UW News

December 12, 2016

Practical, personal thoughts on storytelling in Charles Johnson’s latest book, ‘The Way of the Writer’

UW News

"The Way of the Writer: Reflectioins on the Art and Craft of Storytelling," by Charles Johnson, UW professor emeritus of English, was published by Scribner.

“The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling,” by Charles Johnson, UW professor emeritus of English, was published this fall by Scribner.Crystal Wiley-Brown

Charles Johnson is the S. Wilson and Grace M. Pollock Endowed Professor of Writing, now emeritus, at the University of Washington. He is the author of 22 books over a five-decade career and the recipient of numerous other awards and honorary degrees, including the 1990 National Book Award for his novel “Middle Passage.”

Johnson’s latest book, published this fall by Scribner, is “The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling.” A review in the New York Times praised the book, saying, “There is winning sanity here. Johnson wants his students to be ‘raconteurs always ready to tell an engaging tale,’ not self-preoccupied neurotics.'”

This book arose from extensive interviews with scholar E. Ethelbert Miller. Why did you decide to cull it from that wide-ranging discussion to make it a separate book?

Several people, among them Ethelbert Miller and Dr. Joseph Scott, who is a UW professor emeritus and former chair of the Department of American Ethnic Studies, read the 672-page tome “The Words and Wisdom of Charles Johnson (Dzanc Books, 2015), in which I answered 218 questions (out of 400) that Miller asked me about every subject under the sun in 2011, and they said my short essays on literary craft could stand by themselves as a manual of instruction. Joe Scott, who tells me he never took a course in writing, told me the craft essays helped him a great deal so this book is dedicated to him.

You write that “a body of work should deliver both theory and practice.” Would you explain a bit?

It’s important for a writer (or any artist) to have a vision of their entire body of work or oeuvre. They need to understand how each book they publish is uniquely bringing something to the table of literary culture that we have never seen before and that enriches this culture.

In my case, every novel, essay, scholarly article, short story, drawing or political cartoon or my 1970 PBS series “Charlie’s Pad,” screenplay, book review, newspaper op-ed, etc. should be seen as a brick in the larger building of art that I’ve been creating for 51 years since 1965 when I began publishing at age 17.

Theory complements and explains practice. So, for example, Richard Wright published his classic essay “A Blueprint for Negro Writing” in 1937, John Gardner published his manifesto “On Moral Fiction, and I published my dissertation “Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970 (1988) as way to clarify our creative practice. One isn’t just writing blindly from one book to the next with no general vision in mind.

As an early exercise, you write, you copied by hand a chapter of your mentor John Gardner’s writing, to “plunge” into his meter and rhythm. The young Jack London similarly copied Rudyard Kipling stories, and a fledgling Hunter S. Thompson typed out all of “The Great Gatsby” for practice. What is the value of this sort of exercise?

I’d forgotten those stories about London, who was a truly gifted storyteller (but sadly, a paleo-racist who hated boxer Jack Johnson), and Thompson. But I love stories like that. The exercise is useful because copying a work forces a writer to more closely and carefully experience the music of another writer’s prose. In the new book, I discuss this important and necessary unity of music and meaning, sound and sense in every sentence and paragraph, which I view as being units of energy to be released on the page.

Recalling Gardner once saying that “teaching creative writing is a joke,” you write that you work against that by making your writing workshops rigorous and demanding. How much of creative writing can truly be taught?

You can teach the basics of storytelling — for a garden variety novel or short story — in a 10-week academic term. I did that for 33 years. The fundamental tools in one’s toolbox aren’t many: characters, description, narration, plot, dialogue and scene construction. That’s all you need for what I call industrial fiction. But for original, perception-liberating storytelling, you obviously need much more than just the basics.

What do you hope a writer seeking improvement might take away from this book?

There are numerous writing exercises, creative tips, and lots of discussion of literary technique in “The Way of the Writer.” But what’s really important is that an aspiring writer needs to understand that those things are just in the service of that most deceptively simple and yet difficult of achievements — delivering undamaged a whopping good, imaginative and original story — and that being an artist is a total Way — a daily Way — of being-in-the-world.

Back, briefly, to “Middle Passage”: You describe writing 3,000 pages over several years to finally arrive at the 250-page book. What guided you as to what to keep and what to cut?”

What guided me was the logic of the story itself. I wrote the first draft of “Middle Passage” too quickly, in two years. As I’ve explained often and elsewhere, the second half of that first version of the novel differs radically from the version published 26 years ago. It more resembles “Gulliver’s Travels.” In fact, for six years my working title for the novel was “Rutherford’s Travels”and the adaptation by Pegasus Theater just performed in Chicago uses that earlier title.

When I rewrote and rethought the novel during the last four years of its composition, I added a second mutiny to the one by the slaves (by the crew of the Republic), kept the entire story on the sea right through to the end so the threat of dying by drowning never ends, and I brought Rutherford Calhoun (my Odysseus) and Isadora Bailey (my Penelope) together again, which allowed the book to start off as a picaresque, turn into an epic at the middle of the story, and come to rest finally as a romance.

A review by the Chicago Tribune called Pegasus Theatre’s “Rutherford’s Travels” production “as arresting and vivid as the best sea tales.” What were your thoughts or concerns seeing your most famous work being adapted to for the stage? Might Seattle audiences get a chance one day to see the play? 

The production by Pegasus Theatre received unanimously rave reviews, and for good reason: The play is a fantastic, powerful experience. I saw two performances in November. The Chicago production ended Dec. 4, but writer/producers David Barr III and Ilesa Duncan are receiving requests from regional theaters to do the show. I think the plan will be like the one my friend, the late playwright August Wilson, followed — staging the play around the country in regional theaters, then taking it to Broadway. So Seattle should be somewhere in that game plan or playbook.


For more information about Johnson and his work, contact him at CChasjohn@aol.com.