Sunday, February 15, 2015

Writing Exercise

The door creaks on its hinges as it swings open. No one has come here, to the barn on the hill, for—must be years now. The fields this end of the farm have been let go. Too few hands to work them; not enough demand for the hay the barn used to house.

The space under the high rafters is silent. Birds’ nests leak over the corners of beams like strange creatures watching the intruder, but no rustling or cooing, no crisp flap of wings breaks the breathless quiet. The barn’s current inhabitants must be outdoors. The weather has been strangely mild for Idaho; the bulk of snow is melted, even in shadows under the hills and along the highway where plows pass back and forth. Already in February the sun touches the fields with pastel green. By five each morning the birds are up chatting about their good luck.

Wind finds its way through the loose walls. Chaff swirls and puffs across the barn floor in a visible sigh. From an empty knot in a board over the door, a beam of light shoots through the floating particles. They ascend and descend on their brilliant pathway like visitors from another world. A person could reach out and grab hold of the light, perhaps also get carried aloft. Of course, that is only appearance—a trick of the eyes. That knothole has been present since the barn was built, and from that day, too, it has admitted light like a solid presence, as if the air inside had some special quality. No one has ever been transported, though, and many a farmhand has passed through as he hauled in great bales for winter storage.

The wind dies and the motes settle. A shadow passes over the sun. The beam grays, fades. The brown shadows behind open like dark wings. A few bales from seasons past have been forgotten in corners. Rats must have gnawed the twine, because the neat rolls have slumped across the dirt floor. One bale always broke like that, back in the day. The workers cursed, dutifully, when it happened, since it meant one fewer bale to sell, but no one really minded. At the end of the day someone always had a six-pack stashed in one of the pick-ups outside. Hired hands and employer alike would crash backwards onto the collapsed hay, crushing it into a comfortable shape beneath the shoulders.

The beer was cold and slid down the throat like mercury. Baling was hard work; lying in the hot August afternoon in the dusky barn, the muscles groaned and unloosed themselves. A person felt almost high with tiredness.

Inevitably while the men lay there, one of the boys who had tagged along would scramble up the intricate lattice of rafters. The kids were never tired. Watching them clamber about like monkeys overhead only made the weariness of a good day’s work sweeter. Up, up, the boy would go, muscles working in skinny brown legs. Then the trapdoor to the roof would swing open and a shower of late sunlight would fall like gold on the faces below.

No eager child was left to climb up and let in the early spring now. The barn’s roof-door had been latched for years; there had been no time or need for roof repairs on an old structure fallen out of use. The air is musty. Though the wind whines through the boards, it just stirs the old smells. They cannot find a way out, so they remain and stagnate. Only light is renewed through the inch-wide knothole. It travels like an eye, back and forth across the barn floor, picking out a beam here, a rafter there, a pile of straw scuffed across the floor, the delicate shadow of a spider’s web, the ragged edge of a bird’s nest. Every day it casts down its silver pool upon the soft, dusty floor, and finds nothing new.


I’ve been reading The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. It’s a fascinating and helpful book – sort of the explicit statement of everything that I’ve thought and slowly learned about writing over the years, plus some new ideas I’d not yet discovered. I’m probably the last person to the party, as you might say, since I believe his works on creative writing are standard fare, but even so I’ll say that if you haven’t read the book, you should!

Anyway, he had proposed in passing a descriptive writing exercise. Basically, he was discussing how symbolism in fiction isn’t something imposed by the writer, but rather the result of careful writing,  reviewed and reworked to develop the hidden meaning which emerges from word choices and tone. So he claimed that a good writer could describe even a barn from a particular character’s point of view, and trick it ‘into mumbling its secrets.’

The exercise is to describe a barn from the point of view of a man whose son has been killed in war. The catch is that the writer cannot mention the son, the war, death or even the man. The focus is solely the barn. Of course that means that the written result of the exercise won’t be about mourning or loss specifically, will only hint at a particular mood, but the point was basically that in good writing even description must support the overall theme and emotion and effect – the ‘dream’ of the story.

Well, I figured I’d try my hand at the exercise, so the first part of the blog is my ‘barn,’ seen by a bereaved man. I like what I wrote, but I’d love to hear the reaction of anyone who takes the time to read the piece, since it’s hard to analyze one’s own work! Also, if anyone else decides to try out the exercise, please send me a link to the result. I’d be very interested to read it.


  1. I think it was like the opening of a movie. The camera eyeing every detail, without letting you see the camera. The clear and clever descriptions transport the reader (me) to each memory. Like those old photos of the same place half of it in sepia and the other modern version in rustic technicolor. I really enjoyed it.

    I haven't had a whole lot of formal training in regards to writing. So I haven't read John Gardner. I'm lucky I guess that I can tell a good tale occasionally...or so I've been told. :)

    You might enjoy this piece based on fact with some fiction fill in. I used three prompts to coax out:

    Cheers, Jules

  2. I turned it into a haibun including a Wordle list.

    Not quite as detailed as yours. But I had fun with it. Thanks.