The John Gardner Challenge

by Lowen Howard

I wrote this brief piece of creative writing in response to an exercise I found in John Gardner’s book “The Art of Fiction”.   The directions were as follows:

“Consider the following as a possible exercise in description.  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.”


Unsteady, he made his way to the old barn at the far southerly end of the field.  All of the corn had turned to chaff, exposing the dirty ground from which it grew. And the gutted barn, hobbled as it was, stood looming over it all and visible from the hearth to the cloudy heavens. The entrance was wide open, the warped doors swung back long ago and now rutted in the ground. The land had turned itself against the barn from the day that it was first raised and for many years the struggle between the two was well-matched enough to the point of being uneventful.

But for some time now, that struggle had shifted, and the barn on the losing side, had begun its steady descent as the land absorbed its crooked beams and rotted boards and rusted metal into itself. The barn, which once appeared fresh and proud, now assumed a different air which resembled something like terminal exhaustion. It is the disoriented, almost fragmented peace, of a champion boxer, buckling dreamily beneath the swings of a young opponent who he stupidly agreed to face; the younger boxer, now champion, now ageless, now marshaling forth a harmony charged with adrenaline and extra power, dutifully carrying out the task for which he was hired.

The barn is of no use, for it threatens to collapse on anyone who would mistake it for a shelter. It is utterly destroyed and its own wooden limbs serve to mark its grave, the shingled roof, the loft, and the paint already sunk far beneath its once sure foundation.