6th Annual Literary Festival
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The Mace & Crown, August 10, 1983

Charles Johnson: A man of versatile talents

Sarah Worthington

Charles Johnson, English professor, screenwriter, novelist, cartoonist, and features editor with the Seattle Review came to campus last week as one the guests of ODU's Literary Festival. Johnson's career is obviously multifaceted, and his second novel, Oxherding Tale, published in 1982 reveals further the many dimensions of his thought and outstanding writing abilities. Charles "Chuck" Johnson has a B.A. Journalism, and an M.A. in Philosophy from the University of Southern Illinois. He did his PHD work at The State University Of New York at Stoneybrook. In 1976 he began teaching at The University of Washington, and is currently an associate professor of English teaching Literature, Theory of Literature, and Creative Writing. He feels that teaching writing has made him a better writer, and he only began writing short-fiction when he began teaching it. His short stories have been published most recently in The Best American Short Stories 1983. Johnson considers creative writing to be very valuable in terms of placing the student within a community of writers and putting him in touch with the writing world. He also emphasizes that a master/pupil relationship is of great value. He was helped a great deal by the late John Gardner, who gave him invaluable help and advice with his first novel, Faith and The Good Thing. Johnson said that the intensely personal relationship between the writer and the 'master' is an integral part of the learning process. To illustrate this he stated how Gardner was so involved with his work that on one occasion he felt perfectly at ease in adding a line to one of Johnson's stories. Charles Johnson is currently considering writing and producing a documentary on the life of Gardner. The proposed title of this is 'The Dragon Slayer" which reflects Gardner's interest in medievalism. Johnson's connections with screen writing are extensive and he held a conversation on this last Wednesday morning 'which was useful and informative. His own involvement with TV began during his undergraduate years. He was a cartoonist - his cartoons have appeared in publications such as Ebony and Essence - and one day he called the PBS station WSIUT and suggested a series on drawing. Although WSIUT were operating on a tiny budget, they saw the possibility that such a series would make a national contribution, and Johnson came cheap! He said that PBS is sensitive to culture, and is always open to new ideas and writers. This as opposed to network TV, which Johnson considers a wasteland, where 80 percent of the writing is done by staff, making it virtually a closed shop. Johnson also criticised network TV saying that, "They have a conspiracy to keep minority writers out." The fifteen show "Charlie" series first aired in 1969, and is still running. Johnson had no previous experience in screewriting, but his novel Faith and The Good Thing was noticed by Fred Barzyk of PBS. Barzyk was looking for a comedy writer to create a documentary/drama about Charlie Smith, who at age 137, was the oldest living American. PBS are, said Johnson, "interested in historical dramas that seem to deliver the past to us...it makes, the present more intelligible." Johnson worked with eight drafts and created, hosted and co-produced the series "Charlie's Pad". The series premiered in 1978 and starred the late Richard Ward as Charlie Smith. The series was a tremendous success and hit the highest ratings then achieved. Johnson also wrote the PBS "Visions" drama "Charlie Smith and The Fritter Tree". In 1981 he wrote and produced ten Shows for the PBS series "Up and Coming". He also has worked with a documentary entitled "Booker T. Washington" which will be on the screen in October of 1984. Johnson says that he gained valuable experience at all stages of the script and production process. His advice for writers interested in screewnting laid a strong emphasis on a concentration on the basics. There must be strength of character, and concrete dramatic action, combined with a sensitive treatment of dialogue. Producers appreciate writers who understand the mechanics of plot and structure, and who can create strong, consistent, yet unique characters. Johnson believes that screenwriting is not 'art' in the strict sense of the word because the writer does not have the exclusiveness that he does with fiction. Unlike writing novels, the work of screen writers is subject to several levels of interpretation. Creative input comes from the producer, and the actors which, Johnson says, teaches you humility and is very positive. Johnson outlined the major stages involved in the production of a series or program for TV and much of what he said is valid for writers in all genres. The writer, working from an idea, produces a two or three page synopsis; the vital characteristics here are vividness and strength. From the synopsis comes the treatment which outlines the scenes. The writer then produces a first draft which is essentially an elaboration where "life is breathed into the characters." The second draft is the final phase where the writer is concerned. Johnson stayed with the production process, after completing his drafts, and said that his involvement with production was "an intense experience." Charles Johnson, had been writing for sixteen years, and had written six novels, before his seventh novel, Faith and The Good Thing was published in 1974. This novel was described by the Washington Post as, "a book of rare eloquence and Originality, a fable that entertains and informs." Johnson's subsequent novel, "Ox-Herding Tale," published in 1982 by Indiana University Press was six years in the writing, the novel is both comic in its inherent irony, while still true to the traditional slave narrative and philosophical. The picaresque, first person narration of Andrew, a mulatto, is used by Johnson to explore the search for self, and for freedom. The question raised in the book is, "what does slavery do to human nature?" Johnson considers a multitude of levels and questions through his protagonist's striving for liberation from the physical, sexual, racial, and spiritual bonds in the world surrounding him. Andrew straddles both the black and white worlds; he lives for a time in each as the novel unfolds while constantly dodging the soul-catcher who signifies black paranoia and appears when the character has become so obsessed with racial tensions that he wants to die. Johnson uses symbols from both Eastern and Western philosophy as he stresses the universality of his work. The most important device is the one on which the novel is entitled; 'Ten Ox-herding Pictures" of the twelfth century Zen artist Kuoan-Shihyuan which traces the progress of the herdsman searching for his ox; the self. Many aspects of the Eastern philosophies and religions are utilized by Johnson, primarily those of Hinduism , Vedanta, Taoism and Buddhism. Andrew's tutor, Ezekiel, is a transcendentalist and serves as a bridge for Andrew between Eastern philosophy and the Western experience. Johnson said that he is greatly influenced by Herman Hesse and that his novel, "Sidhartha," provides a hook to "Ox-Herding Tale." In both books, the main characters leave their parent's home to journey through the world of senses and both achieve a transcendental enlightenment at the end of their journey. "Ox-Herding Tale" presents a universal picture of the slave and his search for freedom. Johnson is concerned to show that a definition of the self cannot be grounded in opposition to the world, or under the notion of separateness from this world. If we believe that we are separate a law unto ourselves our self-definition is based in grief and despair, as is George's, Andrew's father. This character is a supreme cultural nationalist, and stands opposed to his world, in misery. The book treats questions of race and sex apparent polarities, no real truths, and Andrew transcend these barriers, and by doing so, finds his true self. This essential point in the novel is closely related to Johnson's criticsm of the majority of contemporary black literature. He feels that black writers, with few exceptions, focus too narrowly on racial questions and political issues. He said that their writing is too heavily dependent on the form of protest literature, which has been predominant since the early 1900's. Johnson cited several authors and particular works which are exceptions to this. Namely, Ralph Ellison in his novel, "Invisible Man," Jean Toomer in his part poetry, part drama work, "Cane," and Richard Wright's, "the Outsider." Johnson sees questions which he feels must be raised by black writers, and he recognizes that there are a myriad interpretations of experiences which should be treated on all levels. "Ox-Herding Tale" reflects his concern with all aspects of culture and experience. Johnson said that he would like to see dramatic changes in the work of black writers. He believes that "as the focus on oppression diminishes, writers will take aesthetic risks, and concern themselves with other, perhaps more valid questions." Johnson plans to continue writing philosophical novels, using the black experience as a background. He told me very confidently that he will have eight novels and one collection of short stories published by the time he is 50. If you read his books, I'm sure you will agree that eight may not be enough. He gives an insight into the total expenence of the black American, an insight which is not only unique, but also vitally important.