Meaning As a Collaborative Act

Arizona flowerAt the University of Washington-Bothell writing center where I used to work as an undergrad, all the tutors had to make class visits.

I dreaded these.

It meant I’d interrupt a class–sometimes graduate-level–and take three minutes to tell them about the writing center.

At the time, I was 23 years old. But I looked about 18. And the average age of students on my campus hovered around 30.

Most of the time, I loved the additional maturity and life experience they brought to my studies.

But when facing down a skeptical classroom of them? Not so much.

So I decided to make a game of it. I would try to make them laugh.

For a couple weeks, I was a bust. Every time. I rushed from the classrooms, my cheeks burning with shame, and hid back in the quiet of the writing center. But eventually I learned that if I poked fun at how young I looked, people responded. “So you’re probably thinking, ‘What can this young kid know that will help me write better?'” And they chuckled and grinned at each other. I smiled back. “Well, let me tell you…”

I had to anticipate their needs, imagine their perspective–at 40 and in college for the first time. And I learned that they respected me a whole lot more when I faced down the elephant in the room and tamed it.

“Meaning is a collaborative act,” was a line from the script my supervisor handed me every time I stepped out the door for a class visit.

Most days, I departed pretty far from the script. But that sentence I always kept.

Meaning is a collaborative act.

My professors at the UW-Bothell were big on post-structuralist criticism. In nearly every class, I heard how it was the reader, not the writer, making the meaning of a text.

And so, I argued to my pragmatic, life-worn peers, you need to come and interact with some readers. See if what you want to get across is what we take away from your paper. Test out your meanings.

I didn’t think of it that way back then, but that was exactly what I was doing with my experiment in humor. I was learning what was funny–and what wasn’t–to a specific demographic in a certain setting. Humor is a specific type of meaning. And possibly the most collaborative of all.

Nearly ten years later, as a writer, I find this truth the most terrifying fact of existence. Because in this context, writing is a high-wire act. And this time I don’t have the safety net of a set audience, defined by a specific time and place. As Junot Diaz said once, all writers are writing for a future audience–an audience that doesn’t exist yet.

I don’t get to test out my meanings on them.

I just have to step onto the wire and hope–pray–that somewhere out there, one day, someone else will step onto the other end and meet me halfway.

Published by M.C. Easton

Novelist and teacher.

2 thoughts on “Meaning As a Collaborative Act

  1. You raise a very good point. Having to imagine a reaction is one reason I am working hard to adapt a trilogy of short stories I’m writing into a script to be read at a local college. I think I will really thrive having a live audience.

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