What Did The Author Mean By…?

I hate that question. I’ve hated that question since the very first time I saw it on a standardized test. I’d read that question and go back and reread the “selection” from whatever writer the test had chosen to torture me with. Then I’d read the question again…

“What did the author mean by the use of the pink ribbon in little Sally’s flower bouquet?”

What the heck? I don’t know what the author meant. Maybe pink was his favorite color. Or his mother’s favorite color.

Maybe just before the author wrote that scene, the mailman showed up on the doorstep wearing pink socks because the mailman’s wife washed her fire engine red blouse with said socks the night before. So pink it is.

If the mailman’s wife had been more careful, maybe Sally’s ribbon would’ve been white.

Or black. Who knows?

Unless that author gives a clear reason for pink in the story, or he gave an interview explaining why pink, or there’s a primary source indicating what he intended, the answer could be anything. But “What the heck. I Don’t KNOW!” was never a choice on the bubble sheet.

I can’t tell you how many stories were ruined for me in school because of dumb questions like this. A perfectly fine novel or play (that I likely would have enjoyed had I been left to discover it on my own) ruined with the threat of test questions and reading some dead author’s mind. Always looking for the “meaning.”

Can’t it just be a cool story?

I eventually mustered enough gumption to ask one of my teachers about it. I produced an argument, similar to the one above, but not nearly as creative.

The response was less than satisfying: “You’re smart enough to know what the test is asking for. Give me the answer the test wants.” Meaning she had no clue either and I was right.

So I filled in the “right” bubble. Or bull-crapped my way through an essay. Assigning meaning where there may have been none.

But it still bothered me because I’m sure the test preparers didn’t take the time to call up that author (if he wasn’t dead or otherwise unavailable) to ask, “Why did you give Sally a pink ribbon?”

And if the preparers did take the time, the author probably didn’t know why, couldn’t remember the ribbon, and, by the way, who’s Sally? He likely wouldn’t remember a detail that mundane. By that time, he’s probably even forgotten about the mailman in the pink socks.

So the test makers—not willing to accept the author simply used the pink ribbon as a prop—ask the dumb question, making up intent and placing a deeper meaning when there is none. On a pink ribbon in a little girl’s bouquet. Because it looks good on a test. And college placement and scholarships and financial aid hang in the balance.

That’s asking a lot of pink. And poor Sally. And ribbons in general.

Something similar happened with Your Friendly Neighborhood Pharmacy.

I have an editor who I simply adore. He’s thorough, honest and points out errors I would’ve never seen in my drafts. He also gives thematic synopses about theme, flow, etc. and helps me write the blurb copy.

I was reading his notes on “Friendly” when I was smacked with the realization that even something as mundane as a short story written in one evening for a challenge could hold any meaningful depth.

In his summary, the editor made a connection between the occupation I assigned to the main character, Tristan, and his plight in the story. A connection that I hadn’t intended.

What the heck? I reread the story and there it was. Assigned meaning. An unintended thread that wove an unintended theme into the storyline.

I laughed out loud. Because I had made a list of occupations and chose one at random with no forethought whatsoever. If I had written the story one day later or one day earlier in the challenge, Tristan wouldn’t have been an investment manager—he’d have been a movie director or a retired plumber.

Part of me wanted to agree with the editor’s observation. Take the credit. Own it. Or at the very least give my “muse” credit for cleverness and nod and wave and smile and…

But I simply found it amusing. I had fun writing it. It was due in an hour.

It was a cool story.

Don’t we all do this, though? Assign meaning where there is none? We see people whisper and think it’s about us. We listen to someone yack about their weekend, and we hang on their words, not because their weekend was so great, but because we’re searching for some euphemism our double meaning to make life more interesting.

Sometimes life is just what it is—simple events transpiring during the earth’s spin on its invisible axis until the sun peeks over the horizon the next morning.

Other life events do mean something. Love. Losses. Wins. Sorrow. Peace. War.

But why make every event, conversation, or story into a test question of utmost importance with four right answers from which to choose? That’s a lot of pressure to put on said event. And because meaning can be so entirely relative.

To some, the pink ribbon means everything—a lost spouse’s favorite color, the hope of adopting that baby girl, or a battle with breast cancer. And that’s okay.

To others, pink is just pink. Equally okay.

Better to ask, “What does the pink ribbon in Sally’s bouquet mean to you?”

And let it be an essay question. No rights or wrongs. Assign meaning if you want. Or don’t.

And let it be okay if the student answers, “Nothing. But it was a cool story.”

Thank you for hanging out for a bit. Check back on Mondays for a new blog and the first Friday of every month for a free fictional short, and be sure to visit my Amazon page.