One of my favourite exercises I was ever set at university was this: ‘Describe a barn through the eyes of someone who has just received a letter saying their child has been killed at war overseas.’
It was a challenge – what have barns got to do with grief? How could you possibly get enough emotion into a description of a barn?
I actually wrote more than one response to the exercise but the following one is the piece I feel was most successful.
David stood before the empty barn with his toolbox under his arm and a half-empty mug of tea in his hand. One of the huge wooden doors was swinging listlessly on it’s hinges, twisted awkwardly at the bottom where the cows had barged their way through it during the storm that had battered the previous night.
He sighed. Now he was up here he could see that it was more than just the door that needed seeing to – some of the planks in the wall were splintered and bent from the pounding hooves of the spooked cattle, two windows were badly cracked and a third was completely smashed. The splintered glass lay half hidden in and amongst the hay like scattered shrapnel on a battlefield. A stiff breeze, the last remnant of the storm, moaned softly through the barn, shifting the hay and adding an even colder edge to the already crisp morning.
Placing the toolbox on a damp patch of grass and perching his mug on top of it, he walked inside to see if any other damage had been done. With a sigh he picked up a broom from a corner and began the tedious chore of sweeping the hay out into the yard. It had to be done; he couldn’t be doing with some cattle getting ill from trying to eat the glass hidden in the hay. Not on top of everything else.
He was startled from his work by a smashing sound outside. Dropping the brush he ran to the doorway and saw his mug lying broken beside his toolbox. Cold tea was soaking into the ground and a sharp stone protruded through the broken china like a knife. He bent to pick up the pieces, his hands shaking. With a sudden sharp intake of breath he dropped the chunks of pottery and stared silently at his hand. Stared at the bead of blood slowly welling from his sliced finger.
A single tear dropped from his face and hit his hand, the red swirling briefly in the water before running and dropping to join the tea in soaking into the earth.
For the writers among you – why don’t you give this writing exercise a go (and maybe post your piece on your blog then link it in the comments below?). It’s an interesting challenge that really makes you think about word association and creating an atmosphere.