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portrait of an artist: bret anthony johnston
sharing the contents of his writing toolbox
by tracey l. kelley (@TraceyLKelley)

As director of creative writing at Harvard, Bret Anthony Johnston could easily put his feet up, and let all emerging writers bow before him while placing small tokens of favor in his hands.

Instead, Johnston sneaks up behind you and spills everything he knows about writing onto your desk, right down to the rattling nuts and bolts and whirly gizmos. His latest work is Naming the World, a collection of writing exercises and philosophies offered by some of the top authors of contemporary literature. His approach demystifies the process to provide a gateway to the magic of the art.

I’m skipping ahead to page 51 in the book to your chapter that shares the book’s title, Naming the World. What does that mean?

Without sounding too grandiose, I think the job of the writer is to name the world around us. Every writer strives to capture in language the complexity of life itself, its nuances and contours, and every writer strives to render that complexity as perfectly, as succinctly, and as originally as possible. We’ve all had those moments, both as readers and as writers, when we hit upon the absolutely ideal combination of letters to communicate an emotion or describe a physical presence. The book aims to give writers the tools to find those letters, to name their worlds, whether real or imagined.

Why was it important to create a gumbo of writers’ perspectives?

And isn’t “gumbo” the perfect word, in light of your previous question?

The goal for the book was always to create a kind of gumbo, to incorporate as many voices and visions as possible. I wanted, quite simply and quite shamelessly, to persuade the best writers and teachers in the country to allow readers glimpses into their bags of tricks.

I wanted Dorothy Allison and Joyce Carol Oates to write about generating stories; I wanted Tom Robbins and René Steinke to explore language and revision; I wanted Richard Bausch to engage dialogue and for Elizabeth Strout to look at POV; I wanted Elizabeth McCracken to discuss plot and Ann Packer to talk about characterization. I wanted the book to be as practical and as applicable as possible, rather than touchy-feely and self-helpy. I wanted it to be a craft book that writers reach for when they’re stuck, a reference for those times when you don’t know what words comes next, and so I reached out to the finest writers I could and implored them to offer the perspectives, advice, and technique.

Please give us a tasty nugget to chew on regarding Tom Robbins. For example, was he naked when you talked to him? (I ask this mainly for personal reasons: Jitterbug Perfume was the first book I gifted to my then-boyfriend, now-husband. He was excited after reading it, because he thought I was a brazen hussy.)

I’m proud to say that Tommy Rotten and I have become friends as a result of working on Naming the World. Because he’s so famous and productive, he was one of the writers I thought would say no immediately, or wouldn’t even respond to my initial note, but he was actually one of the first and most enthusiastic writers to hop aboard. There are few prose writers who employ language with the same verve and originality that he does. You read anything he’s written, whether it’s an email he’s dashed off in two minutes or one of his novels, and you can’t not want to write.

Do you consider writing a competitive sport?

Writing is masochism. It’s also nothing less than the profound act of witness.

Describe the most horrific detail of the worst story you ever wrote.

No thank you.

When is your birthday?

No thank you.

Could you have written this book seven years ago?

I couldn’t have written this book a week ago without the help of the other 65 authors. I’m grateful to them for their generosity and great good will toward the project.

I’m not a writer who believes in talent or inspiration, and I’m not a writer who took a lot of creative writing courses in college; they weren’t offered where I went to college. I say this because I’ve always had a different concept of “workshop” than many writers.

To me, a workshop is something akin to my father’s garage. A place crowded with tools and blueprints and scraps of lumber and spare engine parts. So, when I’ve been in workshops, both as a student and a teacher, I’ve always been pretty pedestrian and pragmatic, pretty blue collar actually, and the idea behind the book was to give readers and writers a toolbox for their writing, for their workshops. Having trouble with character development? Turn to page 94 and read what Lee Martin, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, has to say. Unclear about which POV might work best? Turn to page 136 and take a cue from Susan Straight, finalist for the National Book Award. I want the book to become the Chilton’s Guide for writers.

You have one day to do whatever you want, eat whatever you want, go wherever you want. What will the day be like?

Why do I only get one day? How many days does Tom Robbins get? This isn’t fair at all.

Pages Magazine named you as a member of “The Next Generation of Literary Lions”. Do you think you’ve grown into your paws yet?

Here’s how big my paws are: After that issue, the magazine went kaput.

You’re crammed into the backseat of a taxi with one musician, one writer, and one actor. Who are they, and why does it matter?

Are we splitting the fare? That’s important. I don’t want to pick artists who are just going to use me for a free ride uptown, you know.

You were a professional skateboarder before becoming a professional writer. So, if we remove the superhero mask, which is the real Bret Anthony Johnston?

Let’s talk about superheroes, shall we. My favorite has always been Super Grover. He’s actually in Naming the World, that’s how highly I think of him. O brave new world that has such monsters in it.

How many bones have you broken as a result of skating? Provide a diagram.

I don’t know. The broken bones are, in fact, the least of it. The worst injury I’ve had was knocking my pelvis out of alignment. I didn’t know I’d done it for a few days, so I just kept walking around and skating, then woke up one morning and could barely move. Because I’d knocked myself out of whack, I’d been having to stretch ever so slightly farther to reach the ground with one of my legs and over the course of a few days I’d torn and stretched my groin muscles.

See, writing’s painless by comparison.

When can we expect the Bret Anthony Johnston Street Skate Extreme game?

Bret Anthony Johnston only skates ramps.

Did I sprinkle enough writing exercises throughout this interview to promote the book well?

Let me check my Amazon ranking and I’ll get back to you.

*Buy Naming the World through Amazon or your favorite independent bookstore
*Visit Johnston's Web site for news and events


Tracey likes to shake things up and then take the lid off. She also likes to keep the peace, especially in a safe, fuzzy place. Writer, editor, producer, yogini, ('cause yoger or yogor simply doesn't work) by day, rabid WordsWithFriends and DrawSomething! player by night. You can follow her on Twitter: @traceylkelley or @tkyogaforyou

more about tracey l. kelley


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topic: writing
published: 12.29.03

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sandra thompson
1.28.08 @ 8:31a

I'm glad I got that Amazon.com credit card.

jason gilmore
1.28.08 @ 11:39a

great interview, Tracey

this guy continues to be an inspiration to me, although he gets weird when you say stuff like that to him

ken mohnkern
1.28.08 @ 1:58p

This is really good, Tracey, even when he weasels out of your questions. "No thank you." Such a polite young man.

You read anything [Tom Robbins has] written, whether it’s an email he’s dashed off in two minutes or one of his novels, and you can’t not want to write.

No doubt. The first page of Skinny Legs and All is what I was reading when I first thought I'd like to write fiction.

tracey kelley
2.3.08 @ 10:04p

Thanks, guys. I know those of us who have workshopped with him love him to pieces, and you're right, Jas - he really gets aw-shucksy about it!

Guess that's better than than the alternative.

I'm really enjoying the book so far. Some of the exercises featured are just...different. Which is really refreshing.

I want to jump on some contest entry stuff, but already, my February is booked with other things. So it looks like March will have to be the first attempt.

tracey kelley
2.3.08 @ 10:04p

I'm also debating the merits of attending ISWW again. I think he's there (schedule should be posted mid-February)...but unless it's advanced short story, I don't know if I can justify it.


tracey kelley
2.25.08 @ 10:31p

Here's one of two interviews that Bret did with my husband Matt on Radio Iowa:


The "skateboarding=writing" one is funny.

tracey kelley
1.27.11 @ 11:32a

Great interview with our guy here in McSweeney's

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