Through A Character’s Eyes

*Made some edits to this post on Wednesday, September 21st.*

I’m currently reading The Art of Fiction by John Gardner.  The book is divided into two parts, the first one presents theory of fiction, while the second part deals with specific techniques and writing exercises.  I feel like I’ve already learned a lot and I’ve just started reading it!  It has helped me to take notes on a separate paper as I read and actually try out the exercises, instead of just reading passively.

At the end of the chapter called Basic Skills, Genre, and Fiction as Dream, Gardner offers an illuminating exercise in description.  After attempting the exercise, I noticed that I learned something just by beginning and finishing it, without judging the result.  Writing subtly and with the awareness of an emotion was a great experience.  Here are the instructions and below them, my attempt.

In about one typed page, describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war.  Do not mention the son, or war, or death.  Do not mention the man who does the seeing.

    Full-grown sycamore leaves cast dark shadows onto the barn’s thin walls.  The air smells of last night’s dizzying coat of paint.  Hiding scratches and flaws beneath, the paint gives these aging walls new skin.
    This morning, not one drop of rain or hint of moisture can be felt.  The dry air numbs the nostrils with each breath.  The sky looks more like February than September, harshly white against the red painted barn.   
    From a distance, one can see the uniform gray doors, dull silver stars above each frame, the star edges pointed and sharp.  
    A low gust of wind moves through the Sycamore trees.  A few ripe leaves, burnt red and brown with yellow specks, fall before the barn’s square doorway.  The leaves lie on the dirt path leading inside.  A little black ant remains still against a fragile, crisp brown leaf, the barn a reliable thing.
    The door’s squeak is gone now that the hinges are oiled.  Inside, the adult horses stand with their brown ears and coarse fur, looking at home here in this mess.  The horses walk in place.  This morning, the hollow sounds of their hooves against the barn floor are a wake up call.
     A horse hides his face in the cool silver bucket, lapping up the water, and then steps aside, dribbling some of it onto the barn floor.  His black eyes are soft and watery, and loose strands of hay hang from the fur around his mouth.
     Right through the rear window, one can see a cow washing another, close together, little black flies hovering around them.  The horse turns around again, swishes his tail against the floor, and yawns. 
    This is a new day; the owls are asleep.  Leaning against the dark side of the barn is the cold, dry rake ready for morning work.


  1. This sounds like a good and beneficial read! I'm going to have to check it out. The writing exercise is an interesting idea that would probably be helpful for me since description is not my forte. You did it very well! Your piece was wonderfully evocative. 🙂


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