My favourite gift to receive for Chanukah or Christmas, both of which we celebrate at home, is a book. Thanks to my wife Kara for this year’s wonderful choice of US National Book Award winner Charles Johnson’s The Way of the Writer.
Part memoir, part how-to manual, part philosophical meditation from a writer and a philosopher, the book has already become one of the few books that I read more than once.
To start with, the book renewed my faith in creative writing programs. I never took a degree in the subject but did take creative writing courses in poetry in CEGEP and university, and I was never overly impressed. But Johnson’s approach and that of his mentor, the late writer and teacher John Gardner, makes me think I missed something along the way.
Both men, gifted teachers as well as writers, acknowledge that voice and vision come from within, and can’t really be taught. But both prove, through a few of the writing exercises mentioned in the book, that technique most certainly can. And with the right level of technique, a student is better equipped to realize the potential in narrative inspiration when it does strike. Many of these exercises appear in Gardner’s The Art of Fiction.
Living up to Horace’s dictum about what literature should do, Johnson’s book both instructed and delighted me. As just one example of the latter, he includes the top one hundred list of best first lines in novels as selected by the editors of American Book Review. Here are just a couple examples:
“Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.” From Anita Brookner’s The Debut.
“If I am out of my mind, it’s alright with me, thought Moses Herzog” From Saul Bellow’s Herzog.
Speaking of Saul Bellow, Johnson introduced me to his 1971 essay “Culture Now,” which includes the following reason for why writers exist:
“This society, like ancient Rome, is an amusement society. Art cannot and should not compete with amusement. it has business at the heart of humanity. The artist, as Collingwood tells us, must be a prophet, ‘not in the sense that he foretells things to come, but that he tells the audience, at the risk of their displeasure, the secrets of their own hearts.’ That is why he exists. He is a spokesperson for his community.”
If you love to write, or love a writer in your life, this book is a great gift.