Professor Adam Johnson of Stanford University came to San Quentin to sit in on a creative writing class for incarcerated men, facilitated by Zoe Mullery and sponsored by the William James Association. The Aug. 21 get-together between students and professor focused on: what led to Johnson’s writing career, what creates a compelling narrative, and a review of Fortune Smiles (2016), Johnson’s collection of short stories.
“He really encourages all of us, me included, to go to the difficult story – don’t turn away from it – go to the story that we don’t fully understand or have any understanding of,” said Mullery.
The Pulitzer Prize winning author, who worked as a mason in his youth, said building solitary confinement cells in Arizona changed his life.
“We’d bring the walls up, and then I’d think about who’s going to occupy this thing, and it was depressing the hell outta me,” Johnson said.
After that, Johnson took a creative writing class to boost his grade point average and “that’s that,” he said.
Johnson talked about what he learned from Ron Carlson, his first writing teacher.
“The secret to great writ- ing is learning to tolerate the not knowing of what might be and moving forward in a story in the face of uncertainty and that it might fail,” Johnson said.
The students had read Johnson’s collection of six short stories prior to his visit and were ready with comments about the stories. Dark Meadows is the only story Johnson said he did not research.
Johnson said it was about people “who could go down paths where they could do the unthinkable” and be redeemed.
“The character was in a situation of struggling every day in his life to do the right thing,” Johnson said. “He was a character that readers don’t want to like, but he had characteristics that readers find likable.”
Johnson said Dark Meadows challenges readers’ beliefs about good and bad.
He told the students that the space for fiction is getting smaller and smaller as publishers looking for longer stories are dwindling.
As an early writer, he says, he had great experiences with editors. But, as he developed, he has found his own voice, even if he has to labor to write a single paragraph.
“The act of writing is a noble endeavor,” Johnson said. “It’s meditative – I feel that I’m an average person, but to orchestrate my thoughts, I can say something above myself.”
Mullery noted later that she’s “picky” about people interacting with the class.
“The writers that I invite are people that I really re- spect, not only as writers, but also how they conduct themselves as a writer—not to just make a buck or be famous. And I think Adam Johnson is a great example of that,” said Mullery.