This writing exercise comes curtesy of John Gardner. I have included it at the end — so if you do not want to be influenced by my writing, go to the end, write your own, and then compare to mine. Or just read my brilliant exercise and get inspired!
A Measure of Comfort
He looked at the barn before going in. It was listing badly on the left side with most of the support beams now rotted and splintered, the once-red corrugated tin roof was baked into mottled dusty pink and with gaping holes that made the sagging roof look like it was a successful target for several grenades.
The door hinges groaned piteously as he wrestled graying door open, and walked into the cool interior. He hadn’t kept any animals in this barn for many years, yet the faint smell of hay, horse manure and sheep droppings still lingered in the musty air. Clumps of mildewed hay and pigeon droppings dotted the hard-packed dirt floor. Several startled birds suddenly flapped noisily towards the rotting ceiling beams.
Dust motes twirled lazily in the sunbeams that came through the holes in the roof. He looked around at the molding, peeling and cracking wood with rusty nails sticking out here and there, and wondered what willed it to still stand. Maybe, like him, it was a relic from another time, only knowing how to keep on standing, and just forgot how to collapse.
He knew he should have demolished the old barn years ago, but never got around to it. More urgent farm chores intruded, and after building a new and bigger barn closer to the house, he chose to just neglect the building. Occasionally, from a distance, he would cast a baleful, shame-filled glance at its uselessness. By now it had generally became part of the hard-scrabble landscape, like a dead fallen tree on the floor of a forest or a faded black and white photograph on the wall.
For a moment he closed his eyes, and deeply breathing in the stale air, was nearly overcome with a desire to lay down and go to sleep, forever, never to wake. But, as always, he knew there was much to do. He wasn’t the kind of man to wallow in despair, no matter how tired his body and soul felt. Instead, he sighed heavily, opened his eyes, and made his way out of the barn. He decided that come fall, he would tear down this barn, use any of the good tin to enforce the chicken coop, and cut up the walls for firewood. The wood would burn clean and hot (as dry wood does) to give him a measure of comfort on blustery, frigid long evenings that came with bleak winters.
Describe a building as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, war, death or the old man doing the seeing.