Sunday, May 9, 2021

The Way of the Writer

Charles Johnson in his study, surrounded by a large desk, books, his grandson, and two dogs
Charles Johnson
A couple weeks ago I read China by Charles Johnson, along with an author interview, in the anthology 12 Short Stories and Their Making. Almost immediately I looked up other interviews with Johnson, hungry to get his perspective and insight on the craft of writing. Eventually I came across his book The Way of the Writer, and I couldn't order it fast enough.

I've been trying to figure out what it is about his way of thinking that got under my skin so quickly. It wasn't just that he's a great writer and impressive scholar (though these two descriptors fall far short of conveying the full sweep of his work). There was something else at work. As I read The Way of the Writer, I did so with a growing sense that the book was changing something fundamental about how I view the work itself. What is it about Johnson's approach to writing that has such a powerful effect?

I think the answer is rigor.

Big Magical Thinking

I've read a lot of books on writing and creativity. I think that's part of the responsibility you sign up for when you commit yourself to a craft. Your perspective has to be that of the eternal student, and that means being open to the possibility of learning from any teacher that crosses your path. 

Of course, that doesn't require you to forego your critical thinking. There's a lot of bad advice out there. There's also a lot of advice that's perfectly fine but might not work for you in particular. And then there's a whole sub-genre of books on writing and creativity that drifts into a kind of spiritualism, where “stories” are living entities that float through the ether, waiting to be seized by a fully self-actualized writer.

I'm sympathetic to ideas like this. Many of us no longer live in an especially religious culture, and it makes sense that the creative arts would become a stand-in for certain aspects of spirituality. I'm thinking of Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic here, which presents a kind of spiritual framework for writing as something that connects a practitioner to the great mysteries of the universe. And there's Steven Pressfield's The War of Art, which is unapologetically a book about spiritual warfare between our higher selves and a pernicious, negative force called Resistance.

I don't think either one of them is trying to sell snake oil. I think they're both accurately describing how writing feels. When you read Big Magic, a lot of it rings very true. Stories really do seem to exist independently of the writer. Even Stephen King, who must be one of the most workmanlike writers alive, describes the process in On Writing as one of unearthing a complete, pre-existing fossil. He doesn't say “Yeah, I build these stories from nothing, here's how.” He describes what he does as the work of discovery.

The downside of all this this is that these metaphorical frameworks only get you so far. While it is true that the experience of writing can feel deeply mysterious, it's not the case that “butt in chair” is the writer's only requirement. The Universe won't always rise up to meet you. Eternity will not always gift you a story. What, then, is a writer to do?

Deep Attention

Johnson's answer is simple but difficult: A writer is required to practice and pay attention to all elements of storytelling. There's a deep resonance here with his experiences as a Buddhist, and he draws the parallels easily. He seems uniquely qualified to understand what it means to experience the depths of mystery while also understanding that the way to get there is through focus and discipline.

How that applies to writing becomes clear as he walks the reader through his techniques. He suggests writing exercises of his own and those drawn from his teacher, John Gardner. He suggests studying a good dictionary to discover the words that best fit your unique perspective and best tell your story. There's a chapter of the 100 best opening sentences in fiction, which you are expected to read and consider. And there's a chapter on the painstaking process of revision, where Johnson shares that in the course of writing his novels he throws away thousands and thousands of pages.

Step by step, Johnson invites the student to study the craft on every available level, from word to sentence to chapter to finished work. What matters is the close, painstaking attention to these elements, each one of which presents an inexhaustible topic of study. Johnson, despite his vast body of fiction, his critical scholarship, or even his MacArthur Fellowship, still presents himself as a student of the craft even as he's giving instruction. Doing so makes his arguments feel less like a demand than an invitation. He's saying, in effect, “Despite what I know, despite all I've accomplished, I'm still learning the craft. Won't you join me?” 

Who could resist saying yes?

People Watching

On Wednesday, I went out to meet up with a friend and do some writing. We met at the Athenaeum, a historic building in Indianapolis designed...