Bowers Writers House held a craft talk with Dr. Ruthann Knechel Johansen, Friday January 29. Johansen has published numerous articles and papers in addition to several books including Listening in the Silence, Seeing in the Dark: Reconstruction Life After Brain Injury and The Narrative Secret of Flannery O’Connor: The Trickster As Interpreter. Presently, she is working on a book about the spiritual and intellectual kinship between Flannery O’Connor and Simone Weil.
Prior to the beginning of the event, Johansen shook hands and introduced herself to those she did not know, and, since it was a “smaller group,” began by asking each person present to introduce themselves. Johansen opened her craft talk with a stanza of “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” by William Stafford, and stated, “It’s a ritual to read to one’s self as well.”
Upon their arrival, each attendee received a worksheet entitled “The Writing Life: Craft, Contemplation, Communitas” which Johansen explained was meant as a broad guideline of her interactive workshop, and intended mainly for any thoughts her words may spark. This worksheet then listed 5 questions about writing which she touched upon one by one.
The first question listed on the worksheet, which Johansen said she asked herself every day, was Why Write? Very early on in her life, Johansen had a love of stories and being read to as well as a fascination with words. She referred to this fascination with words as a “kind of magic,” and later found satisfaction in the “mind-body connection” that came with learning cursive. Even today, Johansen prefers to write her thoughts down by hand rather than composing on a computer.
Until college, all of Johansen’s writing was outwardly directed. In one of her classes, Johansen was required to keep a journal of reflection, which she said required more self-discipline, self-reflection, and led to a radical change. “Language after [the class] was a way of discovering my own thoughts [which] provided me a way of appreciating the craft.”
Johansen then touched on how contemplation, defined by Johansen as centering the mind, serves writing. Johansen said this question does not usually come up when speaking of writing, however she believes “writing is always about awakening and enlarging one’s conscience [or] becoming more aware.” According to Johansen there are many possible ways to work at a deeper level including free writing, clustering ideas, and spider webbing, all techniques which Johansen said she was sure students had heard of in one of their English classes.
Another method, which Johansen said she “fell into” using, is keeping parallel texts. She describes this method as a conversation with the developing characters, which works well if writing fiction. “I discover a lot more about the story itself and it’s my way of staying connected with the story when I have to leave [to] go teach a class.” Johansen said.
For Johansen, contemplative practice leads to four things: inquiry, analysis, reflection, and discovery. Once at discovery, which Johansen refers to as the “Aha! Moment,” she then loops back into inquiry.
The last question on her worksheet was about writing as commuintas with one’s self and others. Communitas, as Johansen explains it, refers to an unstructured community in which all people are equal. It can function within one’s self simply as a spirit, which was formed by writers across the centuries. “We can belong if we are aware we are indebted to those who came before us.” Johansen said. She then asked the group who they would include in their communitas, and when no one immediately responded Johansen said, “Never thought of that? Good. Now you can watch for them.”
Johansen then opened the floor to those in attendance, asking them to tell how their own experiences with writing differed from hers.
Dr. David Kenley, the director of the Center for Global Understanding & Peace, questioned whether contemplation had been eliminated by technology. “As my career goes on the time for contemplation just seems to disappear. I did my best contemplation in the 90s before we had cellphones.” Kenley said.
Junior Ariel Davis-Robinson seemed to agree, “The only time I stop to think about things is when my phone dies.”
“Technology has a power over us and we may not be as in control of it as we think we are.” Johansen said. She ended this segment of discussion, however, by saying that the access technology grants to creative sources is very valuable.
Although Johansen had a stack of paper to read from, she made sure to make eye contact with each person present while she read the whole of the poem she opened with.
“If contemplation gives you space and writing helps to keep you awake, do more of it.” Johansen said.
Those in attendance were invited to continue the conversation over dinner or at 7 p.m. when Johansen and her husband Bob Johansen both read segments of their work aloud.