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The T.S. Eliot/John Gardner Killer Exercise

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The late John Gardner, recognized in his lifetime as the leading creative writing teacher in the United States, developed the following exercise for students:

A middle-age man is waiting at a bus stop. He has just learned that his son has died violently. Describe the setting from the man’s point of view WITHOUT telling your reader what has happened. How will the street look to this man? What are the sounds? Odours? Colours? That this man will notice? What will his clothes feel like? Write a 250 word description.

The rain, falling first on his bare head, poured off his coat and into a puddle by his feet, bounced off the pooled water and spattered back onto the legs of his pants. He looked down at the spots on his pants and observed the pattern forming on the thick linen, and how the dark patches were growing bigger. He had never noticed it before but now he marvelled at the little flecks of thread, woven together creating the fabric. Beyond the sidewalk the hum of traffic rose and fell as vehicles sped past, a blur of colour and splashes occasionally solidifying into a car or a bus. Each time a bus stopped people got on and others got off; young people, old people, some walking slowly, some in a hurry. The man looked at the passengers as they stepped around him and wondered what they were thinking and where they were going, whether they noticed the rain, whether they noticed him. He fingered the change in his pocket; hard, round coins to pay his fare, and thought about getting on a bus, any bus, it did not matter which one, so long as it took him away, far away, but his feet were rooted in the puddle and would not obey his instructions. He knew he should be going somewhere, but so long as he stood in the road, watching the rain, he could hold this moment still for as long as he wanted.

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