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From Charles Johnson—a National Book Award winner, Professor Emeritus at University of Washington, and one of America’s preeminent scholars on literature and race—comes an instructive, inspiring guide to the craft and art of writing. An award-winning novelist, philosopher, essayist, screenwriter, professor, and cartoonist, Charles Johnson has devoted his life to creative pu From Charles Johnson—a National Book Award winner, Professor Emeritus at University of Washington, and one of America’s preeminent scholars on literature and race—comes an instructive, inspiring guide to the craft and art of writing. An award-winning novelist, philosopher, essayist, screenwriter, professor, and cartoonist, Charles Johnson has devoted his life to creative pursuit. His 1990 National Book Award-winning novel Middle Passage is a modern classic, revered as much for its daring plot as its philosophical underpinnings. For thirty-three years, Johnson taught and mentored students in the art and craft of creative writing. The Way of the Writer is his record of those years, and the coda to a kaleidoscopic, boundary-shattering career. Organized into six accessible, easy-to-navigate sections, The Way of the Writer is both a literary reflection on the creative impulse and a utilitarian guide to the writing process. Johnson shares his lessons and exercises from the classroom, starting with word choice, sentence structure, and narrative voice, and delving into the mechanics of scene, dialogue, plot and storytelling before exploring the larger questions at stake for the serious writer. What separates literature from industrial fiction? What lies at the heart of the creative impulse? How does one navigate the literary world? And how are philosophy and fiction concomitant? Luminous, inspiring, and imminently accessible, The Way of the Writer is a revelatory glimpse into the mind of the writer and an essential guide for anyone with a story to tell.


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From Charles Johnson—a National Book Award winner, Professor Emeritus at University of Washington, and one of America’s preeminent scholars on literature and race—comes an instructive, inspiring guide to the craft and art of writing. An award-winning novelist, philosopher, essayist, screenwriter, professor, and cartoonist, Charles Johnson has devoted his life to creative pu From Charles Johnson—a National Book Award winner, Professor Emeritus at University of Washington, and one of America’s preeminent scholars on literature and race—comes an instructive, inspiring guide to the craft and art of writing. An award-winning novelist, philosopher, essayist, screenwriter, professor, and cartoonist, Charles Johnson has devoted his life to creative pursuit. His 1990 National Book Award-winning novel Middle Passage is a modern classic, revered as much for its daring plot as its philosophical underpinnings. For thirty-three years, Johnson taught and mentored students in the art and craft of creative writing. The Way of the Writer is his record of those years, and the coda to a kaleidoscopic, boundary-shattering career. Organized into six accessible, easy-to-navigate sections, The Way of the Writer is both a literary reflection on the creative impulse and a utilitarian guide to the writing process. Johnson shares his lessons and exercises from the classroom, starting with word choice, sentence structure, and narrative voice, and delving into the mechanics of scene, dialogue, plot and storytelling before exploring the larger questions at stake for the serious writer. What separates literature from industrial fiction? What lies at the heart of the creative impulse? How does one navigate the literary world? And how are philosophy and fiction concomitant? Luminous, inspiring, and imminently accessible, The Way of the Writer is a revelatory glimpse into the mind of the writer and an essential guide for anyone with a story to tell.

30 review for The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling

  1. 4 out of 5

    Laura

    I recently read - and loved - On Writing by Stephen King, so when I saw this book on NetGalley I thought I’d give it a go. The description suggested it would be in the same vein as King’s - a career novelist gives tips and insights into the craft, melding advice with memoir. Unfortunately, the tone of this book and the author’s voice really grated on me. It might be a transatlantic thing - I am English and am particularly sensitive to braggadocio and pompousness. In the UK, if a leader in a fiel I recently read - and loved - On Writing by Stephen King, so when I saw this book on NetGalley I thought I’d give it a go. The description suggested it would be in the same vein as King’s - a career novelist gives tips and insights into the craft, melding advice with memoir. Unfortunately, the tone of this book and the author’s voice really grated on me. It might be a transatlantic thing - I am English and am particularly sensitive to braggadocio and pompousness. In the UK, if a leader in a field wants to write a book giving advice to those starting out, it needs to be done with a healthy dose of self-deprecation. This was not the case here. Perhaps it is also because I’m not the kind of person who would enjoy Johnson’s novels, which sound a bit academic and po-faced to me. I read for fun and escapism - not to find a poem within every line or to educate my soul (or whatever). Here’s a quick rundown of my bugbears: Namedropping - I swear there was a reference to John Gardner on every other page. Johnson was mentored by Gardner early in his career, so fair enough the guy should get a mention. But honestly, the number of banal anecdotes about what Gardner once said at a dinner party, all of which felt like they had been inserted with a crowbar… it was too much. Full disclosure - I’d never heard of Gardner and had to do a Google. Read a dictionary?! - How is that a genuine piece of advice for a budding writer? To READ A DICTIONARY FROM COVER TO COVER? I just… I mean maybe it would work for some people, but I don’t think I’d want to read a book by someone who had literally read a dictionary. That’s just me - other opinions are available. Product placement - Or perhaps a more apt word is ‘plugs’. It’s fine to reference one’s own work in this kind of book, but some of these references felt really hamfisted. It felt like every few paragraphs it would be ‘When writing [blah blah blah]’, ‘In my novel [blah]’...Also he goes on at quite some length about his various achievements and awards…I found it all a bit awkward (remember - English). Anyway...I could go on but I don’t want to lay into it too hard. I’m sure there are lots of people who will get something out of this. It just wasn’t for me. (With thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for providing me with an ARC in return for an honest review)

  2. 5 out of 5

    Shane

    A book chock full of writing wisdom from a master of the craft who claims that a prerequisite to the creative life is a focus on the art 24/7 x 365 until one’s last day on earth. There are a lot of tips here on the art and craft of writing. Having taught creative writing for 30 plus years, Johnson is able to dissect creative writing into its myriad forms (realism, naturalism, romanticism, modernism, post-modernism), and break it down into its elements (plot, character, voice, paragraph, sentence A book chock full of writing wisdom from a master of the craft who claims that a prerequisite to the creative life is a focus on the art 24/7 x 365 until one’s last day on earth. There are a lot of tips here on the art and craft of writing. Having taught creative writing for 30 plus years, Johnson is able to dissect creative writing into its myriad forms (realism, naturalism, romanticism, modernism, post-modernism), and break it down into its elements (plot, character, voice, paragraph, sentence and word), and compare it to various branches of philosophy (existentialism, Buddhism). He posits that a well educated literature student’s arsenal should include a firm understanding of New Criticism, structuralism, feminism, deconstruction and race theory, but advises that in the process of creation, which is discovery, all theories and explanatory models should be set aside—I found the last part of this statement refreshing. He owes his success to mentor John Gardner who helped get his early work published and sponsored his employment as a university professor. Although he claims that childhood trauma creates good novelists, Johnson himself was an only child with a relatively stable childhood. He wrote six novels and turned down an early publication offer for one of them, as the seventh he was working on appeared to be of the calibre of a debut novel he could live with. A debut defines a writer’s career, Garner advised him. “If climbing past your debut is going to be difficult, don’t publish it.” The many pearls of wisdom spewed out were the most interesting for me to ponder, and I quote a few here: a) You extend the form only after you understand the form b) Hand-copying an established writer’s work will give you a sense of meter and rhythm. c) Publishing is an aristocracy. With digital publishing it has become a democracy. d) Education without imagination is empty, and imagination without education is blind. e) What makes a great writer is a great vision. f) Art is the community’s medicine for the worst disease of the mind, the corruption of consciousness. g) Event reveals character and character leads to event. h) Voice gives way to Viewpoint and ultimately to Character. There are many more third party quotes from Aristotle to Virginia Woolf that dot the book. Johnson is clear that even though he started out his literary life as a journalist and cartoonist, the writing of utilitarian prose (literary pork) is to be eschewed in favour of “words that are the flesh of thought,” i.e. well constructed and thoroughly revised literary language. “A literary work is a performance of language.” And yet, plot is important to him as well. He also devotes an entire chapter to opening lines, which are crucial to the success of a novel. Having only one literary hit over a body of work is okay to advance literary culture, he posits; doing it twice reveals a major literary talent; doing it three times vaults you into the ranks of Twain and Shakespeare. Much has been said about the self-adulation that goes on in this book, and although I found it only mildly distracting, I put it down to the earnestness of this consummate devotee of the art of writing who needs to establish his credentials with his reader and who also needs to show some of the benefits that have accrued to him over a life dedicated to this perilous profession, where one is only as good as one’s last book. Besides who the heck writes if they don’t have a big ego?

  3. 4 out of 5

    Carol Kean

    “Why do we write fiction?” Charles Johnson asks. “Why do we read it? Why are stories so important to us?” I've read umpteen books on the art and craft of writing, but I couldn't resist one more. Johnson's credentials are as numerous as Abraham's descendants. Confession: I skimmed the opening chapters, full of autobiography, in order to zero in on the parts of most interest to me. Namely, what gives a story the power and magic to consume readers and make everything disappear but the story? Some of “Why do we write fiction?” Charles Johnson asks. “Why do we read it? Why are stories so important to us?” I've read umpteen books on the art and craft of writing, but I couldn't resist one more. Johnson's credentials are as numerous as Abraham's descendants. Confession: I skimmed the opening chapters, full of autobiography, in order to zero in on the parts of most interest to me. Namely, what gives a story the power and magic to consume readers and make everything disappear but the story? Some of the answers to Johnson's questions, posed as a teacher to students, are already familiar to writers. Others are not as commonly followed as I’d like – in fact, in fiction workshops, people who do this are likely to be clobbered: EXPAND YOUR VOCABULARY. Read the dictionary. The writer won’t use most of the words, but “a large vocabulary is comparable to an artist with many colors on his palette. He doesn’t use all of them on a single canvas, but he always has the right shade available when he needs it.” Now I feel entitled to use some of those ten-dollar words I picked up from Zane Grey in my childhood. Lugubrious. Taciturn. Pusillanimous. Woot! In an era of texting and “the truncated language Twitter, the anonymity of the Internet, and the triumph of hip-hop and gangster rap,” Johnson writes, “does anyone ever talk anymore about taste?” Read the book for more on that timely topic. Another suggestion I love: filling cheap, unlined spiral notebooks with notes on “literally everything I experience or think worth remembering during the day; I jot down images, phrases used by my friends, fragments of thoughts, overheard dialogue, anything I flag in something I’ve read that strikes me for its sentence form or memorable qualities, its beauty or its truth.” I’ve done this for years, and I usually find these notations more accessible than what I save on a computer. (That’s a long story.) Johnson has hundreds of these notebooks, 43 years of accumulation­“I save everything; it’s shameless” – but he does revisit them, hunting for thoughts, images, ideas, and “I can always count on finding some sentence, phrase, or idea I had, say, twenty or thirty years ago that is perfect for a story or novel in progress.” The chapter on voice is mostly familiar advice, but with examples we may not have seen before. Chapter 23, “The Wounds That Create Our Work,” is worth visiting. It is the wound, Gardner says, that makes the writer “driven.” Johnson emphasizes that “happy, well-adjusted children” or adults can create great art, too. The suffering artist isn’t the only kind of artist. I own the John Gardner classic, “The Art of Fiction,” and Johnson quotes from it all throughout this book, but he quotes philosophers as well, e.g. Sartre, Hegel, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Herbert Spiegelberg, and more. There’s David Hume and his denial of the self’s existence. Those who find philosophy daunting can look to other chapters and still get their money’s worth from this book. “Buddhists are naturally fans of science fiction,” Johnson says. Why? Buddhism, philosophy, and science fiction “as well as science itself”challenge our views and transform our perception. Chapter 36, “Writing Well Is Thinking Well,” especially speaks to me. Too many excerpts would relieve you of the need to buy this book, but let me assure you, it’s packed with great lines. “With the first draft, every page is like a prayer­in that draft we put something on paper just to determine whether it is worth our continuing to work on it.” Chapter 42, “The Truth-Telling Power of Fiction,” is especially empowering for me. I believe the truth can be *best* expressed in the guise of fiction, sometimes. This chapter is packed with quotes (William James, for one), and the idea that each sentence is a unit of energy. The fact that fiction “humanizes” is something all careful readers know. Albert Camus is quoted: “Feelings and images multiply a philosophy by ten. People think only in images… If you want to be a philosopher, write novels.” Johnson himself is not a product of the university writing workshop approach to teaching writing, notes Marc C. Conner in the Afterword. Johnson took a medieval apprentice model, comparing the training of a writer to that of a jazz musician or martial artist. Chapter 32, “The Art of Book Reviewing,” is a special favorite for me. Johnson reached a point, after reviewing so many authors, where he could “let reviewing become one of the things I’d done enough of” and could final “let go.” (I’m very close to this point myself.) I applaud his view that “a serious writer has an obligation to respond to and be engaged with other contemporary authors.” And I love this: “a well-done book review can be a thing of beauty as memorable as the book under review­and in some cases more engaging and memorable than the book being discussed.” My habit of quoting extensively from the text when I review a book is vindicated here: “that way a reader could directly experience the work without me, the reviewer,” as a middle man mediating “or standing in the way of” readers encountering the author’s own words, thoughts, and prose style. Here’s one for the one-star bandits to internalize: “I always tried to review the work of others with the kind of mindfulness, sympathy, compassion, and care that I hoped reviewers would bring to my own literary creations.” In all, this is a thoughtful and fascinating, inspiring and encouraging book for writers. We can never have too many books on writing, right? NOTE: Thanks to NetGalley for an ARC of this book.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Rachel León

    (3.5 stars, rounded up for Johnson's eloquence) I've never read any of Charles R. Johnson's fiction, which I obviously need to remedy immediately. This book was a great book about the craft of writing, but also the life of a writer. (3.5 stars, rounded up for Johnson's eloquence) I've never read any of Charles R. Johnson's fiction, which I obviously need to remedy immediately. This book was a great book about the craft of writing, but also the life of a writer.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Russ

    The book was divided into five parts with forty-two essays. Part II was the most useful, portions of which described exercises or drills that one could complete to improve one's writing. However, even that was a bit thin. There were few practical tips about writing. Mostly this book contained musings about writing. It is not a how-to. The book was very academic in the sense that it was written by a professor, many of the anecdotes are about college life, and the opinions put forth come across as The book was divided into five parts with forty-two essays. Part II was the most useful, portions of which described exercises or drills that one could complete to improve one's writing. However, even that was a bit thin. There were few practical tips about writing. Mostly this book contained musings about writing. It is not a how-to. The book was very academic in the sense that it was written by a professor, many of the anecdotes are about college life, and the opinions put forth come across as rather ivory tower. The book suggests that serious writers should also be students of philosophy, which is great in theory but not very practical for somebody like me with a day job who is writing on the side. On the positive side, many of the essays were pleasantly short. Johnson covered a subject and moved on. Nevertheless, I came away with very little from the book.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Kevin

    This is one of those 'how to be a writer' books that's incredibly inspiring and practical. However, it's very much not a touchy-feely, 'you can do it,' let's laugh about writing shitty drafts kind of thing. This is pretty much the opposite of Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. This is a workman's approach. Johnson is very literary and smart, and he's all about working hard—damn hard—to be a good writer. John Gardner was his mentor, and he pulls a lot of thoughts and ideas, and especially exercises, fro This is one of those 'how to be a writer' books that's incredibly inspiring and practical. However, it's very much not a touchy-feely, 'you can do it,' let's laugh about writing shitty drafts kind of thing. This is pretty much the opposite of Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. This is a workman's approach. Johnson is very literary and smart, and he's all about working hard—damn hard—to be a good writer. John Gardner was his mentor, and he pulls a lot of thoughts and ideas, and especially exercises, from Gardner. At times it's a little too intellectual for me, but in all seriousness I wish someone had kicked me in the ass like this when I was learning. I always wanted to write a novel (and then fully revise a novel), but I never had the commitment or the know-how. That's always something you just have to wrestle with to figure out, but this is as close to an instruction manual as I've ever found.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Dylan Perry

    Reread: August 2020 Picked this up on a whim, and enjoyed it just as much as the first time around. Original Review: February 2019 This ticked all my boxes. 1) Always looked forward to reading this and always made time for it. ✔ 2) Ordered a print copy soon after starting the audiobook, to both have for my shelves and support the author. ✔ 3) Reached the final page and immediately wanted to flip back to the beginning and start the journey all over again. ✔ I thought this was going to be a charming lit Reread: August 2020 Picked this up on a whim, and enjoyed it just as much as the first time around. Original Review: February 2019 This ticked all my boxes. 1) Always looked forward to reading this and always made time for it. ✔ 2) Ordered a print copy soon after starting the audiobook, to both have for my shelves and support the author. ✔ 3) Reached the final page and immediately wanted to flip back to the beginning and start the journey all over again. ✔ I thought this was going to be a charming little writing book that would entertain, and possibly gleam a kernel or two of craft from, and then largely forget about once I’d moved on. But instead Charles Johnson hits you with decades of experience and knowledge that only a seasoned author and dedicated teacher can impart. In short—I loved this book and will be returning to it again in the future. 5/5

  8. 5 out of 5

    Lindsey Cruz

    When I was still working at a bookstore, I picked up this book, because like others, I was attracted to the title -- subtitle for that matter; "Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling," because I wanted to learn about how I could write better. After over 9 months, I finally completed this immersive, well-written, and informative novel of Charles Johnson. Why did it take so long to complete? Well, I had to put the book down for a bit, because each (mostly short) chapter I read was full of When I was still working at a bookstore, I picked up this book, because like others, I was attracted to the title -- subtitle for that matter; "Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling," because I wanted to learn about how I could write better. After over 9 months, I finally completed this immersive, well-written, and informative novel of Charles Johnson. Why did it take so long to complete? Well, I had to put the book down for a bit, because each (mostly short) chapter I read was full of concepts I personally had to think about and analyze in order to move on. At some points, I do agree with others that it felt very showy for the author to consistently promote his lifelong work, but the more I read, the more respect I had for him. To read about someone who is so into their craft, who is obviously well educated, and experienced, this book was solid. It isn't a step-by-step constructed novel which talks about how you can become a better storyteller, more so, Charles Johnson (I feel compelled to keep referencing his name) shows how you can become your own version of being a better writer through his expertise, workmanship, and character.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Rod Raglin

    An autobiography long on the author's accomplishments and short on practical applications The Way of the Writer, Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling is long on the accomplishments of Charles Johnson, his philosophy in regards to writing and the benefits of academia. Somewhere among this rather high-minded autobiography (because that's basically what it is) are some insights about actual writing (that would be literary fiction with a capital L since Johnson considers anything else "po An autobiography long on the author's accomplishments and short on practical applications The Way of the Writer, Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling is long on the accomplishments of Charles Johnson, his philosophy in regards to writing and the benefits of academia. Somewhere among this rather high-minded autobiography (because that's basically what it is) are some insights about actual writing (that would be literary fiction with a capital L since Johnson considers anything else "pork" or industrial writing and not worth the effort). Much of his philosophy is similar to John Gardner's who was his teacher and mentor. Indeed, one might be better off reading Gardner's On Moral Fiction as well as The Art of Fiction for more specifics on these two areas unless you're want to know more about Johnson's career highlights beginning in grade school. I did find it interesting that he places more emphasis on plot than character development which could be considered a contradiction since one definition of literary fiction is that it's character driven. I'm now inclined to read at least one of his novels to see if it is actually as good as he thinks it is.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Olga Miret

    Unique reflections based on a lifetime of thinking and writing well. Thanks to Net Galley and Scribner for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I voluntarily review. This non-fiction book is not a ‘how to’ book and won’t give the reader a formula for producing, and even less, selling, books by the bucket load. The subtitle, Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling describes much more precisely what the book is. And if there’s one thing we can’t accuse Charles Johnson of, is of lackin Unique reflections based on a lifetime of thinking and writing well. Thanks to Net Galley and Scribner for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I voluntarily review. This non-fiction book is not a ‘how to’ book and won’t give the reader a formula for producing, and even less, selling, books by the bucket load. The subtitle, Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling describes much more precisely what the book is. And if there’s one thing we can’t accuse Charles Johnson of, is of lacking precision. The book is structured in six parts (1. Who Is the Writer?, 2. The Process of Writing, 3. What Helps the Writer, 4. The Writer as Teacher, 5. The Writing Life and Duties of the Writer, 6. Philosophy and the Writer), each one collecting some of his essays on topics related to the craft of writing, that are very numerous. The parts, and each essay, can be read separately, although if read as a book there are reflections and quotes that will become familiar, and anecdotes and thoughts that appear more than once (not a big problem if readers dip in and out, or read it over an extended period and go back to revisit the parts they find more relevant or inspiring). Due to the nature of the materials, some of the content overlaps, particularly as this is a deeply personal book, based on Charles Johnson’s experiences, and he talks about his personal writing schedule, his interest in martial arts, how he started his career as a journalist, his love of drawing and design, his Buddhist beliefs, his interest in Philosophy… The author taught an undergraduate and a postgraduate writing course for many years, although he has been retired for a while, and he describes his ‘boot camp for writers’ that he strongly based on John Gardner’s (that he describes as his writing mentor) programme. Johnson talks about the readings he recommends, the hard schedule of writing he requires, how he focuses on technique, how he advises writers to read a dictionary cover to cover… So, there are exercises one could do independently and advice one can follow, but mostly the book is a reflection on his career, as a writer, philosopher, teacher and reviewer. From a personal point of view, I especially enjoyed his essay on reviews because it spoke to me and to my thoughts on what a review should be like, and the importance of telling people what they might find and like in the book, above and beyond your personal taste and opinion in the matter. In some of his essays, he uses his own books as examples of some of the points he makes (character building, voice, point of view, among others), understandably, as he can discuss his intentions and how they relate to the technique he used, rather than assume what other authors were trying to do. This creates two issues. I’ve read some comments that would indicate he might come across as self-aggrandizing, arrogant and full of himself, although reading the rest of the articles makes quite clear that that is far from the truth. The other issue is that the comparisons and examples might not be as clear for readers who are not familiar with his work (although he does mention other writers often). I must admit that living in the UK, although I studied American Literature years back, I am not familiar with his work, and checking Amazon.co.uk, this is the only one of his books I could easily find. Even in Amazon.com most of his books are only available in paperback or hardback. But many of his comments about drafts, editing, working as a journalist, and his compelling defence of storytelling and the importance of finding a story that captures the reader’s (and of course, first the writer’s) imagination can be enjoyed and savoured without direct knowledge of Johnson’s fiction. The author is an exacting and hardworking writer and thinker and he expresses strong opinions about what literature should be like. His is the world of literary fiction, and literature and stories used to explore and explain philosophical insights, of traditional publishing and paper books. He does mention pork literature or industrial literature and acknowledges that some writers make a living by writing genre fiction (although he does not mention it by name or discusses it in any details) but that is not what he’s interested in. I could not help but think about the self-publishing movement and the writers who embrace it, who will also find much to enjoy in the book but, like many other writers will feel very differently about some of the topics. Charles Johnson mentions a couple of times that he did not himself study a degree in creative writing (his method is more like an apprenticeship, and it reminded me of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography and his account of his self-education and dedication to learning, although with a very different goal in mind) and says that those degrees do not exist in Europe (they do, so I’m not sure all the essays are up-to-date). He acknowledges changes in standards and interests in the student body, and how he’s had to adapt his reading list to such changes so they remain relevant. The author uses wonderful quotes from great writers and philosophers to illustrate his thoughts and make some points. I had to stop highlighting the text as there was hardly anything left without colour on the page, and this is one of those books eminently quotable and that will keep readers going back for second helpings. This collection of writings by Charles Johnson is likely to make anybody interested in books and writing think and reflect. Some of the advice might be easier to apply than other, depending on the style of writing and the intentions of those reading it, but many of his reflections and thoughts will resonate and inspire most of us, and who would dispute the importance of storytelling?

  11. 5 out of 5

    A.J. Bauers

    I found a lot of nuggets of wisdom in this book. The only reason why I gave it four stars instead of five is that his tone came across conceited. It also didn’t help that he has a decidedly lower opinion of genre writers and those who write for a living, versus those who write for the sake of pure artistry. But if you don’t let personal pride get in the way of smart advice, this book may inspire you the way it inspired the genre-writing me.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Dan Burt

    3.75 stars.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Linda

    Excellent book! I think I've found a new source book for one of my writing classes. Great advice and anecdotes from someone who has been writing and teaching writing for decades. Excellent book! I think I've found a new source book for one of my writing classes. Great advice and anecdotes from someone who has been writing and teaching writing for decades.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Heather Oglesby

    Insightful snippets about the writing process but overall, a bit self indulgent and not accessible to lovers of writing who haven't completed an MFA program. Insightful snippets about the writing process but overall, a bit self indulgent and not accessible to lovers of writing who haven't completed an MFA program.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Beatrice Morgan

    I thought this book, which according to the cover, is full of "reflections on the art and craft of storytelling," would contain just that. It didn't. It read more like a professor listing his accomplishments, dropping names, and going in about himself. The book is more about him than it is about writing. I thought this book, which according to the cover, is full of "reflections on the art and craft of storytelling," would contain just that. It didn't. It read more like a professor listing his accomplishments, dropping names, and going in about himself. The book is more about him than it is about writing.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Roger DeBlanck

    Charles Johnson is a brilliant mind, and I greatly admire his fiction—especially his novel Dreamer about Martin Luther King, Jr. It is an ingenious work and much underappreciated. In this treatise The Way of the Writer, I found most of Johnson’s discussions about the artistry of writing to be enlightening and motivating, but other sections felt didactic and prescriptive. The book is a hodgepodge collection, and understandably so, because Johnson tells us it originated from answers he provided to Charles Johnson is a brilliant mind, and I greatly admire his fiction—especially his novel Dreamer about Martin Luther King, Jr. It is an ingenious work and much underappreciated. In this treatise The Way of the Writer, I found most of Johnson’s discussions about the artistry of writing to be enlightening and motivating, but other sections felt didactic and prescriptive. The book is a hodgepodge collection, and understandably so, because Johnson tells us it originated from answers he provided to interview questions from his friend, a fellow writer, Ethelbert Miller. The chapters amount to short essays with their effect ranging from inspirational to obtuse. Writing for me is primarily, above all else, an act of commitment and discipline to hard work, and the best way to prepare for writing, I believe, is to read and read and read more. One of my mantras for writing is to make your reading goals more important than your writing goals. I think Johnson would agree with me about the critical importance of hard work and also the vitality of reading as much as you can. However, as he was a professor of writing for over three decades, he sees task-oriented strategies, techniques, theories, and philosophies for how to write as extremely important—to the point of them serving as prescriptions. It’s almost as though he has a clinical approach to writing: take this idea or do these tasks and your writing will be better. Moreover, use this formula or solution and you’ll produce the best result. As he describes a writing program, the classroom almost feels like a steroid. Pumped up with enough educational muscle on how to write, you’ll be fine. In regard to the craft of writing, I place much less value in books on how to write. I’d rather spend voluminous time reading the novels, stories, and poems of the masters, such as Morrison, McCarthy, Ondaatje, Camus, Borges, Neruda, Olds, Heaney . . . to name a few. They have inspired me more than any how-to books. To me, you cannot be a writer by following a manual or prescription. If all you’re reading is opinions on how to write, you’re not a writer. To use an example, you can read every book on how to play a sport, but only the obsessive sacrifice of working on your game will make you a better player. I recommend reading The Way of the Writer as an adjunct text to whatever novel or other literary work you’re immersed in for inspiration. In the end, I say keep opting for literature over manuals. With that said, l like and agree with many of Johnson’s ideas. He sees the creative process as having inherent rewards in that it is a constructive exercise in problem solving, discovery seeking, and calling forth your intellectual, emotional, and imaginative reactions to the world. I agree, but formulas and rules for writing are less important than one’s commitment, work ethic, and regimen to your craft. He talks about how it is okay to write manuscripts that will never be published. Some work is needed for practice and preparation. Early work can serve as a foundation to learn and grow from. He compares a first draft to a prayer. My years of writing attest to similar experiences. He believes one’s vision for art must have a coherent, consistent, and complete platform from which to present itself. He sees literary works as offering a “performance of language” amounting to “music and poetry.” He wants to be “ambushed by beauty.” He sees every sentence “as being a unit of energy.” I love these ideas. To me, a novel or literary work is the same as poetry, demanding that each sentence is as refined and lovely as a poem. He says that good storytelling reaches a standard of “Alpha Narrative” where the work propels forward with a “ground situation” of conflicts requiring a resolution, and if the story proceeds in a compelling fashion, the writer will essentially become a witness and reporter to the events that transpire. I would add that when a narrative takes a life of its own, the writer becomes a conduit through which the events flow. He states that the duty of a writer involves this principle: “that whatever we want for ourselves we should also want for others.” He believes writers should show homage and reverence to the “intellectual inheritance” that precedes them. This enables an understanding of what they’re contributing to. He says to study a lot and have humility. I agree that knowing the work of the trailblazers is vital to knowing where your ideas want to expand from. In addition, my belief is that writers should support other writers at every opportunity available to them.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Nina Sherman

    This book is a collection of essays with themes ranging from creation to publication, attempting to explain the concept and method of creative writing as an art form through his natural, philosophical style.Often mixing method and spirit liberally, the author conveys spiritual ideals without alienating those of other faiths by showing multiple viewpoints and focusing on the positive messages instead of dragging out the word-by-word transcriptions. While it is often whimsical and thoughtful, it a This book is a collection of essays with themes ranging from creation to publication, attempting to explain the concept and method of creative writing as an art form through his natural, philosophical style.Often mixing method and spirit liberally, the author conveys spiritual ideals without alienating those of other faiths by showing multiple viewpoints and focusing on the positive messages instead of dragging out the word-by-word transcriptions. While it is often whimsical and thoughtful, it also provides specific exercises and practices that help develop writing skills. All sorts of writing are explored, such as literary and ‘pulp’, newspaper articles and improvised writing prompts, even screenplays and translations. In the end, this book is not simply a manual, focused simply on impersonal instruction, it is an in-depth reflection on the idea of storytelling, both for audiences and for oneself. It instructs seasoned authors and inspires budding artists, telling both to do what they love, and to enjoy every moment of it. While this book is truly amazing, it is very unusual in it’s coverage, subject matter, and writing style, potentially losing a fair amount of possible readers. Because of the structure of phrases and diverse vocabulary, I doubt it would be considered literary ‘bubble-gum’, in any case. I would recommend it to philosophically-inclined readers interested in the writing process. However, there are also aspects that others might appreciate. The author has faced a significant amount of racism in the past, which could potentially resonate with readers who’ve been through similar experiences. Also, his conversations on spirituality are intriguing, from a theological and a secular viewpoint. This was a wonderful read, and provided a refreshingly truthful and philosophical view on the creative process. The vocabulary is engaging, the sentences are well-constructed, and concepts are developed beautifully up until their respective conclusions. While the author’s prose often leads into paragraph-long sentences, it never detracts from the clarity of the passage. Personal experiences are shared without arrogance, and instructional advice is given without being bland. Beliefs systems are mentioned without attacking individuals of other faiths. In short, this is probably the most thought-provoking writing guide I’ve read thus far, and I will probably spend the next few days rereading it again and again.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Waverly Fitzgerald

    I've just begun reading this book, which I got from the library and need to return, but I have already ordered a copy of the paperback. I am always interested in the way writers work and Charles Johnson opens with a lot of information about his writing process, some of it startling. He writes all night, then sleeps until noon or 1 pm, a schedule designed so he can spend time with his family. He goes through all of his hundreds of journals when working on the third draft of a new novel looking fo I've just begun reading this book, which I got from the library and need to return, but I have already ordered a copy of the paperback. I am always interested in the way writers work and Charles Johnson opens with a lot of information about his writing process, some of it startling. He writes all night, then sleeps until noon or 1 pm, a schedule designed so he can spend time with his family. He goes through all of his hundreds of journals when working on the third draft of a new novel looking for scraps, ideas, metaphors, etc. to use in his new work. He says it might take him 2 weeks working 8 hours a day. I was shocked and delighted by his advice on publishing a debut novel. He actually turned down an offer of publication for his fourth novel because he was working on his fifth novel and knew it was better and would be a more accurate representation of his goals as a writer. He also writes everything: reviews, children's books, illustrated books, novels, non-fiction, essays, etc. etc. As a boy he envisioned a career for himself as a cartoon artist. As a teacher of writing, I was also fascinated by watching him develop a teaching philosophy (mostly from John Gardner who was his mentor, but hey, those of us who began teaching novel writing in the Eighties, like I did, didn't have much else to go on). Like me, he did not have an MFA when he started teaching in an MFA program and had to feel his way forward, developing exercises and practices that would help his writing students. I'm about halfway through the book but like other reviewers, I find that it's the sort of book one wants to read slowly to absorb and mull over the ideas contained in each short chapter. Johnson is a literary novelist; I'm a commercial novelist. What is the difference, you might ask? I believe Johnson is trying to achieve excellence in language as well as having an impact on the reader. While I simply want to entertain my readers. But I have come away already with a new attitude towards my own writing, taking myself less seriously at the same time as being more patient with myself as I work to meet my own goals.

  19. 4 out of 5

    William Adams

    Johnson describes his career and life as a writer in this autobiography cum advice-for-writers book. While his career and accomplishments are impressive, they don’t do me any good. I was looking for useful information about the craft of writing, and found some. Johnson describes some exercises he gives his students, not much different from ordinary writing exercises except he emphasizes the sounds of words and phrases, spoken and heard. For example, “Describe a character using mostly long vowels Johnson describes his career and life as a writer in this autobiography cum advice-for-writers book. While his career and accomplishments are impressive, they don’t do me any good. I was looking for useful information about the craft of writing, and found some. Johnson describes some exercises he gives his students, not much different from ordinary writing exercises except he emphasizes the sounds of words and phrases, spoken and heard. For example, “Describe a character using mostly long vowels and soft consonants.” Teachers always say you should read your work out loud but I rarely do. I end up hearing what I intended, not the sound of what is written. Johnson’s exercise is helpful in fixing that. Other “tips” are less useful. For example, in a tantalizing chapter on “voice” the question is about characters’ voices, not the author’s, and among characters, the tip is simply to vary the diction for each character. I could have used a lot more about how a character’s world-view defines an integral voice, but no. In general, most of the writing advice is unique autobiographical anecdote with no “lesson” that anybody could apply, or it is made up of platitudes, such as “Pay attention to your teachers,” “Writing is ninety percent rewriting,” and so on. One exception is his list of 100 best first lines of novels. I’ve never been clear on the first line fetish, but even disregarding them, you have here a list of 100 carefully selected literary novels that justifies the price of the book. Anybody who read those books would have a good grounding in literary fiction. I realized I am deficient on the Russians. I bought this book because I was blown away by Johnson’s novel, “Middle Passage,” but then I was slightly disappointed by his craft advice. But if you see this book around at a discount, snap it up. And Read “Middle Passage.”

  20. 5 out of 5

    Godfrey

    Charles Johnson is a gifted storyteller and probably best known for his works of literary fiction, especially the National Book Award winner Middle Passage (1990). However, in this collection of 42 essays, The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling (2016), he comes across more as a hardworking, determined, and successful teacher. Though his essay style gravitates more toward professorial lecturing than emotional persuasion, this book works best when Johnson is sharin Charles Johnson is a gifted storyteller and probably best known for his works of literary fiction, especially the National Book Award winner Middle Passage (1990). However, in this collection of 42 essays, The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling (2016), he comes across more as a hardworking, determined, and successful teacher. Though his essay style gravitates more toward professorial lecturing than emotional persuasion, this book works best when Johnson is sharing personal anecdotes. It is most instructive when he elaborates on his relationship with his mother, his mentorship by the late writer John Gardner, his wide-ranging enthusiasms as a reader and cartoonist, the utility of working in journalism, and some of his techniques and tools for masterful storytelling. I found it less compelling during the essays on philosophy later in the book, in which he tackles ideas such as the similarities and differences between Buddhism and French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism. That said, I am grateful Johnson wrote and published this collection of essays. You will learn a lot about the “[seductive] beauty of a blank page” and how to become a better writer, whatever your genre of expression. To hear Johnson tell it, a writer needs personal experience (live a little), systematic study (read a lot), humility (revise continuously), and an open and inquisitive mind (buy a dictionary; no, seriously, buy a dictionary). I have already acquired some books referenced in this (including a dictionary) and will likely acquire more.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Amy

    Charles R. Johnson is a scholar and the author of novels, short stories, screen-and-teleplays, and essays, whose book Middle Passage won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction in 1990, and who was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship or "Genius Grant" in 1998. He is the recipient of National Endowment For The Arts and Guggenheim Fellowships, and many other prizes such as a 2002 Academy Award in Literature. He is also a former director of the creative writing program at the University of Washington, Charles R. Johnson is a scholar and the author of novels, short stories, screen-and-teleplays, and essays, whose book Middle Passage won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction in 1990, and who was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship or "Genius Grant" in 1998. He is the recipient of National Endowment For The Arts and Guggenheim Fellowships, and many other prizes such as a 2002 Academy Award in Literature. He is also a former director of the creative writing program at the University of Washington, where he held an endowed chair and is now professor emeritus. In short, Johnson knows how to teach creative writing, and The Way of the Writer packs a master's class in creative writing into its pages. As an intellectual and a philosopher, Johnson has several chapters which discuss these aspects of writing, and they are interesting. But what I found to be especially valuable were the chapters that discussed the writing exercises he gave to his students, the readings he recommended, and the like. I have read several other books on writing which give the basics on character development, plot/structure, etc. But Johnson's book stood out in the way it explains to the reader about how to think about each of these aspects, as well as how to develop skills in literary use of language. I marked every page where Johnson described an exercise given to his students and as a writer myself, plan to go through as many of them as possible at home.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Paromjit

    This is an outstanding guide that overviews the art of writing. It is the culmination of a career as an award winning novelist and over thirty years experience of teaching and mentoring students on the components of creative writing and the process of writing. This is the author's record of those years, the teaching strategies, the discussions of what constitutes literature and a practical guide on how to write. It begins with a look at the life of the author. For those seeking to become writers This is an outstanding guide that overviews the art of writing. It is the culmination of a career as an award winning novelist and over thirty years experience of teaching and mentoring students on the components of creative writing and the process of writing. This is the author's record of those years, the teaching strategies, the discussions of what constitutes literature and a practical guide on how to write. It begins with a look at the life of the author. For those seeking to become writers there are useful nuggets of help, such as developing a large vocabulary from which the able writer therefore has much more to draw on. Techniques for capturing useful experiences, overheard conversations, creative thoughts, like a notebook. Johnson outlines how he studied to be a cartoonist with Lawrence Lariar. He focuses on the joy of the creative impulse, where it may come from and how it might be usefully bought to fruition. The motivation that leads to our own unique writings and building the perseverance and confidence to bring it to completion. This is a book for those who are interested in knowing more about writing in general, which can help enrich their experience of reading and evaluating writing, and those who want a practical and philosophical resource and guide for their own writing and the encouragement to keep writing. Thanks to Scribner for an ARC.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Jeffrey Howard

    I understand some of the reactions to Charles Johnson either doing too much name-dropping ("My accomplished writer friend so-and-so...") or referring excessively to his own work ("In my 1976 essay..."). I'm sure he could have done less of that, but given the nature of this book, it's excusable. It's an author writing about how to write. He has an abundance of worthwhile perspectives to share. The Way of the Writer is mostly accurate in what it sells itself as, "reflections on the art and craft of I understand some of the reactions to Charles Johnson either doing too much name-dropping ("My accomplished writer friend so-and-so...") or referring excessively to his own work ("In my 1976 essay..."). I'm sure he could have done less of that, but given the nature of this book, it's excusable. It's an author writing about how to write. He has an abundance of worthwhile perspectives to share. The Way of the Writer is mostly accurate in what it sells itself as, "reflections on the art and craft of storytelling." The more biographical segments that read like a memoir are welcome flavoring, echoing much of Johnson's work writing in Buddhism and pulling from the wisdom tradition. Sure, there are more practical books out there. But if you're interested in something that floats between the territory of useful practices, pitfalls to avoid, and general observations about the craft, The Way of the Writer is a wonderful path to take. I'd say it's in a similar genre of "on writing books" as Margaret Atwood's Negotiating with the Dead—one of the most moving explorations of the craft I've read. Both excellent additions to a writer's bookcase.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Charli Mills

    Charles R. Johnson wanted to be an artist and instead became a writing philosopher. He's everything I find interesting in a person -- intellectually curious, emotionally in tune and ready for life as a big adventure. Therefore, I wanted to read his book on storytelling as a craft. It did not disappoint me. Johnson sets up his book like a writing workshop. We get to know him, his ideals, and the process he teaches. We also learn and better appreciate the call for black Americans to write and shar Charles R. Johnson wanted to be an artist and instead became a writing philosopher. He's everything I find interesting in a person -- intellectually curious, emotionally in tune and ready for life as a big adventure. Therefore, I wanted to read his book on storytelling as a craft. It did not disappoint me. Johnson sets up his book like a writing workshop. We get to know him, his ideals, and the process he teaches. We also learn and better appreciate the call for black Americans to write and share their experiences. Not that writers need to be divided down lines of genre or cultural background (neither defines what it is to be a writer); however it is important to acknowledge the truth from where a writer writes. We all write from our experiences and we all know that many American experiences have been marginalized. This is why we need diverse voices in literature. Johnson's book is for every writer and if you are serious about your craft this book will be a Must-Have on your shelf.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Britney

    3.5 I really appreciated Johnson's experience with teaching creative writing, and I gathered some useful concepts and practices from what he shared. As I would love to eventually teach writing in some aspect, I enjoyed these sections the most out of this book. I found myself disagreeing with his stance on mainstream/popular/genre fiction (basically suggesting it's dumbed down and a lesser form of writing mostly just written to bring in money), but I've heard the same thoughts before so I didn't l 3.5 I really appreciated Johnson's experience with teaching creative writing, and I gathered some useful concepts and practices from what he shared. As I would love to eventually teach writing in some aspect, I enjoyed these sections the most out of this book. I found myself disagreeing with his stance on mainstream/popular/genre fiction (basically suggesting it's dumbed down and a lesser form of writing mostly just written to bring in money), but I've heard the same thoughts before so I didn't let it bother me too much. He balanced out his opinions by also including decent criticism of literary fiction as well. The last few chapters focus strongly on philosophy, and I confess I zoned out a bit during these chapters because I preferred reading the more practical applications he'd been discussing earlier. The chapters are short though, and if I have the urge to wrestle with some philosophical questions about writing, those chapters are perfect to go back to.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Bill

    I had a lot of trouble getting through this. It would have been a fascinating memoir, but it is not so helpful as far as advice goes. At a few points, I despaired that I should never be able to so much as dash together a ghost story since I had not written five novels before I turned twenty-seven, as Charles Johnson had. And I will never have John Gardner for a mentor, either. But having started, I'm glad I saw it through. The final chapter, "The Truth-Telling Power of Fiction," is inspiring and I had a lot of trouble getting through this. It would have been a fascinating memoir, but it is not so helpful as far as advice goes. At a few points, I despaired that I should never be able to so much as dash together a ghost story since I had not written five novels before I turned twenty-seven, as Charles Johnson had. And I will never have John Gardner for a mentor, either. But having started, I'm glad I saw it through. The final chapter, "The Truth-Telling Power of Fiction," is inspiring and challenging. I'd suggest skipping straight to this last chapter and reading that alone. It concisely reiterates Johnson's best thoughts from the rest of the book, but without the constant insertion of his own accomplishments and of his mentoring by John Gardner.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Ann Douglas

    This book contains a lot of good advice about writing and the writing life, but I found it to be a bit of a tedious slog. My biggest quibble with the book is that it was more a memoir of a life spent writing and teaching than an actual how-to guide. Sometimes the author's desire to focus on his own life and experience got in the way of conveying genuinely useful information. Here's the most glaring example. In Chapter 17, the author mentions a set of exercises that he used with his writing stude This book contains a lot of good advice about writing and the writing life, but I found it to be a bit of a tedious slog. My biggest quibble with the book is that it was more a memoir of a life spent writing and teaching than an actual how-to guide. Sometimes the author's desire to focus on his own life and experience got in the way of conveying genuinely useful information. Here's the most glaring example. In Chapter 17, the author mentions a set of exercises that he used with his writing students -- but he never actually gets around to sharing the specifics of those exercises. (I was expecting them to show up in a chart or an appendix, but nope. All we know is that he created some great exercises and shared them with his students. If only the reader of this book had been so lucky!)

  28. 4 out of 5

    Hashim Alsughayer

    I enjoyed listening to this book. Let me start with this simple fact. The book had many elements on the life of Charles Johnson the writer, the philosopher, and the human being. He talked about his struggles in life, his upbringing and his writing which gave the book its strength. Johnson's life is an amazing one, one that needs to be read about. The only negative I had, was the title. It wasnt an indepth study of the life of a writer. No, it was more of a memoir of Johnson's work and life. I do I enjoyed listening to this book. Let me start with this simple fact. The book had many elements on the life of Charles Johnson the writer, the philosopher, and the human being. He talked about his struggles in life, his upbringing and his writing which gave the book its strength. Johnson's life is an amazing one, one that needs to be read about. The only negative I had, was the title. It wasnt an indepth study of the life of a writer. No, it was more of a memoir of Johnson's work and life. I don't mind reading a memoir on this great writer, but at least let me know that it is in fact a memoir and not a general book on writing. Having said this, I can't say that the one and only negative I had on the book ruined it. In fact, I'm willing now to read more of his work.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Leda Frost

    Holy Pretension, Batman. I couldn't get through this book for the life of me, and I gave it a real chance, reading about halfway before I had to admit to myself that I couldn't finish it. It's writers like this that make people think writers are full of themselves. I'm surprised this man can fit in a house with his ego, which is made all the more ironic considering his constant references to Buddhism. From the very first page his style grated on me (never have I seen so many parenthetical remark Holy Pretension, Batman. I couldn't get through this book for the life of me, and I gave it a real chance, reading about halfway before I had to admit to myself that I couldn't finish it. It's writers like this that make people think writers are full of themselves. I'm surprised this man can fit in a house with his ego, which is made all the more ironic considering his constant references to Buddhism. From the very first page his style grated on me (never have I seen so many parenthetical remarks in my life and, like many others, I could have done without the name dropping, philosophical anecdotes, and references to his own work. I guess I prefer my writer self-help books to have a lot more help and lot less self.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Kay

    Excited that Johnson will be the keynote speaker at a Fall 2019 writers' conference I'll go to, and remembering the impact Middle Passage had on me, I grabbed this book to see what Johnson has been up to. Love it! What a wise and quiet path to really good writiing! My favorite chapter is "In Defense of Our Language," --> "Whenever I start reading something, the first thing I look for is a high level of language performance." Me, too. And Johnson's discussion of this is worth a slew of writers' c Excited that Johnson will be the keynote speaker at a Fall 2019 writers' conference I'll go to, and remembering the impact Middle Passage had on me, I grabbed this book to see what Johnson has been up to. Love it! What a wise and quiet path to really good writiing! My favorite chapter is "In Defense of Our Language," --> "Whenever I start reading something, the first thing I look for is a high level of language performance." Me, too. And Johnson's discussion of this is worth a slew of writers' courses! Simply written, using examples, engaging as a conversation over coffee, full of a writers' lifetime experience, this is one to keep on the top shelf!

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