It’s that time of year again: New Year’s. A time to reflect on the past year, review what we’ve done and haven’t done, and ponder the next 365 days. A time for self-examination and resolutions. Sometimes, it seems to sneak up so fast.
I don’t remember what my resolutions were for last year. I actually don’t think I had any. It’s never been my thing to peg a behavior shift to the flip of the calendar. But like everyone the end of the year has me reflecting on 2015. Which in turn has me thinking forward to 2016, considering things I’d like to do differently.
To start, it’s important to remember resolutions are not redos. There are no redos. If there were, I might not write the column I wrote last week. Did you read it? It was about the presidential race, about Marco Rubio, about how wooden and impersonal he seemed visiting the Sun office.
At least, that’s what most people seemed to get out of it. That’s what made it popular enough to bounce its way around the Internet until it eventually landed on MSNBC and the Drudge Report.
But to me that was not what the column was about. It was written in frustration not at Rubio but at how the modern presidential contest forces candidates to aim for perfection, to be always on, always be cognizant of any missteps. That expectation of perfection forces them to close the door to authentic interaction, to limit what they show to talking points only. Being a person, as well as a politician, is not allowed. I wrote it knowing Rubio has little choice — those candidates willing to be authentically themselves (Rick Santorum comes to mind) say things that keep them at the fringe. They let voters know what they think on controversial issues, and in so doing never risk a serious shot at the office.
Winners, meanwhile, never say anything of substance, anything revealing. Such risks are not the way to the White House today. This is the democracy we have inherited.
That is what I was looking to say last week. I thought I wrote one thing, but readers thought I wrote something completely different. And once the words hit paper, my thoughts are no longer my own. They become open to interpretation, and readers’ interpretation, not mine.
From a writer’s perspective, it’s a confusing position to be in. What I put down in print is not always what the reader picks up. It’s like watching words coming out of my mouth get jumbled, reorganized and reenergized before they reach your ears. The resulting conversation leaves me frustrated and confused. I am not saying what you think I’m saying. At least, I don’t think so.
It might be my fault. Maybe what made sense in my head didn’t land cleanly on the page. Maybe the salient points were left unstressed, and my delivery carries the blame.
Part of it, though, lies in the political atmosphere today, one that reduces democracy to a binary scorecard of wins and losses. I write about Rubio getting caught in an impossible system with impossible expectations, and readers interpreted my words as a condemnation of Rubio. A Rubio loss. Minus one.
That interpretation, the binary version of life, is exactly the sad state of affairs I was hoping to point out.
Candidates are caught only looking for wins, and that’s what makes them choose an affect that comes across as something other than human. Maybe my words were poorly chosen. Maybe they were just wrong. But watching the story unfurl as a loss for Rubio felt like I’d fallen down the rabbit hole I’d only intended to point out.
This is not the first time. I’ve often had people unwittingly tell me about stories I’d written, and explain in great detail what was really going on not realizing I was the original author. I would listen dumbfounded, wondering where in my story was all this subtext I never intended.
But as readers, and as people, we come to the world with our own interpretations. They silently steer us, even when we think of ourselves savvy. We all do it. I, for instance, did it in last week’s column, interpreting Rubio’s wooden affect through the lens of a broken political system rather than some personality flaw. Perhaps I twisted the truth to match a narrative I was looking to comment on. Perhaps Rubio has no interest in warmth — I spent 20 minutes with the man, so in all honestly I have no idea.
But there are no redos. I cannot take back my column, any more than I can take back readers’ interpretations that were not what I intended.
I can, however, remember that my interpretations are as steered by assumptions as my readers. Is Rubio caught in a broken system, or simply a cold person? Or both? Or neither? I have no idea. I can only write the world as it seems to me, transformed as it is by my assumptions, into words for publication.
Every one of those words is then interpreted a second time, this time by the reader. These interpretations are again rife with assumptions.
The result? A fleet of stories produced and consumed through twisted lenses. Like all stories, they are infinitely more complex than the page suggests. They aren’t broken, but they are not crystalline either.
This is the mess that is the modern media environment.
So my resolution? To remember each time I write that no story exists outside the rabbit hole. Every piece is a tumbling of assumptions falling through the blackness. The words on the page may print in black and white, but in truth they will only ever reveal dim shadows. Readers create the full version by filling in the dark spots with their own assumptions. Corruption is part of the reading process. No narrative will ever be perfect.
There aren’t enough pages to say it all. Hopefully readers remember that, too.
This piece appeared in the Conway Daily Sun in December of 2015.