Book Review: The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling by Charles Johnson

I came across this book while browsing a shelf of materials about the Pacific Northwest or by Pacific Northwest writers and filmmakers. I’m almost always up for interesting books on writing, although I had not heard of Charles Johnson. It turns out he’s an important African-American writer. He won the National Book Award in 1990 for his novel Middle Passage, and for over thirty years he taught creative writing at the University of Washington.

The Way of the Writer is an informal book. It’s divided into short sections that read as if they are assembled blog posts. In fact, as I read, I sometimes thought of another collection of essays I read recently, No Time to Spare by Ursula K. Le Guin, which is in fact a series of accumulated blogs.

Johnson’s book is not a how-to for writers. Although there is practical advice scattered throughout, most of it takes the form of a memoir as he briefly touches on the many types of creative work he has done during his decades-long career, including novels, short stories, essays, scripts, and cartoons. He also describes his life as a teacher and some of his teaching techniques.

Most of the book is in the very conversational tone of an experienced, acclaimed writer reminiscing about a long and successful career. Every writer’s journey is different, and Johnson’s is fascinating. He began as a professional cartoonist for various newspapers and magazines and from there got into journalism and novel writing. He alludes numerous times to his mentor John Gardner, who was one of his first writing teachers and helped him achieve his first sales and his agent. Another topic he comes back to over and over is the value of rewriting, of going through multiple drafts before considering a literary work finished. I know from having read many book and articles on writing that this is a controversial topic, but Johnson falls definitively into the rewrite camp. As an example, he mentions throwing away 3,000 imperfect pages while composing the 250-page Middle Passage.

In the last few chapters, Johnson delves into subjects such as Buddhism, existentialism, and other philosophical topics which are not directly on the subject of writing, except to the extent that the philosophies of writers shape their individual works. This part of the book is not as easy a read as the rest, partly because it veers away from the general discussion of the writing life, and also because it touches on philosophical arguments that require more space to elucidate than is given within the context of this book. I suppose another reason that I felt my attention wandering is that I have little interest in existentialism as expounded by writers such as Sartre, as my own worldview differs so radically from theirs. All in all, though, I found this book a pleasant journey into the life and thoughts of an important writer that I am glad to have discovered.

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