Mighty Denis Johnson, My Hero and “Contemporary,” RIP, Part I

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The news broke this morning (Friday, May 26, 2017) that Denis Johnson, Poet, Novelist, and Short Story Writer, passed away on Wednesday, 5/24/17. I am beyond heartbroken. I have much to write and share. It’s been a tough day. I will continue this memoriam. In the interim, this memory by Lawrence Wright in The New Yorker:

Denis Johnson, who died on Wednesday, at the age of sixty-seven, wept easily, without embarrassment. “I just do this a lot,” he told his students at a writing seminar in St. Petersburg, Russia, in July, 2000, where we were both teaching. The tears on this occasion came in response to a student’s question about how he chooses titles for his books. He was alarmingly candid about the demons that pursued him. Even while we were in Russia, he was looking for an Alcoholics Anonymous chapter. He was always on edge, treading a path that was strewn with temptation, addiction, and violence. Perhaps because we were in St. Petersburg when I first got to know him, Denis reminded me of Dostoyevsky, a writer who was willing to plumb the darkest corners of his own psyche in order to honestly report on the nature of humanity.

He lived in the woods in northern Idaho, at the top of the stovepipe, near the Canadian border. He had guns and books and a Corvette and an amused wife, Cindy, whom he clung to like a mast in a stormy sea. I think he kept himself out of society because he was too appealing. He captivated people with his humor and brilliance, but adulation was another form of intoxication that he fiercely avoided.

Denis said that he never read his reviews, although he was one of America’s most acclaimed writers. While we were in Russia, his novel “The Name of the World” got a front-page review in the Times Book Review, by Robert Stone. When Denis’s editor called to give him the news, he told me, “I had to read my Bible to calm down.” And that was a good review. He said he stopped reading reviews when his friends began calling him at six in the morning, warning him not to read an indifferent notice in the Times. Each of his friends quoted just enough of the review that Denis felt like he had read it anyway. “A bad review is like one of those worms in the Amazon that swims up your penis,” he told me. “If you read it, you can’t get it out, somehow.”

Denis had a voice that was both lyrical and brutal, which sometimes seemed at odds with his buoyant personality. When I confided that I was anxious about writing a novel, worrying that I didn’t know where it was headed, Denis said that that wasn’t a problem. “You get in your teacup and take your oar and strike off for Australia,” he said, “and if you wind up in Japan, you’re ecstatic.”

He occasionally taught at the Michener Center, at the University of Texas, in Austin. In 2012, at a reading, one of his former students asked a question. She said that he had given them three rules to write by but she couldn’t remember the third one. Denis recited them:

Write naked. That means to write what you would never say.
Write in blood. As if ink is so precious you can’t waste it.
Write in exile, as if you are never going to get home again, and you have to call back every detail.

Ω

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