Writers who haven’t had the opportunity to study with Dr. Charles Johnson during the past 40 years are now in luck. The novelist, essayist, cartoonist, and philosopher has collected the creative lessons he’s learned along the way in a new practical and semi-autobiographical guide called The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling.
Johnson is professor emeritus at the University of Washington in Seattle, and has been given a MacArthur Fellowship and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature. His novels include The Middle Passage, for which he won the National Book Award; Dr. King’s Refrigerator; Dreamer; Faith; The Good Thing; and Oxherding Tale.
The Way of the Writer was conceived during a year-long correspondence between Johnson and poet and activist E. Ethelbert Miller. The two spoke daily about Johnson’s work as well as topics ranging from Buddhism to fatherhood, the state of black America, and sex for the 2015 book The Words and Wisdom of Charles Johnson. Through the revision process, Miller and others saw the potential for a book on the craft of writing.
The writing lessons, organized into 42 short and accessible chapters, also provide a glimpse into Johnson’s rigorous creative process, which has included working through the night for the past four decades after his family has gone to sleep, Sanskrit study, weightlifting, and Choy Li Fut martial arts practice.
Johnson, who is a Tricycle contributing editor and Soto Zen practitioner, recently spoke about his new book and the role of meditation while he’s writing.
You mention the importance of keeping a writer’s notebook throughout The Way of the Writer. Can you tell me how that figures into your own writing and your instructions to students?
Charles Johnson: I started with a diary that my mother gave me when I was 12 years old. With a diary, you record your thoughts and feelings about things. It’s very autobiographical. When I got to college the diary evolved into a journal and in there I would write poetry and brief essays that were for my eyes only. When I started writing fiction seriously and continuously in 1972, I began to keep a writer’s workbook. And that’s different from either a journal or a diary. I will still put down thoughts and maybe a brief essay to myself, but the main thing is to be aware of what’s happening in the world around me—scraps of dialogue that I hear during the course of the day and thoughts about plot and characterization. If I see something that is striking to me, or if an image comes to me descriptively, it will go into my writer’s journal for later use. I never read a piece of writing without taking notes on anything wonderful that happens. It might be the structure of a sentence. It might be a thought.
My writer’s workbooks easily take up 30 inches on my bookshelf. I go through my notebooks every time I do a story or a novel, because I might have heard a great line from a friend 30 years ago that is perfect for a work in progress. Whenever I go through the notebooks, it’s almost like looking back over my own life. I look at something and think, “Why did I find that interesting in 1974?” Or in 1980 I might have had an interest in describing things in a particular way and a lot of my entries might be bent in that direction. But now I have different interests, in the sciences, for example, which I try to incorporate in my most recent fiction. You evolve over time. I would recommend that my students take a look at the notebooks of Albert Camus, Anton Chekhov, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, because they are rich. This is not finished work that we have from those writers, but rather scraps and pieces of their thoughts and emotions over the years.
You write about your process for reviewing books, which includes temporarily forgetting everything you’ve learned about the craft of writing over your career. How is reading this way like beginner’s mind?
One of the things I write in the preface is that I appreciate what the great literary critic Northrup Frye called an “educated imagination.” And as Henry James once said in an essay called “The Art of Fiction”: “We should be the kind of people on whom nothing is lost.” Writers are naturally lifetime students. You’re always trying to learn more about your craft as well as whatever else is happening around you in the world.
But when I sit down to do a book review I don’t bring that baggage with me. I know I have presuppositions or assumptions that I’m going to make. I’m going to read the first page, the first paragraph, and the first sentence and let that work guide my meditation as I read the book. Every new story that we read teaches us what the possibilities are for how one can tell a story. There’s a freshness in consciousness that one wants to have when approaching any work of art. And I call that “beginner’s mind.” You bring no conceptual paint to layer over the phenomena, as Bhikkhu Bodhi says. You bracket all that—you set all your knowledge aside and try to experience the work in a fresh way. Later, when you do the book review, you can bring that knowledge back. But when you experience a book for the first time you should bring a kind of clarity and innocence to it.
In the book you describe these very intense periods when you’re writing. Where does your meditation practice fit in when you’re totally consumed by a project?
It’s in the process itself. One of the things that we learn as meditators is how to concentrate. The first stage is holding the mind steadily on one object. It might be our breathing, or it could be another technique that we use to reinforce our capacity for long periods of concentration. There is a Sanskrit word for this, ekagrata, and it’s composed of two words: eka means one and grata means to hold or to grasp. In concentration practice you’re grasping or holding one thing for a long period of time. That’s extremely similar to what happens when we are focused on writing or creating. Every artist knows what this is. When you’re creating you don’t care about everything else in the world except the story unfolding before your eyes.
Every artist is familiar with that first stage called “concentration” and that very often leads artists to the practice of meditation and sitting in a spiritual way. And there’s nothing about the artist’s process that will lead to awakening or enlightenment, but it is a stage along the way.
You write in the book about your mentor, John Gardner, and how he initially disagreed with your growing interest in Buddhism. What lesson is in this story for writers searching for a mentor and then also searching for a guide who may not tell you everything you want to hear?
John Gardner was easily the finest teacher of creative writing in our time, maybe in all of the 20th century. He once said: “Writing is the only religion that I have.” I’ve never known an artist to work as hard or to be as focused as John. He produced three books on the craft of writing: On Moral Fiction, On Becoming a Novelist, and The Art of Fiction, which I gave to my students every year for 33 years. He had a very strong personality, as many artists do, and there came a point where his path and my path diverged. And it was actually over Buddhism, because he was very Protestant and he thought Buddhism was wrong. That’s a quote. He thought it was wrong, because Jesus is all about love.
But I realized in my second novel, Oxherding Tale, which is a slave narrative in the form of a philosophical novel with a heavy emphasis on Eastern thought, that Buddhism was central to my life. I first meditated when I was about 14 years old. And then I studied Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism all the way through graduate school. And I was thinking, “Okay, let me write this book and get all that out of my system. By the end of the book I realized, “I will always be involved with this. This is one of the most beautiful visions that I can think of in the world.” But it just didn’t feel that way at the time I was working with him. I think he modified his position over time as he came to understand that there were Buddhist works he saw that were beautiful. And even though he didn’t understand why they were beautiful, he wanted other people to read those books, too. The takeaway is that if you’re honest and you want a mentor in someone like John Gardner—a literary lion who will clear a path for you—there will come a time when your voice and vision may differ from that individual. You have to have the courage to stand on your own.
You write about serving younger writers in the book by promoting their work and helping them publish. It sounds like you’re talking about a writer’s sangha. What advice do you have for writers who might have to be driven by ego to start their career?
You’re asking a very important question, which is how do you become an artist who is going to hopefully be working for decades? Some of the greatest artists I’ve known in my lifetime were working right to the last day of their life and that includes people like John Gardner, who tragically died in a motorcycle accident in 1982.
Being an artist is a particular way of being in the world. You don’t choose it the way that you choose a job or a vocation. It chooses you. You find that because you love art and you love philosophy, you love ideas, you are ready to make personal sacrifices in order to enrich literary culture. And that’s just the attitude that you have to have. You’re not doing this for the money or for ego reasons like fame or fortune. You’re doing this because you have been enriched yourself by the beauty that you found in writing and the arts and you want, if you’re lucky, to contribute to that.
Naturally, you want to help your students to contribute. So you provide them with courses in writing and then you try to help them get published in the spirit of enriching literary culture in America.
What else do you want Tricycle readers to know about your new book?
Whether they’re just readers or they’re writers, whether they’re beginners or veteran writers, I hope they will find something useful on the pages for their own creative practice. And maybe their spiritual practice, too, because I come at this book from a very Buddhist perspective. I hope it’s kind of book that will inspire people who are doing creative work and also give them useful and practical tools for their own writing lives.
The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling is available from Scribner on Dec. 6.
Read E. Ethelbert Miller’s interview with Charles Johnson, “Black Coffee Buddhism,” from our 25th anniversary issue
More Tricycle articles by Charles Johnson
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