Although I read more fiction than non-fiction, there are more and more non-fiction books finding their way to my to be read pile, and I’ve read a few that I want to share too. So to bring more variety to the reviews, here comes one I read recently that might be particularly interesting to writers, but I believe many people will find interesting and inspiring, no matter what their call on life.
The Way of the Writer. Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling by Charles Johnson
From Charles Johnson—a National Book Award winner, Professor Emeritus at University of Washington, and one of America’s preeminent scholars on literature and race—comes an instructive, inspiring guide to the craft and art of writing.
An award-winning novelist, philosopher, essayist, screenwriter, professor, and cartoonist, Charles Johnson has devoted his life to creative pursuit. His 1990 National Book Award-winning novel Middle Passage is a modern classic, revered as much for its daring plot as its philosophical underpinnings. For thirty-three years, Johnson taught and mentored students in the art and craft of creative writing. The Way of the Writer is his record of those years, and the coda to a kaleidoscopic, boundary-shattering career.
Organized into six accessible, easy-to-navigate sections, The Way of the Writer is both a literary reflection on the creative impulse and a utilitarian guide to the writing process. Johnson shares his lessons and exercises from the classroom, starting with word choice, sentence structure, and narrative voice, and delving into the mechanics of scene, dialogue, plot and storytelling before exploring the larger questions at stake for the serious writer. What separates literature from industrial fiction? What lies at the heart of the creative impulse? How does one navigate the literary world? And how are philosophy and fiction concomitant?
Luminous, inspiring, and imminently accessible, The Way of the Writer is a revelatory glimpse into the mind of the writer, and an essential guide for anyone with a story to tell.
“Charles Johnson has given us a book that will hopefully place a gentle but firm hand on the shoulder of every writer. Here are short essays offering advice, writing life insight and encouragement to anyone wishing to master the art of storytelling. Johnson’s book is a reminder that good writing consists of more than sleeping with the dictionary. It requires a major commitment to the love of language.”– E. Ethelbert Miller, award-winning poet and 2016 recipient of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature
“Charles Johnson here provides—as his subtitle promises—’reflections on the art and craft of storytelling.’ It’s a welcome addition to the small shelf of useful books on the way of the writer and one that belongs with those of his mentor, John Gardner. Here the writer links the personal with the professional in ways that both inspire and instruct. Use this book (a) to deepen your familiarity with the work of a distinguished author, (b) to understand how serious practitioners address their art and (c) to improve your own.”–Nicholas Delbanco, author of The Years
“Those of us who put pen to paper for a living have known of Charles Johnson for a very long time. He is one of America’s greatest literary treasures. He is a skilled wordsmith, superb craftsman, master of understatement, philosopher, cartoonist, and deeply talented novelist whose 1991 novel Middle Passage, (which won the National Book Award for fiction) predates the current surfeit of Underground Railroad novels by a good two decades. Like the great Ralph Ellison to whom he is often compared, he will forever cast a long shadow over us who follow in his wake. Here he graciously opens up the treasure chest of writing secrets and philosophy for those of us who seek to kneel at the tree of learning, told by a man who has kissed the black stone of literary excellence.”—James McBride, National Book Award-winning author of The Good Lord Bird and The Color of Water
“If you’re looking to learn to tell stories in written form, look no further. This book is as accessible as it is profound, lively, practical, and full of earned wisdom. I was a student of Charles Johnson’s, and can vouch for the power and value of his teaching. There are plenty of craft books available out there, but this is the only one I know of that is–and I don’t think I’m exaggerating–indispensable.”–David Guterson, author of Snow Falling on Cedars
“This is a book for many readers. If you are an aspiring writer, the path that Dr. Johnson sets out is a clear guide to your destination—whether you become a best-selling novelist or a top non-fiction writer or not. You will find a compass in this book that will direct you towards a real way that will fulfill your efforts. There is much practical advice and worldview wisdom here that will sustain you in your journey. Those who are on a different path (as readers) will also find fulfillment here. Dr. Johnson sets out original and illuminating guides on how to confront literary fiction—especially philosophical fiction. These reflections advance critical theory toward literature that is, itself, philosophy. This is a must-buy for both of these travelers. The destination will more than reward the price of the ticket.”–Michael Boylan, Professor of Philosophy, Marymount University and author of Naked Reverse: A Novel
“An honest, engaging, and wonderfully inspiring book for both writers and teachers. Charles Johnson’s deep intelligence, joyful rigor and refreshing iconoclasm are evident in every subject he covers here. Philosophical and practical, The Way of the Writer is sure to become a classic in the mold of John Gardner’s excellent books on writing.”–Dana Spiotta, author of Innocents and Others
“A meditation on the meaning of literature and practical guide to the art and craft of writing fiction.”–Library Journal
“Charles Johnson has a long-standing reputation as one of the world’s greatest fiction writers. Now in this brilliant new book, The Way of the Writer, he offers us an eclectic meditation on the storyteller’s craft that is by turns memoir, instructional guide, literary critique, and philosophical treatise. Every reader will be deeply enriched by the book.”—Jeffery Renard Allen, author of Song of the Shank and Rails Under My Back
“All writers will welcome the useful tips and exercises, but the book will also appeal to readers interested in literature and the creative process. Johnson’s wonderful prose will engage readers to think more deeply about how to tell a story and consider the truth-telling power of the arts.”-–Library Journal STARRED review
“Throughout, Johnson’s voice is generous and warm, even while he is cautioning writers to be their own ruthless editors. A useful writing guide from an experienced practitioner.”—Kirkus Reviews
“National Book Award winner Johnson (Middle Passage, 1990) has taught creative writing for over 30 years and now shares his well-refined thoughts on how best to develop literary taste and technique…. Every aspect of this writing manual, which is laced with memoir, illustrates Johnson’s seriousness of purpose about literature and his laser focus on the thousands of small choices that shape a written work. The result is a book that will be appreciated by aspiring writers and everyone who shares Johnson’s delight in the power of words.”–Booklist
“A meditation on the daily routines and mental habits of a writer…the book radiates warmth…a writer’s true education might start in institutions, it seems, but for Johnson it is more a lineage of good, memorable talk.”–New York Times
“Eloquent, inspiring and wise, The Way of the Writer is a testament to the methods and advice the author espouses, and even if you aren’t an aspiring novelist, Johnson’s book is a fascinating glimpse into the mind of one of our finest writers.”–Seattle Times
“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.”–Tricycle
“An instructive, inspiring guide to the craft and art of writing.”–Chicago Review of Books
About the Author
Charles Johnson is a novelist, essayist, literary scholar, philosopher, cartoonist, screenwriter, and professor emeritus at the University of Washington in Seattle. His fiction includes Dr. King’s Refrigerator, Dreamer, Faith and the Good Thing, and Middle Passage, for which he won the National Book Award. In 2002 he received the Arts and Letters Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in Seattle.
My review: Unique reflections based on a lifetime of thinking and writing well.
Thanks to Net Galley and Scribner for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I voluntarily review.
This non-fiction book is not a ‘how to’ book and won’t give the reader a formula for producing, and even less, selling, books by the bucket load. The subtitle, Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling describes much more precisely what the book is. And if there’s one thing we can’t accuse Charles Johnson of, is of lacking precision.
The book is structured in six parts (1. Who Is the Writer?, 2. The Process of Writing, 3. What Helps the Writer, 4. The Writer as Teacher, 5. The Writing Life and Duties of the Writer, 6. Philosophy and the Writer), each one collecting some of his essays on topics related to the craft of writing, that are very numerous. The parts, and each essay, can be read separately, although if read as a book there are reflections and quotes that will become familiar, and anecdotes and thoughts that appear more than once (not a big problem if readers dip in and out, or read it over an extended period and go back to revisit the parts they find more relevant or inspiring). Due to the nature of the materials, some of the content overlaps, particularly as this is a deeply personal book, based on Charles Johnson’s experiences, and he talks about his personal writing schedule, his interest in martial arts, how he started his career as a journalist, his love of drawing and design, his Buddhist beliefs, his interest in Philosophy…
The author taught an undergraduate and a postgraduate writing course for many years, although he has been retired for a while, and he describes his ‘boot camp for writers’ that he strongly based on John Gardner’s (that he describes as his writing mentor) programme. Johnson talks about the readings he recommends, the hard schedule of writing he requires, how he focuses on technique, how he advises writers to read a dictionary from cover to cover… So, there are exercises one could do independently and advice one can follow, but mostly the book is a reflection on his career, as a writer, philosopher, teacher and reviewer. From a personal point of view, I especially enjoyed his essay on reviews because it spoke to me and to my thoughts on what a review should be like, and the importance of telling people what they might find and like in the book, above and beyond your personal taste and opinion in the matter.
In some of his essays, he uses his own books as examples of some of the points he makes (character building, voice, point of view, among others), understandably, as he can discuss his intentions and how they relate to the technique he used, rather than assume what other authors were trying to do. This creates two issues. I’ve read some comments that would indicate he might come across as self-aggrandizing, arrogant and full of himself, although reading the rest of the articles makes quite clear that that is far from the truth. The other issue is that the comparisons and examples might not be as clear for readers who are not familiar with his work (although he does mention other writers often). I must admit that living in the UK, although I studied American Literature years back, I am not familiar with his work, and checking Amazon.co.uk, this is the only one of his books I could easily find. Even in Amazon.com most of his books are only available in paperback or hardback. But many of his comments about drafts, editing, working as a journalist, and his compelling defence of storytelling and the importance of finding a story that captures the reader’s (and of course, first the writer’s) imagination can be enjoyed and savoured without direct knowledge of Johnson’s fiction.
The author is an exacting and hardworking writer and thinker and he expresses strong opinions about what literature should be like. His is the world of literary fiction, and literature and stories used to explore and explain philosophical insights, of traditional publishing and paper books. He does mention pork literature or industrial literature and acknowledges that some writers make a living by writing genre fiction (although he does not mention it by name or discusses it in any details) but that is not what he’s interested in. I could not help but think about the self-publishing movement and the writers who embrace it, who will also find much to enjoy in the book but, like many other writers will feel very differently about some of the topics. Charles Johnson mentions a couple of times that he did not himself study a degree in creative writing (his method is more like an apprenticeship, and it reminded me of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography and his account of his self-education and dedication to learning, although with a very different goal in mind) and says that those degrees do not exist in Europe (they do, so I’m not sure all the essays are up-to-date). He acknowledges changes in standards and interests in the student body, and how he’s had to adapt his reading list to such changes so they remain relevant.
The author uses wonderful quotes from great writers and philosophers to illustrate his thoughts and make some points. I had to stop highlighting the text as there was hardly anything left without colour on the page, and this is one of those books eminently quotable and that will keep readers going back for second helpings.
This collection of writings by Charles Johnson is likely to make anybody interested in books and writing think and reflect. Some of the advice might be easier to apply than other, depending on the style of writing and the intentions of those reading it, but many of his reflections and thoughts will resonate and inspire most of us, and who would dispute the importance of storytelling?
Thanks to Net Galley and to Scribner for offering me a copy of the book and thanks to Charles Johnson for sharing his career with us, thanks to all of you for reading, and if you feel so inclined, like, share, comment and CLICK.