How I write: Bret Anthony Johnston
Published: September 2, 2005
|In his first collection, Corpus Christi: Stories (2004), Bret Anthony Johnston explores the lives of ordinary people caught up in hurricanes of change-death, grief, love and loss of all kinds. Reviewers have consistently remarked upon Johnston's lucid, pristine prose and simple, evocative images that draw a character's world with a brush stroke. Johnston has received several awards, in particular for Corpus Christi. Among his other skills, he has been a professional skateboarder and a commentator for NPR's All Things Considered. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, he currently teaches in the creative writing program at California State University and is completing a novel and editing an anthology of creative-writing exercises, both due out from Random House. |
Why: I am, as Henry James says, a reader moved to emulation. I write because I so deeply revere books. Frank Conroy, my wonderful teacher, believed we read out of a profound curiosity about other human beings, that we long to connect with another soul on the page. I would humbly add that we write for the same reasons. It's a cry from the heart, a protest against mortality itself, a noble way to spend a life. Who could ask for anything more?
Ideas: I don't believe in inspiration, and I don't put much stock in the notion of talent; I think writing comes down to discipline, dedication and logged hours, so I don't wait around for stories to come to me. Writing begets writing. Some of the stories in Corpus Christi came from conversations I'd eavesdropped on, or from very vivid, as well as very faulty, memories from a story in the newspaper. Once I had the initial idea, I simply worked and worked to imagine the characters. Every story boils down to character. The writer's job is to convincingly inhabit the senses and skins of her characters, to empathize unconditionally. To the author observing the world through those lenses, the stories offer themselves.
Process: Truthfully, I'm a stunningly bad writer but a dedicated and rigorous re- writer. I write every first draft in longhand, and I refuse to read a word until it is complete. I don't want to inhibit the writing process, so I constantly push forward until the story reaches its end. The only goal of any first draft is to deliver the writer to the third and fourth and 50th. After handwriting the initial draft, I type it out and reread it, editing and bolstering the narrative as I go. This is where the real work begins. Each draft delves deeper and aspires higher.
Finding the right details: Finding a detail that authenticates a story or character is about patience and diligence, working and reworking the prose until the images serve as more than props or window dressing. Here again, we return to character. The details that will resonate for one character, details that open up the world of the story and the world at large for the reader, will not resonate for all characters. The task, unfortunately, isn't simply thinking up a beautiful description or a clever observation and dropping it into any old story at random. The details have to come from within the characters. What is observed and how it's considered must reveal something about the character, and that method of selection must illuminate something for the reader.
Advice: The best response comes from Richard Bausch, who says the best advice is to ignore all advice. ... What works for one writer won't work as well for another. That said, I steadfastly believe that finding a community of like-minded people to seriously consider your work is invaluable. Take your writing seriously and surround yourself with [similar] people. Go to writers conferences and author readings, participate in workshops, read magazines like The Writer.
Interview by Sarah Anne Johnson