The Good Opponent by Tom Rich
Let's go three in a row on Tom's Tortured Metaphor Theater. Tonight's episode: Chess!
I don't play chess very often, despite enjoying it quite a bit. The problem I have is the same with most games: while my opponent and I are playing by the same set of rules, we're very seldom playing the same game. For some people, as an example, psychological warfare is part of the fun, a necessary and enjoyable aspect of the contest. For me, though, that sort of thing isn't fun at all. Same rules, different game.
Recently, though, my friend Matt dragged me into a series of chess games, and it turned out to be a lot of fun. Both us were interested mainly in the strategy and aesthetics of the game, rather than in winning or even really playing all that well. We've had a great deal of fun with it, and it's almost entirely, I think, because we're playing the same game.
Having spent a lot of time around clever people for whom stories are very important, I sometimes wonder if we're all playing by the same rules, let alone the same game. Frequently, I would make a criticism in a writing class only to have the author tell me that the element in question was a feature, not a bug. Sometimes they were misguided, but just as often all I could say was “oh. Never mind, then.” The story works, and works well, but only if you approach it from the right angle.
Or let's pick on my lit crit buddies again. I got to listen to some of their MA theses last year and left impressed, but also moderately confused. Great stuff, but if you read my work in terms of evolving attitudes toward animal rights or post-Freudian psychoanalysis... well, you'd have something interesting, but it wouldn't be the story I had in mind when I wrote it.
Or, hey, what about readers who don't spend all their time hanging about college English departments? I've showed my dad my stories, and his usual question is “great, but are you gonna finish it?” We're both reading the same words, but not necessarily the same story. (As an aside, Dad is batting around .750 in terms of “hey, I actually do need to rework the ending.” Don't tell him; there'll be no living with the man.)
And you can't really fault anyone here. Just like with the chess game: for some people, playing the psychological element is genuinely fun, and the game isn't good without it. For some people, stories aren't enjoyable without supremely dense symbolism; for others, they're not enjoyable with it. The diversity of readers and readings is one of the many double-edged swords of story writing: it makes things more fun and more frustrating at the same time.
As for me, I write for a reader looking for the same things I am in a story—moderate weirdness, bittersweet endings, and, preferably, Antarctica—and politely bow to the rest. I know of no other way to do it. May you find a good reader, and happy writing!
Tom Rich is a writer, itinerant academic, and flannel enthusiast. His work has appeared in the Midwest Literary Magazine. Since graduating from Northern Michigan University in 2011, he has gone professional in filling out applications.