Four Things I Learned Reading The Way of the Writer by Charles Johnson


My wife and I were at Barnes and Noble to return a book we’d received three or four copies of as gifts. I meandered through the aisles on the hunt for a new addition to my ever-growing collection of books. What should catch my eye, but Charles Johnson’s The Way of the Writer. It drew me in as I fanned its pages for the first time, landing on a spreadsheet in its middle, but more on that in a moment.

I tossed the book onto the stack of dozens like it when we got home. I figured I’d get to it months down the road, but my curiosity got the best of me. Within a few hours I found myself kicking back with it in one hand a pen in the other.

Johnson approaches the art of writing in much the same style as Stephen King in On Writing. The Way of the Writer serves as part memoir and part instruction manual on the craft of writing. Instead of coming from the perspective of a famous novelist, it flows from the pen of an academic. Johnson has much to share even in the early pages of this work. I’d like to share four of my biggest takeaways with you here.

1. Writer’s Notebook - When someone mentions something two or three times it's important. Johnson refers to his writer’s notebook at least a dozen times throughout the book. On its third appearance, he explains that it is a “collection of images, ideas, scraps of language, character sketches, overheard conversation, and so forth.”

I find this to be such a plain and excellent idea, that I’m ashamed to admit I hadn’t thought of it sooner. Of course, a writer should be writing down what pops into their mind at all points of the day. Relying on memory alone isn't enough. I’ve carried a notebook with me for some time now but writing down bits of overheard conversation hadn't crossed my mind. I’ll have to be more diligent in my eavesdropping moving forward. I can't think of a better way to train my ear for true and real uses of language.

2. Quotes Spreadsheet - I landed on page fifty-two while first flipping the book’s pages. It contains a spreadsheet of what the American Book Review once considered the top 100 first lines found in novels. I thought it was a gathering of quotes and lines from various books upon first discovery. It wasn't but that didn't stop me from running with the idea. I created a spreadsheet for collecting everything I’ve underlined, copied and enjoyed in pieces of writing. Below is a smattering of entries so far in my reading of The Way of the Writer:   

  • To the degree, then, that I believe the health of a culture can be measured by the performance of those who speak and write its language. If that thesis is credible, then perhaps we should be worried by the coarseness, vulgarity, and at times obscenity that we encounter so often today in American speech.
  • The problem, as I see it, with vulgarity is that it is unexpressive, a failure to reveal things in a fresh way. Rather than liberate our perception, vulgarity calcifies it.
  • 90 percent of good writing is rewriting.
  • Writing well is the same thing as thinking well, and that means we want our final literary product—story, novel, or essay—to exhibit our best thought, best feeling, and best technique.
  • I write, first and foremost, in order to discover and clarify things for myself. (And that's why I write a lot; there are countless subjects I want to explore in this vast, mysterious universe we inhabit.) If I couldn't do that, then I wouldn't write.
  • Most of the ideas expressed by writers today are not new. Far too many writers are simply unaware that an idea they believe is original was actually thought and expressed—and presented with eloquence and sophistication—more than two thousand years before they were born. Writing well is thinking well. That necessarily involves knowing—and caring about—the best thoughts of others.

3. Interviewing Idea - “At the end of 2010,” Johnson said, “the poet E. Ethelbert Miller, who was recently inducted into the Washington, DC, Hall of Fame for his contributions to literature and public life, presented me with a proposal that at first glance might have seemed preposterous. He asked if he could interview me for an entire year.” What an incredible idea! Think of all you could learn about an individual, their work, and view of the world. It is a project boiling over with possibilities to take a deep dive into another’s world. I’m not 100% sure how I’m going to use this spark of inspiration, but it will at the very least involve an interview or two.

4. New Words - “A literary work is first and foremost,” Johnson said, “a performance of language” Fewer words from his pen have rung truer halfway through The Way of the Writer, than these. Johnson’s love for ornate language is on full display throughout his writing. On at least three different occasions, I’ve had to pause and research terms he’s used. Words like oeuvre are opportunities to learn and play with parcels of language I haven’t encountered.