One of the most famous writing exercises is John Gardner’s barn assignment from The Art of Fiction: “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.” The goal is to write a passage that does not address its main subject directly, head on. In some ways, the exercise is the ultimate statement about the purpose of craft. In first drafts, we attempt to figure out what we want to write (a man’s son died in the war), but in revision, we find the best way to write it (by describing a barn, with no reference to anything on the man’s mind).
Indirectness isn’t only important in description. The best writers can surprise us at any moment, in any type of passage. A terrific example of artful indirectness can be found in Daniel Oppenheimer’s new book Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century. It’s a biography of six liberals who converted to conservatism.
You can read the first pages here by clicking on Google Preview icon beneath the image of the book.
How the Book Works
One of the men profiled by Oppenheimer is Whittaker Chambers, a Communist and spy who, after his conversion to Christianity and Conservatism, would testify against famed-spy Alger Hiss. In writing about Chambers, Oppenheimer begins with his childhood and, particularly, with his complicated parents. Here is how Oppenheimer describes Chambers’ father:
Chambers’s father, Jay, was a talented illustrator and half-closed gay man whose passion, as his son eventually came to realize, was compressed into a sublimely choked obsession with “ornament, costume, scenery…” Jay spent months every year hand-making the gorgeously embellished Christmas cards he sent out to a select group of appreciative friends.
And here is Chambers’ mother:
She declaimed poetry and dramatic monologues, sang sad songs in three languages, instructed her sons in the glories of music and theater and literature.
And here is their relationship:
She was overemotional where he was severely contained. Her craving for affection and affirmation was met by him with, at best, an effortful formality, and at worst by emotional and occasionally physical torment.
These descriptions are quite direct and informational, but they don’t accomplish Oppenheimer’s goal, which is to get the reader inside Chambers’ head and feel the textures of the conflict that would direct him first into Communism and then into American Conservatism. In other words, yes, Chambers’ parents were “badly suited to each other,” but so what?
Oppenheimer answers that question with indirectness. Rather than immediately formulating an explanation (because his parents had a poor marriage, Chambers became a Communist), Oppenheimer puts the reader inside the Chambers house. He does this by showing how the awful marriage infected every object and interaction.
First, we learn that the Chambers moved from Manhattan to Long Island, which Chambers’ father resented. As a result, he refused to spend money on the house’s upkeep, to the extent that a “piece of the ceiling in the dining room fell down, and because Jay wouldn’t give her the money to hire someone to repair it, Laha covered it over with a cheesecloth that remained there, ruefully patching the hole, for more than a decade.”
Young Whittaker was treated the same as the house: “Laha would drench [him] in a performative affection that was implicitly reproachful of her husband, and…Jay would treat [him] with a cool contempt that was meant to reflect onto his wife (and back onto himself).”
Even the boy’s name was contested. His mother called him “by his girlish middle name, Vivian” and his father called him by the nickname “Beadle.”
The brilliance of this passage is not that what we learn about Chambers but the emotional impact of what we already know about him. This is precisely what Gardner was getting at with his exercise about the barn. In a story about a man whose son has died in a war existed, the reader wold likely learn about the dead son early on. The barn passage would follow that information, to help the reader feel the man’s emotions.
In prose—whether it’s fiction or nonfiction—it’s important to look beyond the basic information and its most obvious consequences. The emotional impact often lies in moments and objects that don’t seem to be directly connected to the information.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s reveal emotional impact with indirectness, using Exit Right by Daniel Oppenheimer as a model:
- Start with a direct statement. Oppenheimer states that Chambers’ parents were badly suited for each other. It’s a statement that contains a great deal of tension, but all of it is latent: not yet developed to an active state. It’s potential tension, which is exactly what you’re trying to give your narrative. So, write a basic statement about something in relationship with something else: two people in a relationship (partners, spouses, siblings, parent/sibling, friends, coworkers, etc), a person in a relationship with an inhuman thing (house, landscape), or two things in relationship with each other (like the fabled house build on sand).
- Reveal the source of tension. Oppenheimer gives each of Chambers’ parents a passage of description. Then he brings them together in the statement that they were not well suited as a couple. So, write a passage about each of the elements in your relationship from earlier. They don’t need to be complete opposites. In Exit Right, Chambers’ parents are both artistic and erudite. The problem is that they’re incompatible in other ways. So, don’t worry so much about the conflict as you write. Instead, give each element in the relationship a fair description. Then, bring them together to show why they’re mismatched.
- Turn the source of tension into a black hole. Black holes suck everything into them. Only very, very distant objects are safe. This is what Oppenheimer does with Chambers’ parents’ marriage. Its dysfunction sucks in everything that is nearby: the house where they live and the kids. So, look around the tension/conflict you’ve created. How can you make every object and person close to it part of it. Think back to when you were a kid and your parents fought: you learned to pick up subtle clues (how they ate their eggs in the morning, how they changed channels on the TV) about the state of their argument. Every interaction can become part of the conflict. Give yourself objects and interactions (with the mailman, with a piece of mail, anything) and write a passage in which that object or interaction becomes part of the tension.
The goal is to reveal the emotional impact of a conflict by showing how it affects every part of a character’s life.