What Happens to a Writer’s Words After They’re Released Into The Wild?

All the sections in my Godless World books open with quotations or extracts from (fictional) histories or narratives intended to add a little flavour, or colour I suppose, to what’s going on in the main text.

The first section of Fall of Thanes, the final book in the trilogy, opens with a couple of proverbs I made up:

Loss alone is but the wounding of a heart; it is memory that makes it our ruin.‘  A proverb of the Aygll Kingship, and

Pay no heed to grief.  It is only weakness leaving your heart.‘  A saying of the Battle Inkall.

The first of those, I noticed a loooong time ago, during the course of some casual ego-surfing, has become by some distance the most famous sentence I’ve ever written.  I’m using ‘famous’ extremely loosely, and indeed inaccurately, of course.  It’d be more precise to say it’s become the most widespread sentence I ever wrote.

Unbeknownst to me, that invented quotation has spread around the internet in various modest but thorough ways.

I suspect the process started when it got snipped as a stand-alone quote by appreciative readers on GoodReads, but since then it’s got sucked in to a vast swathe of aggregator sites that collate quotes about dealing with grief.  Occasional casual investigations have  turned it up on various twitter feeds, forums or tumblrs, where people use it as a tagline, or pass it on, or just quote it because they like the sound of it (eg it’s been doing the rounds on twitter again these last few days).

I mention all this because it’s a neat illustration of the degree to which anything and everything you publish, once it’s out there, is no longer yours.  It belongs to the readers, and they can – and do – use it or understand it in whatever way suits them.  That’s very nice, and I take it as a compliment that so many folks have liked the phrase enough to turn it into its own tiny meme.

But …

… personally, I don’t think Loss alone is but the wounding of a heart; it is memory that makes it our ruin is nearly as quotable as others seem to.

Sure, it’s a euphonious turn of phrase that also looks quite nice on the page.  It’s got a decent internal rhythm and structure, and gives a neat impression of saying something simple but almost profound (which was the point, after all, since it’s pretending to be a long-established saying).  I can see why people have latched on to it.

Except I’m not quite sure what people think it means, especially in the context of ‘comforting quotes in the face of real world grief’.  Sure, if you read it quickly it sounds like it’s comforting.  When I wrote it, though, it wasn’t intended to serve that purpose.  One of the minor themes of the Godless World trilogy is the degree to which the past, in one form or another, exerts an often malign control and influence over what happens in the present.  In that context, the proverb was intended as commentary on the nature of grief, not a comfort or solution to it.  Loss (bereavement’s the most obvious narrative example, though it was meant to apply to all sorts of other things too) as a momentary, transient event could and should be easily bearable, no matter how painful at the instant of its happening, were it not for the fact that we are condemned to remember that which we have lost, and driven by that memory to re-experience the loss, or to strive fruitlessly to undo it, or whatever.

It’s not my favourite thing that I’ve written in part because I think it has a certain bleak ambiguity to its meaning that might make it interesting as a phrase but isn’t quite right for an alleged proverb in wide circulation.  I’m a fairly stern critic of my own writing, though, so what do I know?

I don’t, personally, think it’s a particularly accurate or meaningful analysis of how loss and grief work in the human mind.  Not everything fiction writers put in the mouths of characters – even the anonymous coiners of fictional proverbs – is an actual reflection of the writers’ views, after all.  (That truism seems to escape a certain small minority of readers over and over again, mind you.)  I can’t discern any particularly helpful sentiment or guidance within it for the real world sufferer of personal loss (what proactive sense could you possibly extract from it, after all: ‘You’ll feel better if you just forget about it, and if you can’t forget about it, you’re going to be ruined by it’?).

I’m exaggerating to make a point, of course.  It could be interpreted as a vaguely sensible statement about grief and how to deal with it – something to do with moving on, not allowing memories to feed sorrow rather than rememebered joys, etc. etc. – but I suspect most folks who quote it in various places just like the sound and the look of it, without worrying too much about its precise meaning.

And my real point, which I have exaggerated to reach, is that on one level it’s utterly irrelevant what I think its meaning might be.  Once the words are on the page and published, it ceases to be up to the writer to define their significance, meaning and sense; that becomes the role of the reader, and it’s one in which the writer has no real business trying to interfere, unless univited to do so.  That applies to entire novels, which may be interpreted in ways the author did not intend, as much to single phrases which readers choose to extract from their context and re-interpret for their own purposes.

I’m nothing but pleased if a seventeen word phrase I came up with to serve a particular purpose has proved sufficiently comforting or interesting, as an isolated fragment, for people to think it worth passing on.  What they choose to do with, what meaning they choose to draw from it, is not something I can control.  It’s also not something in which my opinion carries any more weight than anyone else’s; those words meant a certain thing when they were in my hands, or my mind, alone, but they are gone from me now, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t mean something else to other people.  I’m delighted they’ve taken on a life of their own.

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  1. Mihai A.’s avatar

    Like writing, reading is a solitary and personal thing. Often, words take shapes through the readers’ experiences in different ways than those intended by the writers. I have to admit that this particular phrase didn’t stuck with me, but fortunately I did not experience loss and grief to their full extent. But your phrases do sound good and they send my mind wandering in different ways. There is also a certain poetry to such quotes and yours reflects poetic spirit. It gives it beauty and the memory sticks with it.
    And as the reading is a personal and solitary experience I wonder what a return to your series might bring? I know that more often than not such a re-reading can open new doors and add elements to the first one or ones. I will certainly return to “Godless World” someday in the near future. :)

  2. Brian’s avatar

    I think you’re right, Mihai: two pretty simple things at work in the attention this phrase has got. It looks/sounds quite nice, and it’s open to interpretation by the reader as they see fit. For the right reader, at the right time, it has an impact, but that’s not something a writer can control or – necessarily – predict.