The Music and the Meaning: Charles Johnson on Writing

The National Book Award Winner wants to remind you that the way you write is just as important as what you write about.

  • September 28, 2018
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  • 5 Questions
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  • By Jefferson Robbins

A prolific writer for nearly 50 years, Charles Johnson has some advice for those pursuing the same path. The Seattle author and teacher’s 2016 nonfiction book The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling packages his thoughts on writing alongside elements of memoir, criticism, and philosophy.

One could do worse than take pointers from the author of the National Book Award-winning novel Middle Passage, who also happens to be a founding father of Humanities Washington’s Bedtime Stories literary events. Johnson proposed the idea of a yearly theme for the fundraiser that would prompt participating writers to create new work. He’s read at every Bedtime Stories since the inception; at the 20th anniversary event on October 5, he’ll appear alongside Jess Walter and Donna Miscolta.

A political cartoonist and illustrator from a young age, Johnson’s explorations of fiction led to his first novel, Faith and the Good Thing, in 1974, and then to an outpouring of work that’s earned him MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships and numerous other honors. He created much of his best work while a teaching professor at the University of Washington. His newer cartooning work is on display in the children’s book series The Adventures of Emery Jones, Boy Science Wonder, named for his grandson and written with his daughter Elisheba Johnson. His latest story collection, just published in spring, is Night Hawks.

“You want to give your best technique, our best thought, and your best feeling,” Johnson said in commenting on The Way of the Writer. “. . . Where else in life do you have an opportunity to achieve perfection?”


Humanities Washington: Do you craft a story differently knowing it’s going to be read aloud?

Charles Johnson: No, my process is always the same. With early drafts, though I’m not tone deaf, I’m really just working on making the story entertaining, my focus being on voice, plotting, pacing, details for characterization and various props, and creating as completely as possible an imaginative world for the reader to inhabit. In later drafts, and especially the last one, I work on musicality in the prose. Then when the story is done, I test-read it, as an actor would, for the stand-up performance I have to deliver, my focus then being on tempo, where the story speeds up and slows down, lines that have to be delivered softly or almost sotto voce and others that raise the volume in the story. When reading, I ideally want every syllable to be sounded by me for its full experiential value.

Should every story be written to be heard? Do some stories remain great even though they resist being read aloud?

Even when we’re reading quietly to ourselves, we are in fact hearing the music and poetry in a prose passage in our minds. For that reason, the telling of a tale is as important as the content of the tale. Rhythm, meter, the performance of language — all that is the medium or vehicle for the story’s delivery. It’s very hard for me to think of a great story that is tone deaf or clumsy in its delivery. In great stories, the music and meaning, the sound and sense are one—a whole or unified.

Your grandson and your dogs are on the cover of The Way of the Writer with you, which sort of implies they’re important to your writing process.

I love dogs and, of course, I dearly love my six-year-old grandson Emery. He inspires me. That book cover, showing the study/home office where I’m writing at this very moment, is filled to overflowing—some would say “cluttered”—with objects that stimulate my intellect and imagination.

You’ve used visual presentations with some of your Bedtime Stories readings. Has your experience as a cartoon artist made your fiction more visual?

Yes, I think so. My imagination has always been primarily visual. I first see things in my head in wordless imagery. Then, as I write a story, the challenge is always to find a way to express what I see in my mind’s eye in language as vivid as the pictures that rise up in my consciousness.

Of all the Bedtime Stories themes that have been used over twenty years, which theme did you select as your writing prompt for this anniversary?

The story I’ll read for the 20th anniversary of Bedtime Stories is “Dr. King’s Refrigerator,” which is the title of my third short story collection. The theme we were given that year to write about was “a midnight snack.”


Johnson is appearing as part of the 20th anniversary of Humanities Washington’s literary fundraiser Bedtime Stories, along with authors Jess Walter and Donna Miscolta. RSVP here.

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