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Thoughts on the Process: a Conversation about Writing with Fenton Johnson

PUBLISHED: September 15, 2009

Fenton JohnsonFenton Johnson is the author of two novels (Crossing the River (1989) and Scissors, Paper, Rock (1993)), the critically acclaimed memoir Geography of the Heart (1996), and the nonfiction Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey (2003). His work has been widely anthologized and published in numerous literary journals (including an essay in VQR in 1990). However, in addition to his own writing career, Fenton is also a professor in the creative writing program at the University of Arizona, where I had the good fortune of taking his senior nonfiction seminar as an undergraduate. What follows is an online conversation of sorts about the writing process.

The editing, work-shopping, and re-writing cycle is such an integral part of the writing process. How has your personal process of “finishing” a piece evolved from the time that you first started writing? Any specific places you have to be or things you have to have in order to write? 

With the exception of the occasional piece that the goddess lets fall from the heavens, good writing takes time. I feel that workshops perform an essential function, which is to provide a writer who’s had only friends as readers experience the terror of presenting work before an audience of critics. Over the years I am always re-learning that lesson: No matter how carefully I rewrite and edit at home, sending the manuscript out will bring me to see its flaws in a new, brighter, harsher light.  These days, rather than a formal workshop, I trade work among several friends who are writing. For a long work—e.g., a novel—I begin identifying my readers early in the process, and I never ask anyone to read work more than once—since far more often than not that’s how my reader will encounter it.

All I need to write is pen and paper—and I mean pen and paper. I encourage my students to cultivate the habit of taking notes by hand because pen and paper are more portable and far less obtrusive than any electronic technology yet developed. That’s not to dis electronic technology but to say that all the professional writers I know have trained themselves to take notes by hand because of the convenience involved, and because in taking notes by hand one begins to edit and shape the piece. The hand can’t keep up with the speaker—and that’s a good thing, because the interview or conversation  becomes a discipline in paying close attention and in choosing and cutting as you listen.

When it comes to teaching writing, how do you communicate a sense of what it means to develop one’s own process? Some people can work beautifully in a busy coffee shop while others need to be sitting at a desk in a room with the door shut. Is there a better way to figure out what works other than trying a bit of everything? 

If there’s a better way than trial-and-error I haven’t found it. I will say that when it’s really, really hard—when you find yourself laying your forehead on the table in despair—you can remind yourself, if it’s any consolation, that this is all part of learning your process. Because it is.

On a technical note, have computers changed the way you write? The way you run workshops? The writing style or re-writing process of students you’ve worked with? (And, dare I ask: PC or mac?)

I have a PC mostly because it does the job more cheaply than a Mac, and that’s good. I know the advantages of Macs, and as Microsoft has become more proprietary and rapacious I think a lot about making the shift—but not so much that I’d be willing to give a lot of time over to making it.

Computers are vastly useful tools but as with all technology one must take care that the horse is pulling the cart. They encourage snap judgments, sloppy habits (I’d put the error rate of grammar-checking programs as high as 25%), shallow thinking, and bad manners, and that’s only a start. They don’t have to do this, of course—they’re our servants, or they can be. But technology has a sneaky way of leading us to where it wants to go—look at how the automobile transformed American habits, and not at all for the better, in my judgment. A similar process is happening / has already happened with computer technology.  One can resist it—but it’s tough. To an extent writers must resist it, because our stock-in-trade is, as Wordsworth had it, emotion remembered in tranquility. Writing is significantly a contemplative art, and we undercut its usefulness if we sacrifice the time and effort required to make it good.

But now let me say a word in praise of computers. They have the potential of enabling the written word and the visual image to go hand-in-hand in a way that hasn’t happened since the Middle Ages. They bring the means of publication into reach of just about every determined soul, and while that has drawbacks—how do we choose what to read?—it has the potential to give many more people a platform from which to speak. And that, too, is a good thing—but only if those people continue to read as well as to write. It’s a common plaint but true: today we have many writers and few readers. And this has been a discovery for me: how veritably it is true that you will write what you read. If you devote yourself to giving serious, well-written work your fullest attention, something of its style and substance will work itself deeply into your writing. If you read trash, you’ll write trash. And spare us the experience of reading those writers who don’t read at all. 

All that potential! It will be what we make of it, which can be both the bad and the good news. I consider myself fortunate to have experienced the world before and after the rise of the computer.

Writing is such a solitary pursuit, yet ultimately the product of what is written is designed to be shared. Within the confines of a writing workshop, the identity of those who will be the first to offer criticism and commentary is clearly established. What do you see as the benefits (or drawbacks) of having someone who is probably a complete stranger be among the first to see a developing piece? And outside of a workshop, how does one find readers with the right kind of perspective to help a piece improve?

Perhaps the most useful aspect of a workshop—more useful than the critiques, which are often all over the map—is the irreplaceable and salutary terror of public performance. Putting up a piece before a workshop is in effect publishing it, and the workshop offers many new writers their first exposure to the very best teaching tool, which is one’s own self-recrimination after putting up a piece that the writer knew in her/his heart wasn’t quite ready. When I was taking workshops, I found that the best critique was that which reinforced a challenge I already recognized, albeit perhaps subliminally, but hadn’t summoned the courage or the effort to confront. Or perhaps I had confronted it a thousand times and finally in exhaustion pulled out the writerly equivalent of spackling compound and smoothed it over, figuring that the reader will never notice. And someone notices, and with sinking heart—but renewed sense of purpose—I turn back to the project.

Outside of a workshop? Reading groups, libraries, among friends, small workshops conducted through nonprofits, craigslist—but it helps to have some vetting process, to make sure that those with whom you’re working share at least a seriousness of purpose. The best way to do this is to ask what they’ve recently read. That should tell you in a few minutes or less whether you and your potential interlocutor share enough that you would make good members of a writing group.

What has been the biggest surprise about the life of a writer? Is there a particular memory that stands out as something you couldn’t have imagined on the first day you received the envelope in the mail that said a submission had been accepted?

I didn’t understand the power of words, why illiterate peoples revere those who can read and write. I took reading and writing for granted because I had never known a world without access to them. And then writing taught me to respect its power, and readers humbled me with the same lesson. “Nothing induces silence like experience,” Flannery O’Connor said. Enough time and good fortune and I might find the courage to become a poet; though I have always been drawn to the story, to finding and following a narrative thread in the great, mysterious weave of the world.

My people were storytellers, and writing taught me how and why this was and is true. Finally, writing taught me that it really is about process, not product. One must and should find the joy in putting the words on the page; the rest is destiny—in which one has a hand. I’ll close with the poet Marianne Moore on that point. Quoting the theologian Martin Buber, she said, “The wise man believes that destiny exists, and that it has need of him.” By way of emphasis she added, “Not fate—destiny.” In their difference lies a writer’s life.

For those in the area, Fenton will be teaching and delivering a lecture at the Tomales Bay Workshops, run by UC-Davis Extension, October 21-24 and delivering a lecture at the Arizona Poetry Center at the University of Arizona on November 2.


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