Silence Is the Fertile Field: Talking with Fenton Johnson

By

In an early draft of his latest book, At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life, Fenton Johnson was profiling the homes and studios he visited of various solitary artists. As the project evolved, however, Johnson “saw how these solitaries had so frequently been judged through the lens of the ‘normalcy’ and ‘desirability’ of conventional marriage, certified by church and state, and by implication the growing undesirability of any other arrangement.”

The notion struck a chord with Johnson. He survived the worst years of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, which claimed the life of his great love—the only son of Holocaust survivors—a story he has told in Geography of the Heart: A Memoir (Scribner, 1996). Since then he has chosen to live as a solitary man, gradually embracing celibacy as a calling and discipline. His personal story became intertwined with the stories of the artists and writers he was profiling for the new book. The result is a wise, beautiful meditation on what it means to seek a solitary existence in a world that almost demands we pair up in state-sanctioned marriages. The book is autobiographical to Johnson’s life, but also biographical in how it explores the work and intimate relationships of people like the artist Paul Cézanne and singer Nina Simone. Writers, including Henry David Thoreau and Eudora Welty, are also profiled. A case Johnson makes through his quiet, heart-full prose is that solitude is a wellspring for creativity that we would do well to pay more attention to. It is a message I didn’t know how desperate I was to hear so magnificently articulated until I read it.

Fenton Johnson is emeritus professor of Creative Writing at the University of Arizona and serves on the faculty of Spalding University’s low-residency MFA Program. A multi-award winning author in both fiction and nonfiction, Johnson was generous in discussing his new book with me, and the ways our culture tends to view people like, well, us.

***

The Rumpus: At the Center of All Beauty is essentially a kind of essay collection, yet you blend the connecting narratives so well that it works perfectly as a single narrative. This is something you’ve done throughout your career, isn’t it? 

Fenton Johnson: It’s easy to forget that the “braided” or “woven” essay, while as old as the form itself, had been largely laid aside until a number of practitioners—I like to count myself among them, though among role models; Philip Lopate, Albert Goldbarth, Guy Davenport, and Adrienne Rich come immediately to mind—brought it back into the mainstream. I have made something of a specialty of interweaving research, memoir, and journalism into what I aspire to be a seamless cloth.

It is also easy to forget that as recently as the 1990s, when a historical moment—the AIDS crisis—compelled me to write Geography of the Heart, bookstores dedicated no space to memoir. Publishing had long relegated it to the margins, perceiving it as a minor form because it was almost always practiced by outsiders, women and/or queers and/or people of color. Only the stories of Important Men (and a very few Important Women) were considered to be worth publishing. But outsiders were driven to write memoir because we had to. We understood the importance and necessity of our stories and the lessons they offer to later generations, yes, but first and foremost we were writing to save our lives.

That memoir as a genre rose to prominence simultaneously with the increasing visibility of outsiders, women, and queers, and people of color is not a coincidence. Memoir—whether on the page or in the form of electronic media—provided the platform and foundation for that rise to prominence.

Rumpus: You write about choosing to be single for most of your adult life. Were there ever times that you thought maybe there was something wrong with you because what your life demands of you seems so at-odds with the dominant culture around relationships and social interactions?

Johnson: In countless overt and subliminal ways, the dominant culture projects the nonstop message that anyone who is not coupled or desperate to be so is weird, strange, a “loner.” (Think about the cultural baggage the word “loner” carries.) When is the last time you saw a big-budget film or TV series portraying a solitary individual in a positive light? What comes to mind for me: the late documentary films by the French director Agnès Varda. Of course, they’re French.

The excellent news is that discovering the richness and rewards of a solitary life is like stumbling on a superb trail with grand vistas and tumbling cataracts and deep swimming holes that no one else knows about.

Rumpus: Was there a turning point, or incident, that was in any way an “Aha!” moment where you decided to explore this notion of the “solitary artist” and write about it in a book?

Johnson: Frankly, no. This book evolved over many years, but there were “Aha!” moments along the way. Making the connection between Nina Simone singing “In the Evening by the Moonlight” at the deathbed of Lorraine Hansberry and Jimmy Bland, the forgotten African-American composer of the song, and my parents singing that same song—that was an “Aha!” moment. Making the connection between Simone and Rod McKuen, and coming to understand how McKuen had been abused by critics because he was too out about being gay—that was an “Aha!” moment. Coming to understand that my parents were, in their way, solitaries—that was an “Aha!” moment.

Rumpus: Is it the solitary nature that drives one to art, or does the focus required of art evoke the solitary?

Johnson: Art is a shorthand word for exercising the imagination, and solitude is the playground of the imagination. Of course, great art develops collaboratively—theater and dance come immediately to mind—and no art, not even a novel, is produced in total solitude. All creatures are interdependent in a complex ecology we’re only beginning to appreciate. But the imagination thrives in solitude. For a superb example of this, read Solitary, the memoir by Black Panther Albert Woodfox about his twenty-seven years in solitary confinement in Angola in Louisiana. He kept himself sane through a disciplined, daily exercise of his imagination.

Of course, coupled people can be solitaries—writing the book uncovered the subliminal understanding that my parents, married forty-two years, were solitaries—but the most successful couplings, in my experience, have been those where the partners make space for each other’s encounter with solitude.

I do think solitude and silence invites both one’s demons and one’s guiding spirits—Christians would say, the Holy Spirit; the Spanish would say, the daemon—to emerge. Their struggle—wrestling with the angel—generates art.

Rumpus: People often equate being solitary to being a hermit. But there is a vast difference between a “solitary” and a “hermit,” right?

Johnson: Oh, yes. I know and admire several hermits. Probably one must be a solitary to be a hermit, but one does not have to be a hermit to be a solitary. Henry James was famously social. Zora Neale Hurston was a party woman. I throw and thrive on a good dinner party. But my solitaries preserve a core of solitude even in the midst of a crowd. One sees that in the documentary about Bill Cunningham, how he’s a solitary even when—especially when—moving among a crowded society party or down a New York City sidewalk.

Rumpus: Henry David Thoreau is one of the solitary subjects you discuss in the book. In recent years he seems to get a lot of grief from people that he wasn’t as solitary as he might have claimed to be, that he was still in the company of other people frequently, etc. But Thoreau didn’t label himself a hermit, did he?

Johnson: As is so often the case—I speak from experience—people form and pronounce strong opinions on writers and writing they’ve never read. Thoreau is a community man, completely involved with the life of Concord, an aspect of his life he writes about with enthusiasm throughout Walden and his other writings.

People will often say to me, “Oh, you’re the gay man who’s against gay marriage, right?” This is not true, has never been true, but is a myth created by those who need an enemy. This is one of the most pernicious of human characteristics, the need for an enemy, so strong that we’ll create one where one doesn’t exist. Pejorative stereotypes arose around “spinsters” and “bachelors” because of the insecurity of the coupled world and its need to point to an “other.” (“No matter how bad my relationship is, it’s better than being single.”) Rather than turn within to undertake the hard and never-ending labor of defining ourselves, we create an enemy and then define ourselves as “not them.”

Rumpus: Author Michael Finkel wrote a book called The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, about a guy named Christopher Knight who lived in the Maine woods for almost thirty years before being captured (he survived largely by stealing from local cabins). In one passage, Finkel quotes a finding by a University of Virginia study that “a large majority of men, and twenty-five percent of women, would rather subject themselves to mild electric shocks than do nothing but sit quietly with their thoughts for fifteen minutes.” I find this shocking. I suppose others would find the opposite, as in your approach to life, equally shocking. Do you ever encounter people who look at you with dumbfounded astonishment?

Johnson: Mostly I avoid people, though I know many, who cannot bear to be alone with themselves for more than a few minutes. I encounter more commonly the polite condescension of the fortress couple, secure in their fortress, built on their need for the admiration and reinforcement of church and state and society, which they take for granted. I recall overhearing someone (who thought I was out of earshot) saying of me, “Oh, what a waste!” My thoughts about her marriage to an abusive, alcoholic, jealous husband are unprintable.

Rumpus: I see more and more authors providing “playlists” to enhance particular chapters or pieces. I have friends who talk about watching movies while working. I can’t imagine either. What is it about silence—working in it, sitting in it, enjoying it in the company of another person—that people find so disturbing?

Johnson: In silence the demons appear, and people are terrified of their demons, not understanding that the demons reveal their puniness and impotence once they’re brought into the light. Sit down and shut up and the demons will appear—they can’t help it; they’re drawn to silence as moths to the flame—and then they can be vanquished.

But let me turn your question on its head and ask: what is it about silence that is so constructive? The busy-ness of constant noise—which is what we see all around us—keeps our minds from having to conceive or attempt any undertaking for themselves. The so-called “smart phone”—Cornel West calls them “weapons of mass distraction”—feeds us exactly what we want twenty-four hours a day. Where’s the risk and adventure in that? And creativity gives birth to and thrives in risk and adventure. Silence is the fertile field, waiting for the plow of the imagination to turn it over and plant.

Rumpus: I take it you’re not a social media guy at all then either, are you?

Johnson: See above. It has its uses, sure. But I think of my reaction when, after an excellent dinner party, someone says, “Let me show you my vacation photos!” And then I ask, why should I react any differently when they’re posted on Facebook? Social media is people talking to themselves. Art arises from people talking to each other.

Rumpus: The COVID-19 pandemic has driven so many of us online, either as teachers, or even just to socialize. Have you had to move your teaching to the internet, and if so, what are your feelings about it?

Johnson: Online classes have real advantages, beginning with their accessibility to people in remote locations. In-person classes have a kind of intimacy that online can’t touch. Ideally we’d keep both—though I suspect that our insistence on spending money on consumer goods and guns will drive a shift to “cheaper” online courses. I use quotation marks because, once again, we are ignoring or hiding costs—e.g., shifting the expense of wireless fees and maintenance to the at-home user, away from the university, or the ecological and social costs of all those microchips manufactured in sweatshops and dumped in landfills.

Rumpus: You write, “In place of our age of consumption and noise and distraction, I imagine an age of solitude and silence…“ More than ever before, as so many people are encountering the reality of what a life like this could look like, it seems that this might be our best time to take a shot at it. That as we emerge from this unprecedented—at least for most of us—COVID quarantine, we can rewrite the rules of society. I know many people who say they want to. But can we? Do you have faith that people will follow through? Or is the pressure to get back to business too great?

Johnson: History teaches us that good judgment invariably loses out to the demands of capitalism to make money. An anecdote: in the early 1900s, San Francisco had experienced three major earthquakes and fires in sixty years, and city officials recognized that rebuilding the city along its East Coast-imported grid pattern was a bad idea. But the pressure to resume business as quickly as possible won out, and the city was rebuilt along the same layout that had already proved disastrous. Today, social media renders good judgment even more challenging, since every decision must be made on the spot, and anyone who takes time to reflect and assess is accused of foot-dragging.

All the same, thanks to almost two centuries of writers, artists, scientists, and activists assembling the evidence and giving us the words, we have now a context and a language. The context is the inarguable unsustainable nature of capitalism, and the language bears witness to stories of a more sustainable way of living to replace it. Will we resume a world economy of cruise ship vacations, cheap air travel on crowded flying Petri dishes, job outsourcing to ever poorer countries so as to exploit their labor, all the while ignoring or burying environmental costs? That seems unlikely, even as the pressures of conventional, exploitative capitalism, personified by Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and Narendra Modi, among others, are greater than ever. What will be the fate of pleasant social diversions that attract crowds of hundreds or thousands—cultural, recreational, and sporting events?

“Chop wood, carry water.” One does what one can within the limits of what history has given. One does what one judges to be the right thing, indifferent to outcome. This is, of course, antithetical to capitalism, which values every behavior by outcome. And how does one ascertain the right thing to do? We lay the foundation in solitude and in silence. In this way, the growth in interest in contemplative practice may have profound impact over time, though that time will be measured not by the 24/7 news cycle but by the patient, sustainable cycles of nature.

***

Photograph of Fenton Johnson by Hannah Ensor.


Chris La Tray is a writer from Missoula, Montana. His first book, One-Sentence Journal: Short Poems and Essays from the World at Large (Riverfeet, 2018) won the 2018 Montana Book Award and a 2019 High Plains Book Award. His second book, Becoming Little Shell, will be published by Milkweed Editions in 2021. Follow him at @chrislatray. More from this author →