Book Note (New Release): The Way of the Writer by Charles Johnson


(Disclosure: I received an eArc of The Way of the Writer through NetGalley and the publisher for review consideration.)

I am not one for the type of writing prompts scattered around writing sites, Pinterest, and elsewhere these days. I’m talking of the type such as, “Be a teapot and describe your day in the kitchen” or “A neighbor is missing after monopolizing the neighborhood’s Fall Festival bounce house for three hours. All children under twelve are suspects. What happened?” 

This, sadly or not, is consistent with my personality. I don’t get amped up about answering hypothetical questions such as, “If you won the lottery, what would you do with the money?” Same with the “Would you rather” variety of questions. I appreciate the creativity it produces in others and envy the party-trick delight it engenders among groups of people, but there are no sparks of wit or swirling concoctions of cleverness in my own head.

Imagine my surprise when I read a book with writing prompts that set off bells, whistles and alarms! 

In The Way of the Writer celebrated author Charles Johnson condenses his vast teaching strategies and writing experience into accessible, succinct, and instructive chapters designed to challenge writers at all levels. Drawing often from his own works and those of his mentor John Gardner, as well as a wide range of philosophers and novelists, Johnson extracts, examines, exposes, and explains.

In one section he provides a glimpse of some of the writing prompts that he used in his classes, generated by his mentor John Gardner. One example asks students to describe a character using mostly long vowels and soft consonants and then to describe the same character with short vowels and soft consonants. Johnson explains that Gardner’s purpose in this instance was to lead a student to understand how changing these variables creates differing effects. I have no idea how I will approach the prompt, but I plan on giving it a try. That type of challenge intrigues me. That’s getting into the nuts and bolts of word choice and tone. 

In a couple instances a quote is duplicated or an introduction or clarification is repeated, but after the reader’s mind reorients from the blip of redundancy it is smooth reading throughout. Johnson includes a generous sampling of strategies for writers to practice, including a rigorous sampling of his expectations while teaching at the University of Washington. His integration of theory, philosophy, practice, and execution is robust and supported further by an extensive reading list interspersed throughout the chapters.

This book is enlightening and inspiring from beginning to end, but it is also thoughtfully broken down so as to be used as a reference from time to time. I gave up highlighting useful snippets; I’ll buy the book instead…and John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction for more of those writing prompts. The Way of the Writer by Charles Johnson is at the top of my “Best Books About Writing” list.


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