The Illinois-born Seattle-based novelist, literary scholar and cartoonist Charles Johnson is the author of the novels Faith and the Good Thing (1974), Oxherding Tale (1982), Dreamer (1998) and Middle Passage, which earned him the 1990 National Book Award for fiction. Middle Passage dealt with the mournful and magical realism of black life in the broadest and boldest terms possible, from slave ships to Martin Luther King, Jr. Johnson has also taught literature at the University of Washington for thirty three years.
His new book, The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling (Scribner, December) is a concise and comprehensive compilation of his pedagogical philosophies and teachings. Publishers Weekly spoke to Johnson about his literary life and love of teaching literature.
In the book, you stressed three concepts that were central to your teaching: craft, discipline and calling. Can you define them?
Craft, for me is technique, techne. Craft is the ability to solve a problem. In terms of discipline, When I was in my teens, I took to heart Walden and Thoreau’s idea of that we should have as many skills as fingers on the hand. So I choose for the discipline of the mind, philosophy, because of the rigor. For the discipline of the body, I choose the martial arts. And for the discipline of spirit, I choose Buddhism. You feel your calling by the weight it has in you. You don’t choose it. It chooses you
In terms of writing, what can or cannot be taught?
You can’t teach talent. You can’t teach imagination. You can’t teach someone to take emotional risks. Those things the young writer has to have when he or she comes into the room. The hardest thing to teach is plot. Because, as John Gardner once put it, plot is an aspect of causation; that which gives us an understanding of how things work in the world. And a lot of writers don’t know very much about philosophy. It’s not being taught in our schools anymore.
You were a student of the educator/novelist John Gardner, author of The Art of Fiction, On Moral Fiction and Becoming a Novelist. He is a huge presence in the book.
John was extremely inventive in terms of literary form … He considered himself to be a philosophical writer. I’m a philosopher by training, and I write fiction that I consider to be aimed at filling a vacuum in American philosophical fiction.
When I look at black American writers who made significant contributions to the philosophical novel, I point to Jean Toomer, who was pointing towards the East. Richard Wright was anchored in Marxism and Existentialism. And Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man was an exuberant, Freudian romp through Black America [laughs]. In the nineteenth century, that sisterhood of philosophy and literature was understood to be the case. It’s there in Melville, Poe, and Hawthorne. But we lost track of that in the twentieth century. So that’s what I had in common with John Gardner. Both of us were very interested in the philosophical novel.
What role does journalism play in the development of a writer?
Before we had MFA programs, writers learned their trade or craft in newspapers. Hemingway is a classic example. You learned many virtues by writing from the trenches the way journalists do. And I talk about that in the book in the chapter called The Virtues of Journalism.
As you mentioned, Buddhism is a discipline very important to you. You’ve been practicing it since you were fourteen. How does it help you?
It’s something that enriches my life, from top to bottom. I’ve written two books about the Buddhist Dharma [teachings], Taming the Ox, which was published two years ago, and an earlier book called Turning the Wheel. And in those books, I say that the Buddhist experience is the human experience. That’s why it’s been around for twenty six hundred years. But the East does not have a monopoly on wisdom. You can find the Dharma in Jean Toomer’s Essentials, in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and Ben Franklin’s advice on how to choose your close friends, sounds like a reiteration of the Rhinoceros Sutra. That’s why I say that the Buddhist experience is the human experience.
And Buddhism empowers you to speak to humanity through literature.
I don’t care about fame or fortune. What I care about is the creation of things that are good, true and beautiful.