Week forty-three: Speak your truth

It is week forty-three of 2019. How did the writing go for you this week? Here at the garret, I was working on an edit of a cli-fi novel while monitoring air quality predictions to see if my kids’ schools would close due to wildfire smoke, as has happened here the previous two falls. It was a reminder to me and now to you that stories matter. Writers, you are some of our most important truth-tellers, and the work you are doing can change lives. You don’t have to be writing on a newsy topic either – all successful novels help us become better humans, whether we’re wrestling with big societal problems or negotiating personal relationships. Remember this the next time you feel guilty about the time you are spending on your writing.

Charles Johnson, author of this week’s book, The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling, would agree with me on this. As you’ll see, we diverge in our thinking on a number of other topics. When I chose this book, I knew that Johnson is the author of National Book Award–winning Middle Passage – a searing account of the slave trade that uses eighteenth-century story forms in fresh ways – and that he had been a university writing teacher for decades. What I didn’t know but quickly discovered is that one of Johnson’s key mentors was our old friend John Gardner, whom Johnson references so often that he just shortens his name to JG. One bookshelf in his office, Johnson tells us, “contains every scholarly book and work of fiction he [Gardner] published.”

(The portrait of “JG” that emerges in Johnson’s book didn’t make me like him any better. Take this passage: “I remember when he was going over one of my chapters for Faith in his office at Southern Illinois University and I asked if he needed to stop in order to prepare for his creative-writing workshop. Gardner shook his mane of silver hair and said, ‘No, teaching creative writing is a joke,’ and we continued with his critique of my work until the bell rang for him to go to class.” WTF, right? Johnson went to one class, and after that met privately with JG in his office. Here’s another: “He said he gave a reading, and during the Q&A a woman raised her hand and said, ‘You know, I think I like your writing, but I don’t think I like you.’ His reply was memorable. ‘That’s all right,’ he said, ‘because I’m a better person when I’m writing.’” According to Johnson, Gardner saw this as a story about the power of revision – that it gave writers time to consider and correct their words. What this story makes me wonder is what it was in Gardner’s remarks that compelled this woman to raise her hand and, in front of the assembled audience, tell the man on stage she didn't like him. Picture doing that, y’all.)

If you couldn’t tell by now, I struggled through this book. What I had hoped to find was a presentation of the curriculum Johnson used with his students. What I got instead was a collection of musings that Johnson tells us were carved out from “the 672-page tome The Words and Wisdom of Charles Johnson,” published in 2015 and based on a year of email correspondence with poet E. Ethelbert Miller.

Now, there’s a place for writing books that take you on a meandering tour of a writer’s mind and habits. Many of my favorite books about writing – including Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Walter Mosley’s Elements of Fiction – follow this format. We wander through the landscape of the writer’s thoughts, finding little beauties scattered about. But you have to enjoy being in the landscape of that author’s mind for it to work.

The landscape Johnson presents is likely congenial to some readers, but not to this one. In addition to his devotion to “JG,” Johnson has the off-putting habit of quoting from literary scholar Marc Connor, who has published books on Johnson’s work; he makes the tiresome complaint that 1980s identity politics caused his students to create work that was “depressingly less imaginative and daring, but more politically correct”; he disapproves of swearing, bemoaning the “coarseness, vulgarity, and at times obscenity that we encounter so often today in American speech” (WTF, right?); and confesses that he “brood[s] daily about the debasement of American speech” (to which I say, read Gretchen McCulloch’s brilliant Because Internet and heal thyself).

The class Johnson formulated for his creative-writing students does sound like it was a good one: “I felt it should be a labor-intensive ‘skill acquisition’ course, emphasizing the sequential acquisition of fiction techniques and providing the opportunity to practice them. The curriculum should be capacious, allowing for instruction in all styles, genres, and subgenres of fiction.” He gave lectures “on plot, description, dialogue, character, the structure of dramatic scenes, and so forth” and provided students with “a checklist of twenty-four crucial questions they should ask in regard to fiction, not merely in terms of ‘themes’ but about how a document is made, the decisions that went into its construction, and whether those were the best choices for fulfilling the writer’s intention.” Frustratingly, none of this material has made it into The Way of the Writer. (He also tells this story: “In my classes I constantly emphasized the virtues I believed great writers brought to their creations. After one such mini-lecture twenty-five years ago that had me huffing and puffing for perhaps twenty minutes, a young woman raised her hand and said, ‘You know, I’m glad you told us that.’ I asked her why. Her reply was, ‘Because now I understand that I don’t want to be a great writer. I just want to write a few stories and maybe get them published, and that’s all.’” 😶)

There were some bits and pieces of this book I enjoyed. For instance, Johnson tells us that some of his early reading material came by way of his mother’s occasional second job cleaning the Gamma Phi Beta sorority house at Northwestern University: “My mother brought home boxes of books thrown out by the sorority girls when classes ended, and in those boxes I found my first copies of Mary Shelley and Shakespeare. I read them, determined that the privileged girls of that sorority would never be able to say they knew something about the Bard that the son of their holiday cleaning woman didn’t.” His mother told him that the sorority had declared they would never admit black or Jews. Decades later, Johnson was offered a position as chair in the humanities at the university.

Johnson reminds us of “the six most important storytelling questions: Who, What, When, Where, How, and Why?” and counsels, wisely, that “the quality of the answers we get in this life is based on the quality of the questions we ask.”

A lover of long sentences myself, I also enjoyed Johnson’s extravagant prose and his discussion of sentence length: “If I don’t control myself, my sentences in literary fiction naturally tend to run long, with image and idea building upon image and idea, rolling and ribboning out, sometimes twisting and torquing dialectically, from thesis to antithesis, and spiced with colons and semicolons and parenthetical asides (such as this) until I simply can’t pack any more into them. I’ve always seen the sentence and paragraph as units of energy to be released. So yes, I use long sentences for rhythm and music. I most certainly would always follow one with a short sentence. As I used to teach my students, the technique here is to take the simple sentence, then ‘complicate’ (i.e., extend) the subject, the verb, then the object.”

Johnson reminds us that “art should always be a form of play” and tells us that, when tasked with evaluating a pile of three hundred books to be considered for a major literary prize, “what I do is try for a moment to forget absolutely everything I’ve learned about literature in the last fifty years. . . . [When] I begin looking through those books, what I’m hungering for is the same innocent enchantment I had when I was a reader of twelve or thirteen. . . . All I knew, at age thirteen, was that sometimes when I stumbled upon a story, my experience from the first page—in fact, from the first sentence—was that a kind of spell was cast over me. It was the experience of mystery and wonder and needing to know what happens next, often after hearing that powerful opening phrase Once upon a time. In the midst of this enchantment, I didn’t want to stop reading or go to bed or do anything else until I’d learned how events in the story unfolded, because I was certain the outcome had meaning for my own life.”

Those are the readers you are writing for: the ones who open your book believing that your words have meaning for them. As Johnson says, “To imagine things differently is the first step in changing the world as it is given to us. It is, in fact, the first step toward freedom.” Whatever genre you are writing in, this power is yours.

Here’s to speaking your truth, y’all,

Next week’s book: Donald Maas, Writing the Breakout Novel: Winning Advice from a Top Agent and His Best-selling Client

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