I have read books since I was 3 years old, so I have been a reader for a long time. I have not been a writer for nearly as long, but find that as I write, I become a writer. And there are books to help me, as a writer. I would be remiss, and do a great disservice to every other writer in the world, if I were not to mention a book that has changed the way I think about the process of writing and revision, and the way I approach voice, character, and plot. I will mention I do not get any money from plugging this book, nor am I associated with the author — more’s the pity for me.
The book is called The Way of the Writer — Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling by Charles Johnson. Charles Johnson is winner of the National Book Award and a professor emeritus at the University of Washington. I think that I would enjoy having this man as an instructor and mentor — sit at his feet and write down his every utterance, do all the work he asks his students to do — I know that I could only grow better and revel in my work.
This is an excerpt from the book, when Mr. Johnson writes about what he requires from his students: “To emphasize the importance of storytelling in addition to craft, I ask that every student turn in a complete, two-page plot outline for a new story each week. I want to nudge them beyond writing the same semiautobiographical story over and over, to imagine other lives, and to be raconteurs always ready to tell an engaging tale. Students generate ten outlines each term, enough to carry them into future workshops. For my graduate students, five of those have specific requisites: 1) one outline must use a classic reversal; 2) one must be in a traditional or neglected literary form not used for a major work of fiction in the last hundred years, a form students must go to the library and research; 3) one must use a historical figure, living or dead, as a protagonist or secondary character; 4) one must address some question, problem, or theme that hasn’t been dramatized in contemporary American fiction; and 5) one must blend two or more traditional or contemporary forms of fiction.”
What Mr. Johnson does, in the guise of teaching the craft of writing, is create writers in the manner of ancient sword makers of Japan crafting swords for samurai. Untampered steel goes into the fire, then is hit with a heavy hammer and folded, again and again and again, and thrust into the fire, only to be beaten again with a hammer, so that the final product, the sword that is produced, is the strongest, the most powerful tool. More than the tool, the samurai believed that their swords were their souls, the very best that was the extension of themselves. So it is with students going through Charles Johnson’s classes — I imagine them being thrust into the fire, and worked over, again and again, working harder than they’ve ever worked at anything, only to come out of the class possessing not just knowledge, but also wielding the unique powers and skills so vital to being a writer.
Some people may wonder if they need to go to college to become writers. The answer, I believe, is a resounding NO! College can give you structure, may help with discipline that is required of every writer, but it is not essential (unless you really want to, then please, by all means, go to college, and enjoy the experience. I certainly did enjoy it). Reading Mr. Johnson’s book, and doing the work as if you were in class, would serve you as well. Again, this requires organization, discipline and the desire to work your butt off, but I believe that the result is completely worth it.
I feel lucky that I have this book, and I promise to use the wisdom and guidance of Mr. Johnson on my way to becoming a writer. Because the way of becoming a writer IS actually BEING a writer — writing, doing the increasingly complex and challenging work, putting in the hours required to expand your mind, your horizons, and your expertise.
If it is unclear what I am saying at this point, then let me be clear: Please, go buy this book, underline it, highlight it, and use it to become the writer that you were meant to be. Forge your steel.