Denis Johnson’s Lasting Advice

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Grace came through a kind of cosmic touch, inside the lives of his characters and even in the corridor outside a Columbia classroom. Once, early in the semester, out in the hall after class, he bumped against me and then put his arm around my shoulder, pulling me close. I wanted to convey to young writers that no single comment on a line in a poem, no workshop or advice, can offer more guidance than simple contact with a creative soul: an arm around a young writer’s shoulder; an encouraging comment; a crazy ramble about beloved poets. Would I talk about the nature of being a writer, of presenting a public face to the world in a culture that is absolutely obsessed with authenticity, a culture that doesn’t seem to respect the expansiveness of the imagination? Those are the lives that will touch us forever—lonely and often isolated like the rest of us, struggling to figure it out. I think his avoidance of these things had more to do with his humility—and perhaps even shyness—than from some calculated desire to stay away from the world. When I read it the next morning, I could hear its frantic note of fear, and I thought of Johnson’s story “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” in which he describes a woman who doesn’t yet know that her husband is dead. He was a funny, outgoing, inspiring man, but he knew that the only thing that counted, the only thing that really mattered in the end, was the fiction on the page. Would I talk about that personal moment when his body and mine touched, in the hallway? There was a lot of unhappiness in that class over the next few months—some of my peers hated the fact that Denis came in late and left early, read his mail during class, and spoke frankly about his distaste for certain student work. Johnson, as a religious soul, probed the deep Christian mysteries, and he understood that grace could be found through very small gestures, moments of profound clarity and simplicity, on the streets or in the bushes outside someone’s house or in the halls of a nursing home. Would it just be self-serving to mention it? I didn’t know it then, but he was giving me—in our small interactions, in the strange dynamic of the class—an encouragement that would help, retroactively, as I read his work in the following years and began to discover my own voice as a writer. At the time he was my teacher, Johnson was still making the leap from writing poetry—pseudo-Beat lines, musical yet exact—to writing fiction. He left instructions on how to imagine, how to see, which he gave to us through the lives of his fictional characters. Denis Johnson knew that the only thing that really mattered in the end was the fiction on the page.CreditPHOTOGRAPH BY MARION ETTLINGER / CORBIS VIA GETTY

When a friend texted me the news that Denis Johnson had died, I was deep inside my everyday life, far away from the world of fiction, at the back of an Italian joint, gathered around a table of family members raising our glasses during a celebratory dinner for my daughter, who had just graduated from law school. She didn’t know yet that her husband was dead. You can get small slivers of critical input, advice, comments, but if you’re deep in the perplexity of your own process, as you should be, sorting it out in your own way, nothing is going to guide you more than small gestures of encouragement. I was fresh off the bus from the Midwest, deeply intimidated by the hip atmosphere, traumatized by certain aspects of my past, and his confusion seemed to match my own. In the novel, Johnson dialled back his poetic impulses; the sentences were shorter, more precise, but he wrote that way in order to take a much bigger bite out of a bigger story—the travesty of the Vietnam War,   and the antics of C.I.A. The day after I received the news of Denis’s death, during a break in my daughter’s festivities, I called Darrell in L.A., and we talked and cried about Denis. A few weeks later, in his temporary office near the student lounge, he leaned over a pile of my poems, pulled one out (a love poem to my wife, called “I Want to Be Your Shoulder Blades”), and said, “You’ve got something. Those were the moments that a young writer absorbed and from which he learned. At the final meeting, our decision came quickly and without regret. Denis proudly declared that he had thrown the device into the Chicago River. He shambled into the classroom on the first day, a little strung-out looking, recently out of some kind of rehab experience, and the first thing he said was “Is this an undergraduate class, or a graduate class?” We sat there confused—he had a jocular quality to his delivery, but also a seriousness. When I was on the National Book Award judging committee, in 2007, a bound manuscript of   “Tree of Smoke”   arrived at my house, early in the summer. For the past sixteen years, I’ve read   “Jesus’ Son”   alongside my freshman students at Vassar, where I teach, and I’ve noticed that many critics and readers miss something in that book: the intensely prophetic nature of the main character, Fuckhead. She was glorious, burning. (I was just beginning my own novel about the same era, and reading Denis’s book was one reason I put the project on hold for a few years; I didn’t want to write my Vietnam novel with his in my head.) By the early fall, the committee had read hundreds of books. “What about Denis?”   the text said. Just keep trusting yourself, keep listening to what you’re thinking, man.” You don’t know what you need when you’re a young writer. He was finding his own way, while we were finding ours. “Now that I’m on the ground, I decided to take the first job that was offered,” he explained. He couldn’t stand the sound and argued with the director, who refused to get rid of it. In my notebook, a few weeks ago, I began taking notes for an introduction to the talk, which would have taken place in October. operatives. Darrell was speaking to me about the real man, the body and mind that had lived in the world, and as I looked at my daughter and son sitting nearby, to try to get back to the reality of my everyday life, which is kept apart from the world of my fiction—as, I assume, was Denis’s—I was thinking about what would live on in Denis’s name. program, in 1984, when I was a first-semester student and he was the leader of my poetry workshop. I stared at my phone—hidden beneath a tablecloth—and felt a sensation of sadness and grief but also, weirdly, of elation and gratitude, because when a beloved writer dies there’s a different vibration in the world, a quiver, a paradoxical pain in the fact that the corporeal body is gone but the work remains. He told me a story about how Denis hated a theremin that was used as a musical accompaniment to one of his plays during rehearsals. “Down the hall came the wife. In his review of   “Tree of Smoke,”   for   the   Times, Jim Lewis pointed out that Johnson avoided the usual “ego humping,” the readings and author tours and interviews. Each year, I hand out a section of Abraham Heschel’s seminal book,   “The Prophets,” in which he writes that the prophets brought the news that people didn’t want to hear, the horrific news of the streets, of the poor, of the lost. Immediately, I texted a cautious note to my friend Darrell Larson, who was close to Denis and directed many of his plays:   “Did you hear about Denis?” When Darrell answered my text, hours later, I was asleep. Would I mention that he had been my first graduate-school poetry teacher? But I loved him. One day, the theremin went missing. We knew. After some finagling, he agreed to do it. “Hang in there, buddy,” he said. Last year, Vassar wanted to invite Denis to give a prestigious English-department lecture, and he and I wrote back and forth. Over the decades, my work and Denis’s have intersected. “And this was the first.” I didn’t know his work—he’d published a few books of poetry and a first novel, “Angels”—but, listening to him ramble about Lou Reed and Joseph Conrad and the Book of Job, I felt immediately in the presence of humility, in the presence of someone uncertain about the process, about what it meant to create poetry, and who could be as open about this uncertainty as I was. That’s what gave her such power over us.” Johnson’s presence in my life began at Columbia’s M.F.A.