Tailor-Made Meaning / The Monthly

What Was on My . . .

Sandra Nickel What What on My… December 2013The 30th of the month is always and forever my turn up. So, if you are curious about my December, read on for What Was on My . . .

Agenda: Vals—a tiny village in the alps, on the other end of Switzerland. Reached only after 5 1/2 hours on the train, passing through one valley and dialect into another, until I arrived at an insurmountable pass and a language that was utterly unrecognizable. The draw? Mineral water that bubbles up from the earth’s centre. Bathed in since the Bronze Age. Soft as a new-born. Warm as the most primal. 30°C, even in winter. That’s 86°F.

Head: NOT a hat. For the first time since I met my Swiss husband and have been coming to Switzerland for the holidays, most of the country (except the highest peaks) was snowless.

Nightstand: The usual tottering stacks—which this time around included Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, Elizabeth Partridge’s Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning, David Almond’s The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean, Jandy Nelson’s The Sky is Everywhere, and John Green’s The Anise BrotliFault in Our Stars.

Table: Almost as many stacks of cookies as books. Most of them traditional Swiss. Brunsli—think brownies cut into flower shapes with cherry brandy splashed into the mix. Leckerli—gingerbread with a healthy dose of brandy. Zimtstärnli—star-shaped cinnamon cookies with, yes, another dowsing of brandy. And last but not least, my favorites, with—gasp—not even a hint of brandy: Änisbrötli, whose only drawback is that they are far too beautiful to eat. Evidence, the photo to the right.

Mind: Tailor-Made Meaning.

Since the beginning of December, I’ve been thinking back to the other end of 2013, to the first weekend in February, when I heard Shaun Tan speak in New York City. He said many wise and remarkable things. But the one that stuck with me came with his pointing to the white space between two of his square-cropped illustrations. There, where no words were written; there, where no images were drawn. He said this is one of the most important parts of the story, because it is there that each reader brings his or her own interpretation. The pause. The breath. The gap to ponder what the story really means. Not what Tan wants it to mean—but the distinct meaning that pulses within each individual reader.

Tan purposefully creates ambiguity in his artwork so that the reader is as free as possible to discover his or her personal meaning. For example, when he worked on The Lost Thing, Tan may have been thinking of social issues when he painted a Union Jack. But he then smeared out that meaning—making the flag tulip red—so that his readers wouldn’t be bogged down with the cultural and historical meaning that comes with the British flag.

I was surprised—stunned really—at Shaun Tan’s willingness to let go of the meaning to be found in his work. Writers, I thought, are a quite different species. We search for the implications and themes within our stories and try to enhance them with specific, vibrant choices. We use repetition and metaphors, symbols and endowed objects. All for the purpose of bringing out meaning.

But wait. Tan also employs repetition and metaphor. And his choices are nothing if not animated and alive. So what, exactly, was he getting at?

Well, quite simply: the meaning that exists in between. The conversation. The dialogue. The recognition that no matter what is put into a story, a reader will take out the meaning that he or she is ready to find. The struggling boy in South Carolina, the misfit of a girl in Kansas, the football star who hides his book in the bottom of his backpack might all open the same novel, might all read the same phrases, but the words they speak silently back to the pages might be quite different. And isn’t that beautiful.

Over the past year, I’ve grown to cherish the flexibility of story just as much as Shaun Tan. For me, this is one of the greatest attributes story has to offer. Its power to communicate across times and borders, its ability to stretch and morph into what a reader needs it to be at any given moment.

Fantasy writers, in particular, invite readers to be partners in creativity. Yes, the author builds and molds a new world. But lets be honest, words only go so far. The reader’s imagination expresses the rest. It’s one of the most satisfying aspects of fantasy. Each reader’s world is the same, yet different—possibly, wildly different—the reader’s own inventiveness joins with that of the author. True conversation rises. This is lean-in-close, don’t-miss-a-word dialogue. Have you ever noticed how passionate fantasy fans are? I believe it is because of this dialogue. The story becomes theirs in a very real way.

This is not to say that realist writers don’t have a tool of their own. The ‘voice’ of a story is the writer’s charisma. The head turning, jaw-dropping magnetism. We’ve all stopped dead at a party; we’ve all forgotten where we were in a bookstore. Simply because of charm, allure—whatever you want to call it.

If a book’s voice is right, we will fumble behind us for a chair, sit, and listen to what it says. There might not be blank spaces between square-cropped illustrations. But there are chapter ends and page turns and white margins. There is always a chance to pause and think and create our own meaning—to say something back in our minds.

With the best of books—at least my favorites—that conversation continues even past the last page. There is a little opening that allows my imagination to extend the story. I might laugh just thinking about it. Or cry. Certain words might float and land forever. And this is, without a doubt, what Shaun Tan was talking about. In the gap between the pictures, in the wide-open space beyond the closed cover, the story’s meaning lives on—a meaning that is bespoke and personal, tailored just for one.

I hope that we all stumble across more of this in the New Year. The stories. The conversations. Meaning that only comes when we are ready for it. 2013 brought that to me when I least expected it, and I’m counting on 2014 to bring it once more—in spades, if at all possible.

Sandra Nickel Sandra Nickel Sandra Nickel Sandra Nickel Sandra Nickel Sandra Nickel

To hear Shaun Tan speak about open interpretation of his work—and see the tulip red flag—take a look at this clip on YouTube.

And be sure to stop by again on January 10, when author and editor Jill Santopolo joins us for What Was on Her…

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19 thoughts on “What Was on My . . .

  1. Änisbrötli is a gift from the gods… As is this post and Shaun Tan! The space between the lines and images where the reader/viewer may insert themselves is what make writing and illustration art forms – it’s in the dance.

  2. Love your insights on the role of the reader. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately because of my Instagram graphic stories and the way that writers and readers can interact directly with each other and with the story via social media. St. Martha’s, by the way, will be turning up in my IG story sometime soon along with Caroline Carlson’s Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates.

    • Lyn, yes, I bet your IG stories are a great way to get immediate reader feedback and interpretation. And what an honor for St. Martha’s and The VNHLP to be in an IG story. I can’t wait to see what they look like with your Lego actors.

  3. You’ve given me a great deal to think about, Sandra. I love Shaun Tan’s work. I have The Arrival, a book without words, but packed with meaning. A great book for discussions. I need to think about that in my own book. I’d like to do what Tan does–include imagery where readers might pause and consider meaning.

  4. What a lovely, thought-provoking post! Thank you. In his book, On Writing, Stephen King talks about what he says versus what we receive and how the fun of writing lies in between. This post reminds me a bit of that idea — that we will receive much of what an author or artists transmits, but most likely each of our interpretations will be slightly different. The mind boggles and the mind delights 🙂

  5. Ah, fabulous. Transmitting & Receiving. Boggling & Delighting. You’ve spoken to me before about Stephen King’s book–and I guess it’s about time that I read it myself. Thank you, Laura.

  6. What a beautiful image of giving the reader space to breathe and think and interpret. As a writer, I cherish those spaces too for they allow me to gather my thoughts while writing.

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