Imagine the perfect tree. Close your eyes and try to picture what that tree looks like.

Got it?

Now, is it a tree on the crest of hill set against a pale blue sky and poised on a bright green expanse of grass? A huge tree, spreading out in a proliferation of leaves and leaving a huge oval of shade under it? If it wasn’t that, is it that now?

Or is it a winter scene, a denuded tree with bare branches cracking the dusk sky?

A mighty redwood tree towering over your head until it is lost in the canopy of countless other redwoods?

A wispy birch tree, bent by the snow and the wind until the top is nearly parallel to the ground?

Did you internal vision of the tree change?

Do you think that the tree that you pictured in your mind for each of those above is the same tree that I was imagining as I write this?

Writers think that they write and the readers read and that the writer is the creator and the reader is merely the receiver of that creation. And in a way they are right. But in a way they are entirely wrong.

A writen story that is not read is incomplete, unfinished. A novel only lives in the space between the mind of the writer and the imagination of the reader.

Writing is a lonely collaborative art.

But this also means that sometimes a writer is the worst person to ask about a work. If you read a book and you think it’s about feminism and the changing social dynamics of the sexual revolution but the writer thinks it’s a book about growing up in the 80s, who’s right? The reader knows what the book is about to her, and what the author thought they were writing is irrelevant to the reader’s experience.

See, here’s a secret about writing, sometimes your characters do their own thing. Sometimes your plans for how the story is going to go take a turn and something happens you didn’t expect. The writer thinks s/he is in control, but any writer worth a nickel knows that sometimes the control just is not there. When I was in high school I wrote a short story that was supposed to be about a couple falling in love and instead was about a couple most decidedly and assuredly doing anything but. The story I wrote was not the story I intended to write, not at all. And it was only four or five pages long.

I’ve written the deaths of characters who were supposed to be key players in the end of the story, throwing everything into chaos. But then you go back and you realize you’ve put in foreshadowing of this death from the very beginning, There is no question that the character was going to die, now that you wrote it., But up until then you didn’t have a clue.

Because sometimes a writer doesn’t know why the story took the turns it did, and that means that there are almost certainly things in the story that the author doesn’t know are there. There are slight and opaque allusions, sly references, hidden metaphors. Things that some readers might pick up on that will glide past the rest. And those people are not wrong just because the author doesn’t notice. And sometimes they are poorly accidental, of course. Sometimes the reference the writer intended isn’t the connection the reader makes. This doesn’t make the reader wrong.

The purpose of reading isn’t to get inside the mind of the author, after all, it is to get inside the story. To live in it, and to built its world inside your won mind based on what guidance you get from the writer.