol! Do you feel flat when that happens?
      For me this comes up in non-fiction sometimes. It can be amusing or annoying. Sometimes readers have an old axe to grind and it’s not with you or your writing per se. If one decides to publish on a public forum, one needs to develop a thick skin… 🙂

      I agree with you. We shouldn’t insult readers’ intelligence neither should we dumb down our writing. For example, I write for people like me, which means my readers have at least, a high school education, among other things.

      @complexity… hmm, true. “Simple” writing can be complex because of the layers… I once wrote a fiction piece and added author’s notes to help readers see there was more going on … I got mixed reactions, mostly positive. https://livelytwist.com/2015/01/18/the-promise-of-spring/

      @The readers should have the liberty to do with the words as they please, whether the writer likes it or not, that’s the way it goes.

      Thanks Nedoux.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Spent some time today thinking about clarity in writing, especially in non-fiction. I favour people who can be lucid no matter how high their subject matter is, but I do know my lucid is another’s gibberish. So, I can’t ask a writer to aim for a generic level of clarity.

    Reading actively, patiently, helps my comprehension, even when the writer has not aimed for the base level of communication. And this works for either fiction or non-fiction. The more attention I pay to a ‘difficult’ story, the more it teaches me how to read it and any other story like it in the future.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I hadn’t finished… 🙂

      I want to be read by a majority of readers, so I aim for clarity and continue to learn the techniques. A few times I am deliberately obscure, I take the chance that I will lose many readers …

      You sum it well. My lucid might still be another’s gibberish.

      Like

  7. I love how you are always trying out new stuff and experimenting here, Timi. A teacher told me once that when people read, they see what they want/can see and not necessarily always what the writer intended for them to see. And in nonfiction, esp. he spoke of how the best way to disappear in one’s work is to reveal everything- then the reader sees themselves and not you, the writer. I love your willingness to let your creative baby go in the world and allowing it to have its own unique relationship with readers.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I know what you mean. Misinterpretation is dreadful. So many readers nowadays fly off the handle and start tweeting their interpretation of what an author means. Some of these interpretations can be hurtful.

    I’m always amazed at how readers can see the same story so differently. As you mentioned, though we write as truthfully as we can, a story is a framework. The reader fills in his or her own meaning.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You know I hadn’t even thought about the negative side. As I wrote, I only envisioned different but positive interpretations. Yes, sometimes people put another spin on it…

      There are times when my final draft differs so much from my initial draft because I’ve been so concerned about how my writing would be perceived or received. I change a word here, add a word there, trying not to offend and for PC sake. And of course because my words are on the Internet, someone may want to use it to ‘bite’ me later, lol 🙂

      Still we must risk misinterpretation and hit publish ….

      Thanks for broadening the conversation.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. “But once I hit publish, I understand that the piece of writing, the baby I carried, has been delivered to the world. It is no longer mine. Comprehension is the reader’s part of the story.”

    This is beautiful. Comprehension only allowed us think within the context of the story giving little or no room for out of context thinking. But in the real world, thinking through a problem or a story involves exploring several thinking caps to identify the problem or see the different sides to the story. I think reading different sides to a story helps us understand the story better and even frame our perspectives.Thanks to social media for giving us the power to read and digest beautiful stories like this 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Emeka, thanks to social media, we can engage our readers and benefit from the varied perspectives they bring. If I want to flesh out some of the short stories I’ve written, I’ll go looking through the comments.
      Thanks.

      Like

  10. Hi Timi. I could relate to this, specifically because I have an 8-year-old son with Asperger’s Syndrome. Oftentimes, he doesn’t comprehend or understand things the way a neuro-typical person would. He is very literal. For example, I recently lost my voice. I mean, it was totally gones. I could only speak in whispers. The look on his face was one of complete horror. He asked me what happened and I told him that I lost my voice. He almost panicked. I think he thought that I literally lost it, and that we absolutely needed to go on a search to find it. Hahahaha. For the next few days he came to me saying, ‘You’ve lost your voice?” and I would tell him, “Yes Caue, but it’s coming back ok.” Then he would come to me for a few more days and say, “Your voice is back?” and I would say, “It’s almost back, isn’t it Caue.” Hahaha.
    I’m sure you already know this, but supposedly communication is only 7% verbal and 93% non-verbal. Maybe that’s a large part of the reason for various interpretations for one story.
    🙂

    Like

    1. Aw that must have been hard for Caue, thinking your voice was lost and worrying about where to find it. There isn’t any other way to phrase what you were experiencing is there? I admire your patience and creativity in defusing the situation.

      In writing there really aren’t any non-verbal cues …
      I mean we can get inject mood into our writing, and I believe words are containers or conveyors of intangibles. Still stuff gets lost or added in translation when readers read. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh yea, that’s true. You can’t really show the non-verbal cues in writing, can you?

        Oh, haha. Caue is great. It’s things like this that make him so unique and cute. I love his reactions to some things. Makes me smile.
        🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Very true. It happens to the best of us, all of us and so it’s better to just “let it go”. And sometimes what you think you are writing turns out to be something else! Cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. OmG…… we did comprehension practice in almost every English lesson and to get in form for the ordinary level exams as one of the papers was a comprehension type paper… and I also did literature in english that was my favourite subject too.
    Come to think of it I always used to wonder, when we analyzed a book finding themes explaining what the author meant to portray or mean and all that, if the author was even thinking of all this they just wrote their book/story.
    likewise I publish some short-fiction on my blog and in the comments I find the most interesting perspectives I was actually thinking about this for my next post as I post about my blogging journey.
    you publish it and its got a life of its on.
    ~B

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that when we analyze a book, we find themes that the author put in there and others that he didn’t. The comments on your short fiction posts confirm this 🙂

      Looking forward to reading your perspective on this.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I could not agree with you more on this post. We do interpret things differently. Some people skim through passages and others are more thorough in their approach. However, this does not mean that they have understood what the writer was trying to express. Just as you said in your post. I had that experience recently with a comment. I find that this always leads to interesting discussions and great comments. New age communication (on line Pen Pals).

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  14. Wow! Timi. This is so well reasoned. Reading the page, I was nodding all the way down.

    After thirty years of marriage with my Chinese husband, I concluded that the Chinese put a different emphasis on clarity of communication. They put more responsibility on the listener to figure out what the speaker means. We put more responsibility on the speaker to be clear. This is just my theory. I haven’t seen any scientific study to confirm it. Anyway, my husband was a wonderful storyteller. Maybe he left just enough white pebbles to make the trip fun.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Communicating across cultures presents its own challenges…
      If the responsibility for understanding lies with the listener, does this mean they’ll read more thoroughly then? Does your book have a Chinese translation; how has it been received?

      “… just enough white pebbles to make the trip fun,” that takes skill. A wonderful storyteller indeed.

      Thanks Nicki!

      Like

      1. I haven’t thought all this through, but I think that the Chinese attitude is that the listener is expected to pay attention to the context and history. Plus, I sense that the Chinese love a little mystery. I see that in the poetry.

        I’ve just started the process of getting my novel translated into Chinese. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

        Liked by 2 people

  15. One of the clearest examples of interpretation to me is the difference between a book and a movie based on a book. I almost always prefer the book because it allows me to create a rich world of my own. This doesn’t mean I won’t enjoy the movie, but it is certainly in a different way. I do get upset, however, when the director decides to cut out a favorite passage/scene of mine. –Curt

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Like you, I prefer the book to its movie adaptation. Invariably, bits get left out.

      Movie directors use visuals, music, and acting to tell a story. There’s still room for ambiguity and varied interpretation. You’ve got to hand it to writers who have only words at their disposal and yet are able to stimulate the reader’s imagination so that the reader hears the sounds, sees the topography, and the characters at work. 🙂

      Like

  16. I certainly enjoy staying off the beaten path and finding meandering ones to explore. 🙂 Thank you for the special fiction I found intriguing and holding different messages, interpretations for each individual reader. Our history and lens we see each aspect of the our day, life and forms of art ( including music, reading, writing,… crafts we choose to view) changes how we “see” these, Timi. 🙂

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    1. Robin, in my last story, the only physical description of one of the central characters, Martijn, was that he was a couple of inches taller than another. When people read, they form mental images. I know readers would have formed different images of him in their minds. Each image based on, as you mention, their history and the lens through which they view life. Indeed, after I hit publish, “Martijn” is no longer mine … 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. True. A reflection of life perhaps- where we get along with some and aren’t interested in others.
      Sometimes a reader’s feedback takes me on a most interesting journey as I see stuff I didn’t put in my writing! 🙂
      All in all, I think it’s wonderful that readers have an affinity for any character.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. When ideas come thick and fast, anything close will do- my phone, scraps of paper, etc. But when I want to do serious writing, a screen, preferably my laptop, is my first choice. Pen and paper just doesn’t do it for me anymore. I’d still have to ‘painfully’ transfer what I’ve written to my laptop. Moreover, the dictionary, thesaurus, synonym finder, and Google are nearby while working on my laptop.

      And you?

      Btw, I saw a one-year old swiping a phone screen today and commented that her generation might learn to type first… 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

    1. Lol! Do they? 🙂
      That kind of comprehension is a useful skill especially for reading contracts and other legal documents, and even for following instruction manuals. I guess you can think of other instances…

      I think that we had more leeway in interpreting poetry …

      Liked by 1 person

  17. “I think that a good writer invites us to create our own stories within the bigger narrative that he or she is telling. Writers do this by leaving a trail of white pebbles that readers instinctively follow to figure out what the story is about, when and where it is taking place, and why the characters act the way they do.”

    I would say “some good writers” do this. Others, like Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol, set the stage at the outset (“Marley was dead.”). They aren’t interested in having readers wrestle with the Who, What, When, Where ~> they want readers to focus on the WHY and the HOW.

    That’s why I can read and re-read A Christmas Carol without getting bored. I know the story (yup, Marley’s still dead), I have the dialogue memorized, but the WHY and the HOW continue to entrance.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Yes! We can never enter the same stream (or book) twice.

        “When you reread a classic you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in you than was there before.” ~ Clifton Fadiman

        Liked by 3 people

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