Writing Exercise 4d from The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

As time goes on, I like to come back to writing prompts and exercises that I’ve done before. It’s interesting to see where your emphasis lies and how you’ve grown.

This is an exercise that I initially did back in college. After reading The Art of Fiction, we are all asked to do this exercise. Mine was wildly off the mark and by that, I mean I am not sure I actually did the prompt. I think I took the words and ran away with it to create something that was nowhere near what the prompt was supposed to be about. So, six years later, I have returned to this to give it another try.


The actual prompt is a the end. I would encourage everyone to try it out. To do it right (or at least as right I as think I have at this point) is actually pretty difficult. It makes you very aware of what you’re writing, what you want to say and how you want to say it. Even at this point, my response to this exercise is not what I want it to be. Perhaps, one day I’ll come back to it and try again.

You can get the book here from Amazon or at least take a look at it. I will provide my thoughts on the book in a later post and link it back here when it is done.

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1) The wood does not cackle. It does not pop. It screams long and hard as it grows weak and shrivels. Scarred lines run their course down doors, across the broad panels, and short limbs. Each creak becomes louder, a gunshot against the night air. Each billow of smoke signals its isolation. Red. All that is left of the windows is red where the glass should be. Red walls, black soot, leaving their mark like a footprint in the jungle dirt. A gust of wind sends another flame forward, a flash of brightness against tumbling, splintering wood. The footprint is gone, marred with orange scars and dying embers. The frame falls inward. Everything falls in on itself. The large rafters shatter the smaller ones that ignite and send sparks up into that black sky. Falling. Falling. Ashes scattering out among the the still dying for posterities sake. The door crumbles on itself. The paint burns an ugly yellow and smokes. All lines of defense are gone.

2) It is the heat before the sound, before the flame. A tremendous warmth, a blanket wrapped tight around the body. Then the light, bright, emboldened by the gusts of wind that entwine with every opening it finds. The noise of burning, crackling laughter, popping, spitting. The walls ignite, lavish golden orange sunsets chasing down the horizon. The sound comes again, more able, more powerful in its message. Another crackle of excited pillars and posts. An explosion only begets more light. The smoke rises from the flames, twisting against the wood, dancing along the edges, rising up to meet the stars. It vanishes with the darkness. It leaves to trace behind. The bursts of orange and gold send quakes through the wood as it falls, carrying the torch of light, sharing its heat. The embers flare once more and ashes scatter like snow across the fields of grass. The flames cross the window frame licking the edges, etching delicate, knowing patterns as it blazes onward. The door opens. The wind carries a meteor of flame; the invitation is accepted. All things burn in the light.

*The Prompt*

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; then describe the same building, in the same weather and at the same time of day, as seen by a happy lover. Do not mention love or the loved one.

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