Guest post: The Reader as Musician: The Interpretation of Art as Creative Act by John Robert Ladd

I hadn’t met John before the workshop, but I wanted to hear from a poet on the nature of creativity.  When I asked the Twitterati for a contact, John’s name came up.  As soon as I visited his site and read one of his essays, I knew I had found the voice I wanted.  John challenges my preconceptions of art in the digital age.  Today he’s here to talk about creativity from the perspective of the reader.

The Reader as Musician: The Interpretation of Art as Creative Act

CC via Margolove

By its nature, the creative mind is original. In order to create something, that something can never before have been created. This is why artists leap to the forefront of our minds when we think of creatives: they make something concrete, a poem, a painting, a song, that we can point to as utterly original. Labeling an artist as a creative person is easy, because of the kind of work she produces.

But this same definition of creativity, the act of making something original, which places artists at the apex of creative thinking, often prevents us from considering an entire class of creative thinkers. I’m speaking about those who create not works of art, but interpretations. Interpretations, too, can be utterly original; it takes a great deal of creative thinking to come up with one. The problem is, interpretations only manifest themselves as concrete objects or works of art a small percentage of the time.

There are certain groups of interpreters that are widely accepted as creatives. Take, for example, actors or musicians. As a separate category from playwrights and composers, these talented, creative people are engaged in acts of interpretation. They perform a creative work written by someone else, and they bring artistry to that performance by interpreting the work in a particular way. No two musical or theatrical performances are the same: they are utterly original creative acts.

We accept this kind of interpretive creativity when it comes to music and theatre, but we’re not so accepting when it comes to other artistic genres. We hold the writer aloft as creative thinker; we shower her with praise for her creative thinking. However, just as the converse act to composing music is performing it, and the converse act to writing plays is acting them, writing, too, has a converse. You do it every day: reading.

The reader isn’t considered a creative person, but he is. [This probably owes itself to the illusion print gives that a piece of writing, and its meaning, are somehow fixed, but that’s another essay entirely.] Every act of reading is an act of interpretation, just like every musical performance. Whether the reader realizes it or not, he interprets everything he reads, bringing his own experiences and understanding to the text at hand. This interpretation is highly creative, though we almost never recognize it as such because it only very infrequently manifests itself as a concrete product: criticism.

The critic, after all, is just another reader. However, like a seasoned artist, the critic has trained herself to interpret writing at a very high level. That’s where people like me come in, people who read and interpret literature for a living. People tend to use the adjective ‘scholarly’ rather than ‘creative’ to describe us, but our work isn’t an academic derivative. You cannot have writing without readers, just as you cannot have music without musicians and you cannot have plays without actors. Not only is the act of reading creative, it’s essential to the existence of writing. The writer and the reader are two sides of the same creative coin, though they’re seldom in agreement about the significance of the creative work at hand.

As we become further immersed in the so-called ‘remix culture,’ this kind of creative thinking will only increase in value. Everyone online is suddenly an interpreter with a voice. When formerly only a small percentage of readers, the academic critics, had the ability to speak out about what they read, now everyone is able to share their interpretations with the world. And they’re doing so in increasingly creative ways: using vivid imagery and multimedia formats to express ideas about the books and poems they’ve read. The phrase ‘Everyone’s a critic’ has never been more apt.

It is my hope that one day readers will be held in the same esteem as writers. As both a writer and reader myself, I’m very aware of the symbiotic bond that exists between the two, and it’s a bond that should be further explored and fostered. With any luck, ‘creative reading’ will one day be as mundane a phrase as ‘creative writing.’

John Robert Ladd is a writer, poetry student, and confirmed geek living in Washington, DC. He’s also the founder and editor of Paradise Tossed, a website and podcast that discusses what happens when poetry and technology collide. The most notable objects of his geekery include formal poems, postmodern plays, crossword puzzles, the Internet, and dead languages. Literally and figuratively, he wears many hats. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, or virtually any site under the name ParadiseTossed.

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4 thoughts on “Guest post: The Reader as Musician: The Interpretation of Art as Creative Act by John Robert Ladd

  1. Pingback: Creativity workshop: the end, and thank you | Not Enough Words

  2. Interesting. You’re handing a lot of power to the reader, who, it must be said, may not get what he or she is reading in the slightest. The fundamental act of creation is writing. Yes, there are readers who interpret, but there are many more who don’t, who just read for the escape, the distraction.

    I know I didn’t start to interpret fiction until I’d been reading for almost 20 years. It’s not an automatic thing. I think criticism takes discernment, and that takes a while to develop.

    I could be wrong, of course, but just as musicians come at all levels of talent, so do readers. My job as a writer is to appeal to as many of those levels as I can, make my fiction touch people wherever they’re at. That’s the kind of thing that takes some serious work.

    This is still an awesome post. I typed WAY more of a response than I intended to. That’s a win for you, good sir.

  3. This was an interesting post and made me think hard. I just woke up, so that takes some doing. John’s analogies of composers and playwrights matched with musicians and actors, respectfully, as creative equals are true. Yes, they interpet musicial scores and theatrical plays, but they all perform for a greater audience. Those souls who take the time to go out and be touched by the original and interpeted pieces.

    For writers, it maybe a bit different. The reader might interpet something totally different than what the author intended, but it usually ends there. Unless, as John made note of, it was a critic who did the reading. Then the critic would naturally write a piece with their take on what the writer was trying to do. I wouldn’t what to sit through a concert or a play if all it contained was criticisms.

    The reader as a creative force would be strong indeed if they were also a writer. Then the interpetation would bear great fruit with different ideas of shared experiences. The writer would then create something new, at least for themselves, and share it to a greater audience. Who knows, that reader may have hopes of becoming a writer!

    I realize that some may disagree with me, but like I said, I just woke up.

  4. I loved this essay. I never really thought of reading as a creative method, but I suppose, if the writer does their job correctly, you have to active create the world that the writer provides for you.

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