In “The Way of the Writer,” Seattle’s Charles Johnson, a National Book Award winner, reveals some of the home truths that guide his writing. Johnson will discuss his book Tuesday, Dec. 6, at Seattle’s Northwest African American Museum.
‘The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling’
by Charles Johnson
Scribner, 256 pp., $16
The writing of a literary novel is idiosyncratic — the novelist brings singular skills, thinking and experience to create a unique work of fiction, writing it in his or her own way. Yet much of novel writing, insists Charles Johnson, can be taught and learned.
If anyone is qualified to offer such lessons, it is Johnson, an eminent author of five novels, including “Middle Passage,” winner of the 1990 National Book Award, and numerous other books on a wide range of topics. He also taught creative writing at the University of Washington for more than 30 years.
Johnson’s new book, “The Way of the Writer,” is by turns practical and contemplative. Most of the chapters are short, digestible essays, three to four pages in length, covering various aspects of the writing process. He saves the longest chapters for the end, where he makes the compelling case for the vital connection between philosophy and literature.
The author of “The Way of the Writer” will appear at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 6, at the Northwest African American Museum,
2800 S. Massachusetts St., Seattle. For more information, contact the Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
Johnson begins by describing his own writing journey, which started with books he read as a child, and his early careers as a journalist and cartoonist. Often eschewing specific advice on how to write, he describes for the reader his own learning, proclivities and habits. This is as instructive as it is fascinating. For instance, he once read the dictionary cover to cover to improve his vocabulary. Also of interest, Johnson relates where and when he likes to write (midnight to 6 a.m.!), and how he mines the pages of his voluminous journals and notebooks. As a bonus, he shares writing exercises that he and his mentor, the novelist John Gardner, have given students over the years.
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He goes on to describe the structure and inner workings of the novel: voice, metaphor, dialogue, plot and story. I loved his reminder of E.M. Forster’s classic distinction between these last two aspects: “In a story we say ‘and then?’ ” writes Forster. “If it is in a plot we ask ‘why?’ ”
Above all, there is no magic formula to writing well — and no easy shortcuts. Writing is hard work and takes years of practice. The book gets at this nitty-gritty truth in chapters on revision and editing. Considering his first draft of a novel a necessary “mess,” Johnson begins serious editing in the next and many subsequent drafts: the arduous tasks of examining and assessing every word, sentence and paragraph for diction, flow, relevance and rhythm. “Sometimes my ratio of throwaway to keep pages is 20:1,” Johnson reports.
Perhaps most important are his musings on writing, thinking and philosophy. “Writing well is the same thing as thinking well,” Johnson notes in more than one place, and because good thinking is necessarily connected to philosophy, he recommends a thorough grounding in philosophical thought. “A novel is a very special thought experiment,” he writes, “because I’ve always seen the literary as a potential site for philosophical agency.” He cites mostly Western philosophers (Sartre, Camus, Aristotle) but he also brings in thinking from his own Buddhist faith.
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.