Charles Johnson, One of America’s Finest Novelists, Releases Book of Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling


Charles Johnson, one of America’s finest novelists (Middle Passage) and foremost thinkers pondering the cosmos of literature, has published a road map to that cosmos as complex, daunting and rewarding as the destination itself. Titled The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling (Scribner, 256 pp., *** out of four stars), this dense little book could just as cogently be called The Rigors of Writing Seriously.

Johnson is dead serious about his business and omnivorous in his pursuit of it. Every aspect of writing as an art is seemingly touched upon here, and the going is not easy. Nor, as Johnson makes clear, should it be.

“A Boot Camp for Creative Writing” is the header for one of his early chapters; it is also Johnson’s self-characterization for the classes he taught over many years in the creative writing program at the University of Washington. A delineation of those classes kicks off his book like a boot in the keister.

Beyond the three full-length stories his students were expected to write in a variety of forms and voices, and a daily writer’s notebook a la Hawthorne or Camus, was the welter of killer exercises Johnson threw at his students from The Art of Fiction, an exacting handbook authored by Johnson’s own mentor, the novelist John Gardner. (“Write three effective long sentences: each at least one full typed page… each involving a different emotion” is one of Johnson’s favorites.)

Johnson also (strongly) urges his students to read at least one dictionary cover-to-cover — ideally, The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, with its little magnifying glass. Readers, and more than a few writers, may wince admiringly.

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Barry Singer