By Fenton Johnson, Spalding MFA Creative Nonfiction and Fiction Faculty
California Valley Oak
“Nothing induces silence like experience,” wrote Flannery O’Connor, an observation that comes to mind more often as I grow older. On occasion I have considered that the best way to teach creative writing might be for the workshop to read together, first in silence and then aloud, a paragraph by a master, then sit with that paragraph in silence for the next two hours. These thoughts come particularly to mind now because, in teaching my most recent Spalding intensive, I neglected to conclude my workshop with the admonition with which I conclude all my workshops, i.e., forget everything I’ve said, open your heart, go out and look at the world, and write.
I am reading a book I recommend—Oak: The Frame of Civilization, which fits comfortably among a rash of recent works of creative nonfiction which, working from a single item (e.g., codfish, salt, oak), make dramatic and occasionally overblown assertions about How Things Got to Be the Way Things Are Now because of this single item. What sets Oak apart—aside from my lifelong affection for trees, about which more below—is its writer’s ever-present awareness of the connection between the old stories and our present moment.
Though he is a professional forester and arborist, William Bryant Logan understands that truth (not at all the same as fact) lies in the old stories, that in fact—in fact—the old stories, properly understood, can be as reliable as contemporary data, maybe more so, in re-creating our past and so providing clues about our present and future. Thirty-five hundred years ago, the Rig Vedas told us that past and future are an illusion, that all moments are present to this moment. A century of research and billions spent on quantifying data, and quantum physics is on the verge of catching up with the past.
Any master storyteller makes my point but Alice Munro comes immediately to mind. In the middle of a paragraph she shifts from the past tense to present tense—from the story’s present moment to the histories of its places and characters and their dreams for the future—exactly the sort of gesture I once cautioned students against, and for good reason. And yet in Munro the gesture works, because she has so thoroughly grasped the truth that all moments are present to this moment—to the storyteller’s moment.
This is relevant to us storytellers because it underscores the significance and contemporary importance of our art, so out of favor with the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) advocates. It is easy to forget or minimize the importance of teaching and learning how to tell stories, even as years in the classroom have taught me their healing power over and over. “A thing ain’t happened until it’s been told,” an old moonshiner once told me. That interior voice that is aching to escape, to break out, to tell the story, must be heeded.
And the success of the work should be gauged by the measure in which it embodies and expresses the gesture that set it in motion. In A Little Book on Form, poet Robert Hass defines “form” as “the way the poem embodies the energy of the gesture of its making.” His definition bears repeating, because where he uses “poem” we may comfortably substitute “story” or “memoir” or “novel” or “sculpture” or “painting” or “composition” or “choreography”:
“The way the (poem/memoir/novel/sculpture/painting/composition/choreography) embodies the energy of the gesture of its making.”
So simple, right? All the writer or artist has to do is “just” to transform the energy—the passion and inspiration of the moment—into something tangible and enduring. But Hass’s observation contains and expresses all the challenge of art, which is to penetrate, to see behind and beyond the complications of the surface to the simple truths they conceal. The challenge of the artist is to re-create the world as it is—to imitate, in fact, the gesture that brought the universe into being: Picture the moment (Michelangelo did) where God extends life-giving touch to the inanimate lump of clay that is Adam.
So, to conclude with a couple of pieces of specific advice—these blogs are supposed to include specific advice, right?: Study the old stories. Don’t just read them; study them, for what they have to say about who we are, who you are, right here, right now. The Christian Bible, especially the Hebrew Bible, of course, but also the Ramayana, the Rigvedas, the koans of Zen Buddhism, the Greek and Roman tales, the Kabbalah, the fairy tales of all cultures and continents.
And then go outside, right now, find the nearest big tree, and give it a hug. Seriously. This is a creative writing prompt. Go on—do it. A warm, friendly, tight embrace, with your cheek against its bark, rough or smooth, your arms wrapped around a tree that might someday give up its life so that you can have paper. Justify its sacrifice. Because right under that bark, millimeters from your tender flesh, the xylem is lifting tens, maybe hundreds of gallons of water a day skyward to the aptly-named crown, and it requires no imagination but only an openness to what is to feel through the bark, in your cheek and your arms, the tree’s lifeblood, to feel its power, to feel it saying yes, yes, yes.
Then go back to your desk—maybe a gift to you from a different tree—and write.
[Photo credit: Hannah Ensor]
Fenton Johnson‘s most recent novel is The Man Who Loved Birds (The University Press of Kentucky), which was published concurrently with new editions of his earlier award-winning novels Scissors, Paper, Rock and Crossing the River. He has published as well Geography of the Heart: A Memoir and Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey among Christian and Buddhist Monks. His collection of essays Everywhere Home: A Life in Essays was selected for the Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature published by Sarabande Press. Going It Alone: On the Dignity and Challenge of Solitude (W.W. Norton), based on his most recent Harper’s Magazine cover essay, was published in 2018. Geography received the American Library Association and Lambda Literary Awards for best LGBT Creative Nonfiction, while Keeping Faith received a Lambda Literary and Kentucky Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction. Johnson has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He was recently featured on Terry Gross’s Fresh Air and writes regularly for Harper’s Magazine. He is also the author of At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life, forthcoming from W.W. Norton in spring 2020.
For more information: www.fentonjohnson.com.