In 1967 Roland Barthes wrote his famous essay “The Death of the Author” in which he argued that a work of literature has an existence independent of the intent of the author. It is instead created anew with each reading as an interaction between the reader and the work.
Although I happen to think Barthes’ position goes a little too far, I do think that the reader plays a role in “creating” the experience of literature in the reading. We can’t help but be subjective, imagine ourselves in the place of fictional characters, relate things to our own lives and have opinions on what we read.
This exercise makes use of this process and tries to deepen it. For this, you need a work of fiction. This can be a book or short story you recently read, or even a movie or play that you saw. If you can’t think of anything to write about, here is a short story (and links to many more).
The exercise (Suggested time allocation: 20 minutes)
Split your page into two equal columns. In the left column, make the following list relating to the story:
- 10 words that are important to the story
- 5 sentences of things that happen in the story. The list doesn’t have to be complete or in any particular order
- For each main character, one thing you imagine they like and one thing you imagine they dislike
- One piece of advice that you would like to give each character
- 3 “messages” out the story
Now, thinking about your own current life situation, write in the right column that first thing that comes to mind in relation to each item. Associate freely. Write whatever occurs to you.
Read only the right hand list from top to bottom. Are there any messages you can extract from this list? Write them out.
As a group exercise
For a group exercise, I suggest that a moderator select a short story or short film that everyone reads together. The reflection process is necessarily individual, but you may find it interesting to compare some of the final messages you draw out of the story. In smaller, more intimate groups, you may find it interesting to have each person explain how their lessons “emerged” from the story. It will give you a “shared experience” of the work
Fiction can stimulate creativity and thinking along new lines. When we read fiction that it can “shake loose” issues in which we have become stuck, or inspire completely new ideas in us. Remember that this is only a starting point: To benefit from these ideas, we need to catch them, reflect on them, maybe write them down and make a plan to incorporate any lessons or ideas into our lives with specific practical steps. Take a moment to think what those steps are and make your plan.
I encourage you to do a reduced form of this exercise every time you read a book, watch a movie or hear someone tell a story: Just ask yourself, what are the most important points of the story, and how might it relate to me?