Charles Johnson on Seattle’s Creative Spirit, Storytelling and his Buddhist Faith
Charles R. Johnson sees storytelling as problem-solving. Fifteen years ago, he helped give Washington writers a new riddle to answer.
Johnson, 65, was among the founders of Humanities Washington’s annual Bedtime Stories gala, in which writers from around the state develop an original story based on a theme, then present them live over dinner. Fitting, then, that when Johnson receives the organization’s yearly Humanities Washington Award Oct. 4, he’ll do so as part of Seattle’s Bedtime Stories readings at The Fairmont Olympic Hotel.
“It’s very humbling,” Johnson says. “I was just looking over the past recipients of this particular award, and they’re very very distinguished and diverse people — all over Washington state, it seems to me — who’ve all made very selfless contributions to the humanities, to culture, to literacy.”
That describes Johnson, too, though he shrugs off the suggestion with a laugh. The Seattle author, scholar and illustrator has won the National Book Award, MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships, and numerous other honors for his work — not least his 1990 novel Middle Passage, an odyssey into the 1830s slave trade that’s marked by empathy, torment and humor.
YOU CAN GO
What: Bedtime Stories Seattle 2013 [Details]
When: 6 p.m. reception, 7 p.m. dinner, Oct. 4, 2013
Where: The Spanish Ballroom at The Fairmont Olympic Hotel [Directions]
Tickets and information: Event sponsorship and information about purchasing a table at the event are available from Wendy Stauff at email@example.com or (206) 682-1770 x109. A limited number of individual tickets are also available.
An Illinois native, Johnson has lived in Seattle since 1976, when he arrived to teach at the University of Washington from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. In that time, he’s proved a force in local arts while producing a torrent of stories, essays and other media projects. Bedtime Stories had its origins in the late-’90s with Johnson’s problem-solving aesthetic, when he suggested that Humanities Washington’s then-president Margaret Ann Bollmeier stage authors’ readings with fresh works created from a seed concept, like this year’s “Pillow Talk.”
“For me, it’s been a joy to participate every single year, for the simple reason that I love storytelling, and I like to be given a challenge as a professional writer,” Johnson says. “So for every one of those fifteen years, I have written a story that I would not have conceived on my own. I wouldn’t have thought of it … . It isn’t writing for money, and it isn’t writing for attention. It’s writing to solve a puzzle that you’ve been given. And I think that’s what the creative process is really all about.”
Humanities Washington: You came to Seattle from Evanston, Ill., by way of New York. What struck you about the creative culture of Seattle when you arrived?
Charles Johnson: While I was there at Stony Brook, my first novel had come out, Faith and the Good Thing. (The University of Washington was) looking to hire writers. I hadn’t been to the school — I’d never been west of the Mississippi. I drove across the country from New York, stopped in Evanston to spend time with my parents for a little bit during the summer, and as soon as I hit Seattle — it took me about four days, driving all day — I had a sense of freedom. It was like I had tossed off layers and layers of clothing or something as I moved from the east to the west.
When I was at Stony Brook, I was writing philosophy, and that was easy enough to do, but it’s a different way of thinking than writing fiction. And the only writer’s block I think I ever had in my life — and I wouldn’t call it a block, because I was writing seminar papers, working on my dissertation — but fiction, with its different cognitive style, was tough. As soon as I got here, in 1976, these gates opened, and I’ve never had a block writing since. I’ve written about this a couple of times in a couple of different publications, in Smithsonian and even Newsweek a couple of years ago, about the creative spirit of Seattle. This is a town that I think nurtures the creative spirit. Even the rain that keeps you in during the winter is a kind of meditative rain, so that you can concentrate on what you’re doing and wait for spring, and then go out and enjoy that in a way that you can’t anywhere else.
HW: You were teaching all of the time you were doing your creative work. David Guterson, one of your former students, said of you, “A good teacher sticks with you and is still in your head decades later.” I wondered if you had a particular teacher that’s still with you today.
Johnson: Don Ihde was a very influential teacher in my life, from the time I was an undergraduate until last April. Ihde was just there. Someone else who had a rather important impact on me, for a briefer period of time, was John Gardner. He wrote all kinds of things in all kinds of forms. And that’s one of the things I’ve tried to bring to Bedtime Stories is formal virtuosity — changing forms and even sometimes genres, from story to story.
We all have lots of important teachers over a lifetime. I just received from my old high school the winning manuscript of this year’s Marie Claire Davis Award, which has been going on since the mid-’90s. It’s an award I set up for one of my high-school teachers who published my first story in 1965, in the student paper. I wrote it in her creative writing class — which I took with a buddy, just to keep him company. She’s passed on now, but she used to come back from Florida, where she was retired, to shake the hand of the winner. And there are students who will get to know her, I think, through the award every year.
HW: Is writing fiction also a teaching act for you?
Johnson: I think it is. I gave a talk when I was at Stony Brook called The Enduring Wonderment of Philosophy and Literature, in which I talked about he fact that philosophers are not just thinkers, they’re writers — and writers are not just storytellers, they are also engaged in what Alfred North Whitehead called “the adventure of ideas.” Every detail in a story — and ideally one goes over every detail hundreds of times, by which I mean word choice, sentence structure, rhythm — the writer has looked at multiple options for all of his choices. Because what you’re doing is interpreting the world, hopefully bringing sense and clarity to the experience. That’s why I write: to clarify things for myself — and hopefully, ideally, perhaps for a reader, who might be meditating along with me in terms of certain questions, very large questions, perennial questions, in the human experience. I also write for the sense of discovery, because you don’t go into a story necessarily knowing how it’s going to turn out.
Philosophy and literature begin with the same thing, which is the question “Why?” They begin in an interrogative tone. E.M. Forster was really good, I believe, in his lectures, going back to the ’20s, collected in a book called Aspects of the Novel. He distinguishes between story and plot, and his example is a classic one. If you say, “The King died and then the Queen died,” that’s a story. It’s the way kids talk — this happened, and then that happened, and then that happened. But if you say, “The King died, and the Queen died of grief,” suddenly you have a causal connection between those two events. And you can improve upon it a little more: “The Queen died of grief after having known the King since childhood.” There’s a mystery there to be unpacked. So when we hear a story, we say to ourselves, “And then? And then what happened?” When we hear a plot, we say to ourselves, “Why? Why did that happen that way?” So there’s very much a philosophical thrust going on. In my opinion, the finest storytelling we have is an attempt to clarify, and also to make us look at the world with greater precision.
HW: In your foreword to Turning the Wheel, you wrote: “Were it not for the Buddhadharma, I’m convinced that, as a black American and an artist, I would not have been able to successfully negotiate my last half century of life in this country. Or at least not with a high level of creative productivity, working in a spirit of metta toward all sentient beings, and selfless service to others as a creator, teacher, husband, father, son, colleague, student, lecturer, editor, neighbor, friend and citizen …” In part, that statement pitches writing as sort of a self-sacrificing act. Is that how you see it?
Johnson: That’s how I see it. I never intended to become a writer. I was going to be a philosophy teacher. My model at the time was probably Bill Gass, when I was an undergraduate — a philosophy teacher who writes novels on the side. And I had friends who wanted to be writers from the time they were five years old. But one day, a novel hit me that I wanted to read, but didn’t exist. So I wrote it, over a summer. Then I had another idea before I was finished, and I wrote another one. So I went on like that, trying to improve over two years. So after six books in two years — I wrote one every 10 weeks — I figured for the seventh book, Faith and the Good Thing, I needed to talk to a good teacher, and who should be on campus at Southern Illinois University but John Gardner, just before he became famous.
I put the six books on John’s dining room table, and he said, “Well, what do you want? You can write.” I said, “Yeah, I can write, but there’s two things I hear back from people that I could be better at, and one is voice and one is rhythm.” He said, “Oh, I can help you with that.” …
For the next book — and this is the critical book for me, which is Oxherding Tale — I needed to address Buddhism, which has been a critical part of my life since I was 14. I needed to address the Buddhadharma. I spent five years on that book, because I realized once again that for me, art is not about these various commercial things. You’ve got to make money, but it’s not about that. It’s about trying to clarify something that is deeply important to you at the moment. I found myself returned to Buddhism over and over again, throughout my life. From the time I was a teenager, I’d see a haiku or a zen painting, and it would stop me cold. I’d stop and look at it and think to myself, “I think I once knew this.” It sounds weird to say that, but it does not sound strange to me.
HW: You’ve gone to the point with this practice of even studying Sanskrit for an hour a day. Has that influenced the way you use or understand the English language?
Johnson: It’s a hobby for me. I’m not looking for a grade, I’m not looking to do anything profitable with it — although it does impact on my Buddhist writing. It allows me to know what terms are being used and what they mean and to translate passage if I need from the Sanskrit. Languages were never my forté — I did like seven years of Spanish, one year of reading French in graduate school. If I want to learn a language and stick with it, I have to do it an hour a day. Now I’m driving around Seattle and looking at words on billboards and storefronts and asking myself, “Do I know what that word is?” or “How would I translate that phrase on the side of this bus in Sanskrit?” I’ll be doing that until the last day of my life.