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Feeding the Good Wolf: An Interview with Charles Johnson

“I see my life as being like a canvas, which I work on creating with my every thought and deed.”

  • September 28, 2020
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  • Interview
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  • By Jeffrey Howard

“Just as people who seriously practice meditation have a room or space in their home dedicated to that activity, so, too, writers (or artists) greatly need a location set aside specifically for the practice of their craft,” writes Charles Johnson in The Way of the Writer (2016). “A place that spiritually puts them in the mood to create.”

A resident of Seattle and UW professor since the 1970s, Johnson is a prolific and multi-talented artist. In addition to receiving the National Book Award for Fiction in 1990 for Middle Passage, he has written several novels, collections of essays, screenplays, short stories, and worked as an accomplished political cartoonist. He’s also spent a lifetime studying Buddhism and practicing martial arts.

These manifold influences are on full display in a new short story that will be featured in this year’s Bedtime Stories, a fundraising event for Humanities Washington that Johnson helped found over two decades ago. Bedtime Stories is a yearly literary celebration in which Northwest writers share original short stories crafted specifically for the event. While typically taking place in Seattle and Spokane in October, this year it will be held online—meaning, it will be available to people from all over the world. The proceeds go toward Humanities Washington’s mission to create spaces to explore different perspectives.

In this interview, Johnson discusses creativity, the writer’s craft, and gleans insights for how we can better navigate our current cultural moment. This interview has been edited for brevity and style.

Jeffrey Howard: You’ve said, “Since high school, I’ve spent my days and nights immersed in a creative process that is always rewarding because it is an exercise in problem-solving and discovery, and utilizes all of one’s intellect, emotions, and imagination. If there are rules for writing well, they are at best provisional, insofar as each instance of a well-done story teaches us anew what a story can be and the possibilities for invention and innovations.”

You have a background in philosophy and this quote strikes me as incredibly pragmatist. In addition to Buddhism, what other philosophical traditions have informed your writing and how you see the world?

Charles Johnson: All my life, I’ve been open to the study of all philosophical traditions and what we call “wisdom traditions” in the West and the East. As someone with a doctorate in philosophy, I had to study all of Western philosophy from the pre-Socratics through twentieth-century philosophies and methodologies such as phenomenology, existentialism, and pragmatism (often called American philosophy, one of my professors at Stony Brook University was the distinguished Americanist Justus Buchler; my dissertation director was Don Ihde, America’s preeminent phenomenologist.)

On a more personal level, I’ve systematically studied major Eastern philosophies such as Taoism and Confucianism since my late teens. I also took my vows in 2007 in the Soto Zen tradition of Buddhism with mendicant monk Claude AnShin Thomas. Everything I’ve studied, including Sanskrit, has had an impact on my thought, writing, and drawings.

You’ve been intentional about eschewing labels, including that of novelist or writer, instead preferring to be known as an artist. You’ve mentioned that labels can be a bit limiting. Could you say a little bit more about that?

A book I love and tell everyone about is The Writer’s Brush: Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture by Writers (2007). Looking at that wonderful book you see how scores of writers we admire were also talented painters—Tennessee Williams, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and D.H. Lawrence. There is also John Updike, a talented cartoonist during his college years who said writing never brought him the deep sense of satisfaction and fulfillment that working on a drawing did.

What these examples tell us is that we sadly put creative people in little boxes for the sake of convenience, saying he’s a poet, she’s a novelist, but in a human life, creative talent and imagination are often what I describe as “global,” manifesting itself in many forms of expression. So I simply say I’m just an artist—doing visual work one day as a cartoonist and illustrator, literary and scholarly work on another day, martial arts on a third day, and philosophical essays and articles on other days.

There appears to be a tension between Buddhist notions of accepting the world as it is and what might be considered the demands of social justice for us to change the world. Could you elaborate on how one might resolve this tension?

There’s no tension, at least not for me, or those who embrace Thich Nhat Hahn’s principles of “Engaged Buddhism.” In our daily practice as followers of the Buddha Dharma, we work to make ourselves and things around us better.

I’ve discussed all this in two books, Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing (2003) and Taming the Ox: Buddhist Stories and Reflections on Politics, Race, Culture, and Spiritual Practice (2014). I’ve also written about it in many articles for Tricycle, for which I serve as one of their contributing editors. (A new cartoon I recently finished on COVID and Zen will be in Tricycle‘s November issue.)

So we Buddhists are not passive people. We are the most active and engaged with the world people you can imagine! We work 24/7 at shaping the world at its source, which is consciousness itself. And our life-long commitment is to the Bodhisattva ideal of helping all sentient beings achieve happiness and freedom from suffering.

In your Bedtime Stories contribution, “Night Shift,” you explore the relationship between two brothers who have chosen very different paths. I can’t help but notice the parallels between it and the popular Tale of the Two Wolves. Frequently told from the perspective of a wise grandfather describing how in his mind it often feels like there are two fighting wolves, the grandson asks which of the wolves wins. The grandfather replies that it will be whichever wolf the boy chooses to feed. In “Night Shift,” you highlight the different ways in which the brothers have navigated “racial minefields.” When it comes to these “racial minefields,” which wolves do you see Lucas and Jamal “choosing to feed?”

I absolutely love this wise teaching tale. Thank you for mentioning it. This story is a perfect example of the Buddhist practice called mindfulness meditation, where we examine our thoughts and feelings as they arise to see which ones are being created by the negative wolf or the positive wolf. And we don’t judge ourselves for having such thoughts, because they are not us and we can choose to let them rise and pass away like clouds (the negative ones) because everything is impermanent, even thoughts and feelings, and we can feed the feelings and thoughts created by the positive wolf.

In “Night Shift,” the wayward brother Jamal has only been feeding the negative wolf while his brother Lucas has been feeding the positive one, as their mother taught them to do.

The “you” in the story is Lucas, the younger brother, but from whose perspective is the narrator speaking?

I think this is the fifth story I’ve written using the second-person viewpoint. The “you” is the story’s protagonist, yes. But the “you” is also the reader, who becomes the protagonist. I enjoy working with this viewpoint, because it always creates an uncanny feeling throughout the story, as if the narrator is the consciousness or mind of the protagonist speaking to him or her. And what is called “psychic distance” for the reader during the experience of the story is less than in, say, full omniscience, or third-person limited viewpoint.

We find ourselves in the middle of an incredible cultural moment regarding increased awareness around racial inequality and social injustices. You’ve recently published a new book, Grand: A Grandparent’s Wisdom for a Happy Life (2020), which is instruction directed toward your grandson, Emery. In a similar fashion, I wonder what specific advice you would give to young black men in America in the wake of what has happened since George Floyd’s death.

The advice I would give to young Black men in America at this moment, and to everyone (including me), is contained in the Tale of Two Wolves. That says it all. I think it’s a truly wonderful story we should all meditate on, think about daily, and use as a trustworthy guide for our lives.

Despite literature’s long tradition of authors writing from perspectives that differ from their own lived experiences, there have been recent movements to discourage people from writing stories that feature characters that differ from the author by race, gender, sexual orientation, or cultural background. In what ways is this a positive or negative trend in literature?

This is a very negative and self-limiting trend. You’ll see its opposite in my recent story collection, Night Hawks (2018), where among stories about Black Americans I also offer a story about the Buddha’s six years as an ascetic, a story told by Plato, a story about a Japanese Zen abbot and his meeting a Black American woman who is a Buddhist practitioner, and a story about a Muslim-American soldier in Afghanistan. (All those stories, by the way, were originally written as Bedtime Stories for Humanities Washington’s yearly fundraiser.)

The night my novel Middle Passage received the National Book Award in fiction, I used my time at the microphone to deliver a tribute to the great writer Ralph Ellison, who was in the audience. After the ceremony, reporters were asking him questions about race and writing. I remember his powerful, inspiring, and accurate reply: “My God, you don’t write out of your skin; you write out of your imagination!”

How does your practice as a Buddhist impact your creative process?
My Buddhist practice is synonymous with my creative process. I don’t think the two can be separated.

I’ve been publishing stories and drawings steadily for 55 years—since I was a 17-years-old. I see my life as being like a canvas, which I work on creating with my every thought and deed, and with the same care and mindfulness that I try to bring to my stories and artwork. That’s the beauty of Buddha Dharma—it empowers a person to every moment of every day create their own lives in such a way that we experience happiness, freedom from suffering, joy, thanksgiving for the gift of life, and relentless service to others.

Hear Charles debut his new short story at our online Bedtime Stories fundraising event this Friday night. RSVP here.

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