A review of The Way of the Writer by Charles Johnson.
by Cassie Hayes, Managing Editor
Reading Charles Johnson’s book The Way of the Writer is a lot like listening to your dad. One-third of it is fragmented, rambling anecdotes about people you have only heard of vaguely. One-third is a lecture about how society is going to pot. Then there’s a third of hard-earned and sensitive wisdom that keeps you pondering for days. And the wisdom is why it’s worth it to keep listening.
The book came about when the poet E. Ethelbert Miller asked Johnson via email a long series of questions about Johnson’s life, career, philosophy, and craft. Johnson later took what he’d written to Miller and edited and combined the emails to become The Way of the Writer, something akin to Stephen King’s On Writing, but more literary, more academic, and more philosophical, probably because of the different personality behind the writing. Because of the fractured origins of the work, the book feels very pieced together, going through wide-ranging subjects and—sometimes annoyingly—repeating and cycling back to information and ideas over and over again. It’s not completely a craft book. It’s not completely a memoir. It’s not completely a philosophical exploration. It’s not completely anything—except an opportunity to be a fly on the wall as E. Ethelbert Miller’s brain-picking questions lead to a very talented and brilliant philosopher, educator, artist, and writer opening up about what he’s learned over his long and productive career.
Throughout the book, Johnson preaches discipline, patience, dedication, curiosity, and getting pure enjoyment out of your work. His advice ranges from the broad, such as that a writer may have to “work a lifetime before he (or she) stumbles upon that one story that becomes an archetype for our thoughts, feelings, and experiences,” to advice more specific, such as how to better develop dialogue and characterization and the importance of plot in fictional works. These more craft-specific chapters are what I find most compelling. The chapters that feel more like memoir come across as preachy, and the philosophy chapters—such as the entire sixth and final section of the book—come across as pompous and educated-out-the-wazoo.
But in those craft-based chapters, Johnson’s sensitivity and his true passion for literature and young writers shines through. “Despite its importance,” Johnson writes, “art should always be a form of play.” He rants about “the natural, inevitable, and annoying human tendency to oversimplify people and things (or any phenomenon) to make them manageable,” which makes me want to give him a standing ovation. He includes writing exercises and tips he used in his classes while he was teaching at the University of Washington, gives several examples of books that have helped him and his students over the years, and even offers a chart of a hundred of the best opening sentences of some classic books.
Although you could certainly take the fact that he includes the opening sentence of Middle Passage, his own book, on this list of best opening lines as proof that he’s not exactly the most humble or unbiased of guys, I like how personal the book is. This book is not meant to be a “how to be a writer” book. It is the way of the writer—what works and what doesn’t for this particular writer, Charles Johnson.
Out-of-touch and elitist at its worst, refreshingly old-school at its best, Charles Johnson’s The Way of the Writer is a fascinating read in which you feel like you’re swept away in the writer’s own thought process and struggle to make meaning of his life, world, and craft. It ends on a sour note, with the final section focused more on philosophy than writing and that detracts from the power of his earlier craft-based discussions. (A good rule of thumb for you writers out there: if you start rambling about Sartre, you’ve probably gone on too long, and you had better have a dang good reason for it.) But, despite the ending, there’s a lot to learn from someone who’s had such a long, disciplined, and passionate career. I would highly recommend The Way of the Writer for anyone interested in fiction or teaching, and it’s an interesting and helpful read for anyone interested in nonfiction. There’s not much about poetry, but the ideas behind the book are useful for anyone interested in pursuing the writing life. (If you’re willing to tune out the constant name-dropping of John Gardener, which verges on the obsessive.)
In his chapter on writing book reviews, Johnson writes that he tries to include as many quotes from the book being reviewed as possible, so that readers of the review will be able to get a taste of the author’s writing for themselves. So, I will end this blog post book review with words directly from the introduction of The Way of the Writer:
“It is all one piece, this writing life, and each activity—professional and personal—enriches the others. Everything flows from the same source—the love of art. All art.
For the kind of writer I’ve just described, what might have been selfish or ego-driven at the onset of his or her career gives way—as is always the case with love—to the simple desire to humbly serve and possibly enrich, if we are lucky, literary culture of our time.
My hope is that, if nothing else, readers young and old, beginners and veterans, will experience on these pages devoted to the craft, the discipline, the calling of writing, that predisposition to love the goodness, truth, and beauty found in fine writing (and all well-wrought art). And to see that serving such a mistress for a lifetime is, in the truest sense of the word, a privilege and a blessing.”