Today I'd like to reflect a little on feeling misunderstood.
I don't mean in a John Hughes way.
I mean, of course, feeling like your writing has been misunderstood.
This post can be summarized in three words: get over it. But getting over it, as we all know, is hard to do.
Here's the thing: one way or another, your writing probably has been misunderstood. Nobody is more acutely aware of the slipperiness of language than literary critics. Reading is misreading, and writing is miswriting, and it is this inevitability against which we strive every day. I don't say this to dismiss the ideal of clarity--on the contrary. Rather, I want to emphasize just how hard we have to work to be clear, especially about difficult ideas. Being misunderstood is work. You worked hard to write something (unclearly), and a reader worked hard to misunderstand it. Rapprochement is achieved with pain.
That's okay, because that's how language works, and we like it that way. The things that make language infinitely misreadable are also the things that make it rich with possibility. Pure communication is a fantasy; an informatics model of communication doesn't apply when natural language is the medium for ideas, and no one has yet invented a philosophical language that is entirely unambiguous yet still as useful as natural language.
Moreover, the reason we have writing is that it allows us to have bigger thoughts than we can hold in our heads all at once. That means that your writing isn't just the mirror image of a clear and complete idea that once resided in your head (even if you think it did). The writing is your idea, insofar as it exists in the world.
When you craft that writing, you craft your idea. But that idea necessarily has holes--holes that you've always been filling in with the heuristics and narratives with which you've been living and thinking. When they read your work, your readers are filling those holes with other heuristics and other narratives. Enter misreading.
So now that we've been misread, in what does getting over it consist?
- Not taking it personally. Even if your argument has been misconstrued in the dumbest possible way, it's just not going to do anything for you, your relationship with your colleague, or your writing to take it as a personal insult. It's puzzling, true, when you get a comment like "but why didn't you ever address X?" when you spent five pages teasing out the nuances of X. All you can do is revisit those five pages and see if there's some way to clarify that those five pages are, in fact, addressing X. It may just be a matter of terminology, or of where you stick a topic sentence. Either something in the writing made it possible for that misinterpretation to occur or your reader just missed something. If you determine that it's the former, fix. And if it's the latter, forgive. Even smart people space out while reading sometimes.
- Finding ways to disallow certain misreadings, especially "near enemies" or "evil twins." Lisa Ruddick, borrowing a Buddhist term, calls the bad version of a good thing a "near enemy." Often this is a grossly dumbed-down version of a complex idea, or a loose association. For example, during the culture wars, deconstruction was often associated with "relativism," a hopelessly broad term that was usually extrapolated to mean moral relativism and The Downfall Of Civilization. It's probably not coincidental that Derrida wasn't known for his clarity, because the near enemy often has to be attacked directly. For example, a common misconception that I have to guard against in my own work is the assumption that "objective" is synonymous with "scientific," and that both are synonymous with "true." I can state explicitly in the first paragraph that scientificity and objectivity are not the same thing, and still get back comments riddled with the assumption that they are. That's totally maddening, but sometimes you have to remind readers more than once that you're using terms in a specific way. This can be a tedious task, or, alternatively, a very satisfying opportunity to rant about the distinction between objectivity and scientificity. After you've combed out the traces of anger and resentment, you'll probably have a pretty okay exposition of a premise that was underexplained in the first draft.
- Accepting that if you're fairly junior in your field, then you do not have license to channel Donna Haraway. You want your writing to be exactly as difficult as is necessary to embody your ideas. Even Derrida was capable of being very, very crisp. Difficult, oblique, or formally unusual writing should be a strategic choice, not the only kind of writing you can produce. If you're a junior scholar, you have to establish that you can follow the rules before you break them. If you feel that that sucks, well, a lot of things suck. Here's another way of putting it: we've all had the student (hopefully rarely) who challenged a grade because we "misunderstood" an essay that lacked an argument, citations, and punctuation. "You," the student has told us, "do not appreciate my personal style. Which means you hate me, and that is not fair. Give me an A." Do not be this student.
My point, friends, is that we are all misunderstood, so we must be so with joy.
Previous posts on responses to writing:
- 9 May 2010: "On responding to writing"
- 28 May 2010: "How to respond to others' writing"
- 31 May 2010: "Receiving feedback on writing, part the first"
- 2 June 2010: "Receiving feedback on writing, part the second"
- 4 June 2010: If wishes were hobbyhorses