Monday, July 07, 2008

Charles Johnson at the Seattle Public Library

The other conference (besides Woolf in Denver), from a month ago now, was the Rhetoric Society of America conference in Seattle. That was lovely, too.

Its highlight was a reading by Charles Johnson, the National Book Award Winner (for The Middle Passage distinguished professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Washington.

I have only read a couple of his stories before—one based on Aesop and “Dr. King’s Refrigerator,” which he read to us--but I had the strong sense that he was my kind of writer. His reading was enchanting. He read two stories that he wrote for an annual literacy benefit in Seattle. Every year, local writers are given a small prompt and asked to write a story to read at the annual benefit. “Dr. King’s Refrigerator,” about the young Martin Luther King staying up late and looking with wonder at the contents of his fridge, noting how interconnected we all are and having an epiphany about social justice and globalism, was written in response to the prompt “midnight snack.”

But the other story, an amazing tale of a sullen and arrogant Plato, grieving the death of Socrates and mocked by Diogenes, was written in response to the prompt “night light.”

Someone asked him something about his inspiration and he said, well, when he got the prompt “night light” he knew that it had to be Diogenes wandering the streets of Athens with a lantern in the daytime in search of an honest man. The clarity of that, the open natural way in which he just assumed that, like himself, we, too, would naturally associate the phrase “night light” with the great philosophers of the height of Athenian democracy amazed and humbled me. A real lesson in the value of writers continuing to read and read and read, in continuing the practice of returning to the past and dwelling there with patience.

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