Charles Johnson’s exploration of the art of writing and storytelling has been extensive and ongoing. Starting out as an avid reader in his childhood and teen years (at one stage reading a book or three a week), Johnson gravitated to storytelling through cartooning. Dr. Johnson continued to expand on the art of storytelling and explored different forms of writing by authoring more than sixteen books, numerous screenplays, short stories, and essays.
For more than thirty years, Dr. Johnson was a revered and well-loved professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Washington. With all this experience, then, he is well placed to offer advice on the art of writing.
As part of the Word Works: Writers on Writing series on March 29, Johnson will be giving the audience insight into some of his expert writing strategies. In particular, he will focus on his essay “Storytelling and the Alpha Narrative” from his recent book, The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling (Scribner).
In anticipation of his talk, Dr. Johnson gave us some insight by email into how he thinks as a writer, and let us in on one of his new projects.
Q: In your book The Way of the Writer you recommend that fiction writers obtain experience first in journalistic writing. Can you explain in more detail how journalistic writing lays down a solid path to writing fiction?
I do think the demands of journalism are a good form of training for novelists and short story writers. First, because you quickly learn how to produce copy, often filing five stories or more a week, and meet deadlines. You know that what you write is just copy; not something written in gold, but instead a draft that can always be improved by revision. As I say in The Way of the Writer, having that strange condition called a “writer’s block” is a luxury that a reporter on a newspaper can’t afford to have. You learn to see yourself, first and foremost, as just a professional, a journeyman who can do the job, any job — not a prima donna — and take on any assignment, from a straight news story to a feature or a regular column, or an investigative series, or an op-ed piece, or an interview, or an editorial or a book or movie review. You also learn to do research, and ask instinctively the six basic storytelling questions: Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How? Perhaps most important of all is that — when doing an interview — you learn to shut up and listen to others.
Q: Also from The Way of the Writer you write, “Ideally, you should revise a sentence until it surprises you, and it is no longer recognizable as your first version of it, for in later drafts it will be clearer, sharper, richer.” This intense, rigorous revision strategy reminds me of writing poetry, and you are suggesting that writers of prose apply those same techniques. Having one’s work peer reviewed is necessary, but what are some hard questions that writers should be asking themselves about their writing?
I am indeed suggesting that prose writers apply the same rigor used in language performance by poets. Prose writers need to develop a good ear. (As one of my students once said, many writers seem to have a tin ear.) They should be conscious of the musicality of their sentences, of the rhythm between sentences and paragraphs. Of their own voice as a musical instrument, one that on the page should be pleasing to the ear. They should be concerned not merely with a sentence’s meaning but also it’s music; not just with its sense but also its sound.
You can test this by reading your work out loud to better understand it as a performance that has, like music, changes in pace and tempo. To see where passages should speed up and slow down. To see where simple, compound, complex, loose, or periodic sentences work best. To see where key-word repetition is useful (as in these last three sentences.)
You must know which sentences (even syllables) should receive emphasis or be more like a subdued sotto voce undertone. And know how to use your breath or wind when reading it out loud. If you stumble when reading it out loud, then you know there’s a problem and that the line needs to be revised. As John Gardner once said, “Any sentence that can come out should come out.” Like a poet, a prose writer would do well to work at compression, eliminating anything that strikes him or her as not essential for a line’s music or meaning. Listen to how trained actors read a classic work of prose writing. Or how famous authors who are skillful readers perform their own work as if it were a musical composition.
Q: In the same book you discuss how writers should self-reflect on their writing purpose: “What is missing from our literature, and can I fill that lacuna?” What are some of the unfilled spaces in books you’ve sought to fill during your career?
In my case, what I found missing (as a trained philosopher) in much of twentieth-century American literature is the exuberant yet rigorous exploration through character and event of ideas that are perennial and matter; and also the depiction or dramatization of our spiritual lives, which some of us do have and cultivate. I saw my job as a writer publishing over the last fifty-three years to be simply that — profiling those experiences and phenomenon that slip through the cracks in modernist literature and the fiction that came after it.
Q: You taught at the University of Washington in the Creative Writing Department for over thirty years, holding such prestigious positions as the Director of the Creative Writing Program and the S. Wilson and Grace M. Pollock Professorship for Excellence in English. You’re in a good position to comment on the health and importance of the humanities for America’s cultural future. What can writers and others interested in supporting America’s cultural future do to support the humanities?
You’ve actually answered your own question. Go to see plays. Go to poetry and fiction readings. Go to the opera. Go to lectures. Visit art galleries. Volunteer your time and energy to organizations like Humanities Washington, which is devoted to the very rich, cultural future you hope for. Be a life-long learner, taking adult extension classes in the arts that interest you. Make the experience of beauty a weekly (if not daily) experience. Try your own hand at writing, drawing, acting, doing conceptual art, sculpture, or singing.
In retirement from teaching, I’ve been trying to learn to do artwork in watercolor. And I just received from the United States Patent and Trademark Office the official approval of a different way to play chess that came to me when I was writing my novel Dreamer (1998), but which I waited to apply for after my teaching career ended.
Each of us should explore our own intellectual and creative potential, and support others who do the same, never forgetting that all the arts are related, and related to the sciences as well.
Q: You’re a prolific writer with a diverse oeuvre. You’ve written about Martin Luther King Jr., aspects of philosophy and Buddhism, as well as the art of writing. What would you like to write about next?
Next I think I should write (then again illustrate) with my artist/poet daughter Elisheba the third children’s book in The Adventures of Emery Jones, Boy Science Wonder series we created in 2013, since this week we just finalized a contract with a new publisher, Chatwin Books, here in Seattle.