A pithy guide for writers and those who teach them.
In a series of short essays, Johnson (Emeritus, Creative Writing/Univ. of Washington; Taming the Ox: Buddhist Stories and Reflections on Politics, Race, Culture, and Spiritual Practice, 2014, etc.), a MacArthur fellow and winner of the National Book Award, Writers Guild Award, and many other honors, draws on his experience as a writer (of novels, essays, screenplays, and philosophy); editor (of the Seattle Review); fiction judge for the National Book Award (twice), PEN/Faulkner Award, Los Angeles Times Book Award, and Pulitzer Prize; and longtime teacher and mentor to offer practical advice on the writing process and the writing life. Although he refers frequently to his mentor John Gardner—“a bluff, combustible, and brilliant teacher”— Johnson admits that he never took a college writing workshop and, in fact, looked on them with disdain. “To my eye,” he writes, “they were dominated by the instructor’s personality and unsolicited political opinions, and took an approach that was highly subjective,” encouraging immature students to “write about what they know.” When he took on the task of teaching creative writing, he designed his workshops to be demanding, with rigorous exercises meant to free students from solipsism. “A Boot Camp for Creative Writing” offers examples of those exercises; “Opening Sentences: A Hundred Rays of Light” includes examples of admirable first lines from mostly canonical novels, including Moby-Dick, Kafka’s The Trial, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Echoing many other writing guides, Johnson focuses on the power of precise words, the importance of developing voice, and the joys and challenges of revision. “Sometimes, he admits, “my ratio of throwaway to keep pages is 20:1.” Revision, he adds, “is a combination of cutting away (like sculpting the sentence from stone) and also a constant layering of the language (like working with the sentence as you would clay).” Throughout, Johnson’s voice is generous and warm, even while he is cautioning writers to be their own ruthless editors.
A useful writing guide from an experienced practitioner.