Charles Johnson

How did you become a writer?   

I started my creative life as a professional cartoonist and illustrator when I was 17-years-old after studying for two years when I was in high school with cartoonist/mystery Lawrence Lariar. My first three short stories were published in 1965 in the literary supplement of my high school newspaper and are reprinted in First Words: Earliest Writings From Favorite Contemporary Writers, edited by Paul Mandelbaum. The next year, 1966, I received two second-place awards in the sports and humor divisions for a comic strip and panel from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association’s national contest for high school cartoonists. I drew furiously during my college years, producing thousands of drawings in every genre (editorial cartoons, panel cartoons, illustrations, even designing a commemorative stamp) for a wide range of publications, from The Chicago Tribune to what was called in the 1960s and early ‘70s the “black press” (Jet, Ebony, Black World, and Players, a black version of Playboy), all of which culminated at the end of seven years in two books of comic art, Black Humor and Half-Past Nation-Time, and an early PBS drawing show, “Charlie’s Pad” (1970) that I created, hosted, and co-produced. I should note that cartoonists and comic artists are storytellers, too. In 1970 I had an idea for a novel that wouldn’t leave me alone, and so I wrote it over the summer, then five more unpublished apprentice novels before my seventh and debut novel Faith and the Good Thing (1974).

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

I have already mentioned Lawrence Lariar, but I am deeply indebted to philosopher Don Ihde, America’s most prominent phenomenologist, and the director for my dissertation, Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970 (1988). And also to my literary mentor, the prolific and influential writer John Gardner, who was this country’s greatest teacher of creative writing. As a philosopher, I am most influenced by books in the phenomenological tradition. As a Buddhist, I’ve been most influenced since my teens by works in the 2600-year-old tradition of the Buddhadharma.

When and where do you write? 

I write at home in my study, which I’ve described in the chapter titled “The Writing Space” in my new book The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling. The photo on the book’s cover shows me in that study with my four-year-old grandson Emery, and our two dogs, Nova and Biggie.

What are you working on now? 

Nothing at the moment. I’m still immersed in doing interviews for my new book and the usual promotional activities expected from authors.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

No, I’ve never been unable to write.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

“Any sentence that can come out of your literary creation should come out.”

What’s your advice to new writers?

Train yourself to be a technician of form and language, to be able to take on any literary assignment that comes your way. As Henry James says in The Art of Fiction, “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!” that is, a life-long learner. And take to heart playwright August Wilson’s “Four Rules” for writing:

1. There are no rules.

2. The first rule is wrong, so pay attention.

3. You can’t write for an audience; the writer’s first job is to survive.

4. You can make no mistakes, but anything you write can be made better.


Dr. Charles Johnson, University of Washington (Seattle) professor emeritus and the author of 22 books, is a novelist, philosopher, essayist, literary scholar, short-story writer, cartoonist and illustrator, an author of children’s literature, and a screen-and-teleplay writer. A MacArthur fellow, Johnson has received a 2002 American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature, a 1990 National Book Award for his novel Middle Passage, a 1985 Writers Guild award for his PBS teleplay “Booker,” the 2016 W.E.B. Du Bois Award at the National Black Writers Conference, and many other awards. The Charles Johnson Society at the American Literature Association was founded in 2003. In November, 2016, Pegasus Theater in Chicago debuted its play adaptation of Middle Passage, titled “Rutherford’s Travels.” Dr. Johnson recently published Taming the Ox: Buddhist Stories and Reflections on Politics, Race, Culture, and Spiritual Practice. His latest book is The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling.