Sunday, September 30, 2012

Getting the Wrong Message

We live in an age of t-shirts. They're like membership badges. You wear a shirt, and people comment on it, and it let's you know whether or not they're in your club. Unsurprisingly, I have several Star Wars t-shirts. I used to have a lot more, but most of them have been retired. Okay, so, yeah, I still have them; I just don't wear them anymore, because an awful lot of them are 20 years old and not really fit for wearing anymore. A have a couple of Sandman t-shirts, I have Animaniacs and "Pinky and the Brain" t-shirts, and I have this t-shirt:
(I also have a lot of other comic book related shirts, but I don't really have time to list all the shirts I have!)

I imagine that emblem is familiar to most of you out there, but, surprisingly, it's one of the least recognized shirts I have. It's also one of the most commented on shirts I have. Whedon fans will almost always say something, but, frequently, people who don't know anything about Firefly will say something like, "Nice message. We could all use more serenity." I just sort of nod and grin and say, "Yeah, we could," while thinking something like "if you only knew."

When I was in college, I was in this writing group. A lot of (pretentious) poetry was batted around during the meetings. One of the rules was that you were not allowed to claim your own work. We were also encouraged to comment on our own work so that no one would know it was ours by our silence. Non-committally comment, of course. That was hard for a lot of people, so most everyone just sat silently when one of their pieces was being read and commented on.

One night, there was a particular poem that was read. I don't remember what it was about, but, evidently, no one was getting it. The author of the poem was trying to restrain himself, but I could tell he was getting frustrated, and he was really fighting with himself to keep from blurting out how wrong everyone was. Including the professors. One professor in particular. Awkwardly enough, I was the one that caused him to explode, but it was because I got it right. I gave my interpretation, and he slapped the table, jumped up, and pointed at me yelling "Yes! Finally! Someone gets it!"

I felt kind of bad. Bad in that it was my fault he lost his cool. It was kind of weird that he lost it over his message getting through when he'd managed to hold it together through everyone getting the "wrong" message. But that's kind of the point: there is no "wrong" message. There is a failure to communicate the intended message, but it's hard to say that a message pulled from a reading is wrong. Unless, of course, you're Barney Stinson rooting for the bully in The Karate Kid. Barney just gets it wrong, but it's not like that for most of us.

No, most of us carry away a valid message even if it isn't quite the one the author intended, and you know what? That's okay. None of the people giving the "wrong" interpretation of the poem that night had messed anything up; they just didn't quite understand the point the author was trying to make. That doesn't mean those other points weren't there, because we weave into our writing things we have no idea are there until someone else points them out to us. And that's okay, too. That's why other people can see things about us that we can't always see, and it's why we can learn about ourselves through other people and the way other people read what we've written.

You know what else? I don't think Joss would be upset about people coming away with a message of serenity because if the t-shirt based on his movie. I think he'd say, "That's okay."


  1. We can't control how others interpret what we write, but it is nice when someone gets it.
    And I have that exact same t-shirt! You're right, Whedon fans go out of their way to compliment it, although I've not had anyone make the 'serenity is good' comment.

  2. Maybe it's just because I'm not famous and I'm still mostly unread, but I'm always curious to see if someone gets a different interpretation of something I wrote. People all think differently, and I welcome that. I got a few different reactions to my short story Into the Vortex (pretty much the only short story I've ever written) and it was kind of cool to hear different interpretations from my local writing club. It didn't even cross my mind to say something like, "No, you buffoons, that's completely wrong, THIS is what it means!"

  3. If I saw that T-shirt I would just be thinking, "Serenity NOW!!!" which would be a Seinfeld reference. All my T-shirts are plain by the way.

  4. Great shirt. ;)

    I always wonder what the authors of the classics we learn about in high school would think if they could sit in on the lectures. I bet they'd probably be surprised at what some people see in their works.

  5. I'm pretty thin in the t shirt department. But unintended meaning does happen all the time. I think if someone doesn't get what I write then they must be bad readers. I'd I don't get something that someone else writes then they must be bad writers.

    Or something.

  6. I'm impressed with your weight management. I know you didn't say anything about that and only that the shirts that are 20 years old, are no longer in good shape. But reading between the lines, that tells me that you could fit into them no problem, just, you don't want to wear rags.

    I'm impressed by that.

    I have terrible weight management. I'm trying to stave off diabetes and get a hold of my obesity. But it's harder and harder as I age. I could never wear/fit into clothes from twenty years ago.

  7. Alex: Well, that may have to do with the fact that I live in CA.

    ABftS: Yeah, I've never found it offensive either. It's more interesting to me, from a psychological perspective, how different people see different things.

    PT: I missed Seinfeld. Yeah, pretty much all of it.

    Laurita: Thanks!
    Yeah, I've wondered that, too. Especially when people want to take every little thing from an author's life and give it meaning in their writing.

    Rusty: And that's the way to do it! According to psychology anyway. :P

    Michael: Well, there was a time when I couldn't fit into them, but, then, we stopped eating sugar, and I dropped back down to where I can fit into them. Most of my old t-shirts have ended up getting retired within the last few years because they're just too raggedy. It makes me sad, because, some of them, I really like.

  8. The Seinfeld episode you really need to watch is the one where he decides to finally retire his favorite T-shirt because it's gotten too raggedy.

  9. Everybody's got a different viewpoint but nobody can resist a bodacious t-shirt.

  10. I think it's a travesty that more people don't recognize it.

    P.S. I have the same shirt.

  11. PT: I'll watch out for it if I ever get around to watching the series. I've thought about it, but I don't have the time for it, right now.

    Cathy: I think no one can!

    S.L.: I used to have two, but I allowed my oldest son to have one of them after we let him watch Firefly.

  12. I have no problem with people picking up the "wrong" message. I like things to be left open to interpretation, whether in something I'm writing or if it's something I'm reading/watching. Even if it's not what the creator intended, that doesn't make it not true!

  13. Jeanne: I'm not against a little ambiguity myself, but some people (like Stephenson, I'm going to guess, since he explained what Snow Crash was about within the book not once, but twice) need it to be all spelled out. I think any interpretation is valid. Well, almost any. Barney Stinson shouldn't interpret anything.