Barb Johnson worked as a carpenter in New Orleans for more than twenty years before receiving her MFA from the University of New Orleans in 2008. She won Glimmer Train’s Best New Voice in 2007, and her work has appeared in such magazines as Glimmer Train, Washington Square, The Greensboro Review, Guernica and Oxford American. In 2009, she received a grant from A Room of Her Own Foundation, which will support the writing of her first novel.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has always been a favorite because of the character of Huck, whose voice allows him to point at what is wrong in the world while holding close to a strong moral compass that is not judgmental but is, rather, level and innocent.
Do you have a mentor?
I have been a carpenter for most of my adult life. That work life did not provide much opportunity for discussing writing. I was in a writer’s group before I went back to school, but writing wasn’t the focus of my life. But, eventually, I began to really hunger for a teacher. It was my need for a teacher that drove me back to school, to the creative writing program at the University of New Orleans. That’s where I found not only a number of mentors but fellow students who were generous with what they knew and curious about what they could learn. I continue to go to a workshop with other graduates of that program. And to talk with people who were in the program before I was as well as those who have just begun. We all share information and advice and experience with one another, and that makes for a seamless band of support that is a kind of group mentorship.
How do you stay creative? What are your tricks to get “unstuck?”
I think that the feeling of not being creative is the same as the feeling of being stuck and that both of them are the result of ignoring what I know about how I work. I don’t mean to be glib. I think the notion that you can spend the morning doing short-attention span tasks like fiddling around on Facebook and then go right into writing leads directly to not feeling creative.
I have to make a place and time for writing that has no other function, something that can be difficult in a world that assumes multi-tasking as a way of life. I can’t spend the morning paying my bills online and answering emails and then expect to write. They all take place at my laptop, but the first two stimulate a completely different part of my brain, and it’s hard to get back to a writing state of mind. The essential thing, I guess, is to pay attention to what works for you. And what works for me, essentially, comes down to prevention rather than remedy.
We all spend a lot of time working to make money, and the emphasis there is on production. I build and maintain websites. After spending hours using Dreamweaver, when I turn to creative writing, my brain keeps sending me frantic messages to the effect that I am not producing very much. Writing is not click and drag. Cut and paste. Fill in the blank. My brain begins to resent having to contemplate, to drift, which frankly is its own natural state. I am drifty by nature. Which is fine, except when it follows a stint of fill-in-the-blank kinds of things. That’s when drifting toward answers feels like it’s taking too long. It’s the mental equivalent of sitting down at a fine restaurant and feeling frustrated by the fact that your food doesn’t come to you as quickly as it does at Zombie Burger.
So when I don’t feel creative, in fact, I am probably having an unrealistic expectation. I know what short attention-span work does to my brain, so I try to do short-attention span tasks on one day and longer-attention span, creative kinds of things, on another day.
I used to have a girlfriend who would walk past the room where I was lying on the couch with my feet up on the wall. She’d say, “What’re you doing?” and I’d say, “Nothing.” Over a period of an hour or so, she’d pass the room several times and ask the same question, and I’d give the same answer. She didn’t have any need to lie on a couch with her feet propped up on the wall, staring out a window, watching the light change, so it just didn’t make sense to her. I have always had that need. I try to pay attention to what feeds me and what starves me. A lack of idle time starves me. When you feel starved is when you feel stuck, uncreative.
Other parts of the ongoing maintenance program include reading poetry or watching a good movie, or doing almost anything that lets my mind drift. Listening to music, for example. Not doing anything else. Just these things by themselves. It does something to my head. It surprises my brain and allows me the time to make new connections, to have new thoughts.
What are your favorite websites?
I like Ted.com. It’s like a little power bar for your brain. I like narrative.com because there is often very good writing. The New Yorker. But I also enjoy community-oriented sites. Even Facebook, which I detested at first but have come to appreciate for the way a general narrative emerges from it. It’s comforting to know that other people, particularly people who are trying to write things, all have similar experiences. On Facebook I can read about others’ elation at finishing something that has finally come together. Their fears that what they’re working on will never come together. And it is absolutely shocking and enlightening to me how often people report being tired and having way too much to do. Examples of unrealistic expectations. We’re in charge of putting on the brakes. I think we often forget that it’s our choice. Facebook reminds me of that every day.
In general I enjoy sites that allow people to share what they’re up to, and also how they’re up to it. And then there’s Fictionaut, of course. If you’re open to it, Fictionaut provides the same sort of mentorship that an MFA program does. Everyone is always teaching or learning or just enjoying the work there.
What are you working on now?
Harper Collins just released my first collection of short stories, More of This World or Maybe Another, and now I am working on a novel. The stories in the collection are linked and end with a young boy, Luis, who will be waking up to a very rude tomorrow. The novel begins on that tomorrow and carries the other characters’ lives forward as well.
For me, making a character likable always hinges on putting his/her faults or struggles right out where they can be seen. Because that’s what makes us like people, their imperfections.
Giving a character a bunch of good qualities just makes her seem like a goody two shoes and that almost always makes the reader hate her. We suspect that she’s hiding something because no one is that nice, that uncomplicated.
Often my characters do things that, in the absence of context, might seem amoral or unforgivable. In one of my stories, there’s a guy named Pudge, who won’t claim his own son, a boy who sees Pudge every day and who is living in a terrible situation. Pudge is an alcoholic, who suffers the sorts of self-inflicted setbacks that alcoholics suffer. He wants to do better. Sets out to do better. And fails. He watches over his son the best way he’s able. And this makes him likable, even in his failure. Especially in his failure. Knowing the sorts of pain that he’s faced in his life gives the reader a context for understanding him. They know people like him. They themselves are like him. But we also see that Pudge helps his neighbors. Keeps an eye on the neighborhood. He’s loyal and kind-hearted, and we see those qualities in action as well as his less admirable behaviors.
Another character in the book is Luis, the twelve-year-old son of Pudge. Luis steals things and poisons his mother’s boyfriend, but the reader sees him as a smart little kid with a strong, if unconventional, moral code that has been shaped by the world he finds himself in. He absolutely hates Pudge and thinks he’s a big loser. Which helps us understand Pudge’s reluctance to saddle the kid with the knowledge of his paternity. Luis is a practical kid who needs some adult supervision, but his experience has conditioned him to steer clear of adults. So he draws some wrong conclusions, makes some bad decisions. We pull for him anyway because we see the context of his bad behavior. We don’t pity him but we fear for him. We admire how he solves his own problems using the information he has about the world.
The absence of good characteristics to balance out the faults and weaknesses can result in a pitiful rather than likable character. And it seems more effective to illustrate those characteristics through behavior, than by having the narrator share this insight or having another character reveal it in dialogue. Watching a character do something that is difficult for him is much more endearing than being told about it. It makes readers feel smart and insightful to connect the dots for themselves.
The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday, Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is an editor at Smokelong Quarterly, and her stories and poems have been published widely. She blogs at http://megpokrass.com.