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December 16, 2014

Tim Johnston: Fact, Fiction and Human Figures

Posted by Lincoln

Tim Johnston wasn't always going to be an author. He had drawing in his blood --- doodling, sketching and wiling away the hours over his sketchpad as a boy. But when his mother gave him DRAWING THE HUMAN FIGURE, a book of figure studies, she inadvertently set him down another path. He discovered the artistic potential in the collision of image and text, which eventually would lead him to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing. This January, his circuitous path comes to fruition with the publication of his first novel, DESCENT. Enjoy his musings on that process below.

To a fiction writer, "fact" and "truth" can mean very different things. Or, as Tim O'Brien has put it, "Fiction is for getting at the truth when the truth is insufficient for the truth."

Here's one truth I can only assume must also be a fact: At some point very early in my life, my mother opened up a book before my eyes and began to read.

Here's a fact, followed by a truth: Thereafter, every year, she would include at least one book under the Christmas tree for me. Usually it would take a day or two of gluttonous toy-play before I'd find these books, crack them open, breathe in their smell and begin to read --- but I would find them. 

One Christmas, however, it was the book, and not the toys, that most excited me.  

The book was a paperback, roughly the dimensions of a beefy magazine, and it was called DRAWING THE HUMAN FIGURE. Within it were beautiful illustrations of the human form, many of them nudes. Female nudes. 

I was still a kid, and my mother had given me a book full of female nudes.

Some factual context here: Whereas in the normal progression of the making of a reader, a child moves steadily away from his beloved picture books into storybooks with pictures and from these into "illustrated" stories and finally into books with no illustrations whatsoever --- novels and the like --- I, in fact, did not go easily into that all-text, un-illustrated night. 

This probably had less to do with my reading skills and more to do with my love of the artwork itself. For I was, from earliest memory, an illustrator: Hours upon hours of my childhood were spent hunched over drawing pads, oblivious to the outside world as I sketched the inner with my #2 pencil. I remember judging books not by their covers, but by their illustrations, and reading toward those images as if they were prizes I was earning, page by wordy page, and then becoming so excited by the artwork that I abandoned the book altogether for the drawing pad. 

And now for the truth about DRAWING THE HUMAN FIGURE: I can't say for a fact that I got that book for Christmas or if I got it for my birthday. I can't even say for a fact that it came from my mother and not my father. 

But this is the truth: That year --- the year of DRAWING THE HUMAN FIGURE --- I was still a long way from becoming a serious reader, much less a writer, and Mom --- a writer herself, a one-time poet in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop --- was telling me with this book not only that she recognized my love of drawing, but that she recognized the value of drawing itself. The nudes weren't meant to embarrass or titillate: They were there to teach. DRAWING THE HUMAN FIGURE told me that drawing was not some childish preoccupation I'd grow out of, like playing with toys. It told me I'd already grown up.

Some years later, when I told my mother I was going to pursue my MFA in Creative Writing, her face was an open book --- an illustrated one --- in which I read surprise, anxiety and dismay. All my life I'd been drawing --- she'd seen the proof of my talent, had been so proud of it --- and now I was going to get an MFA in Creative Writing?  Did I have any idea how difficult it was to be a writer --- a fiction writer

She'd wanted only to raise a reader, never imagining that all those books under the Christmas tree would be the stepping stones to such a long and unforgiving career path.

Fact: All these years later, I'm home for winter break, and as Mom ships off copy after copy of my new novel to relatives and family friends --- easiest Christmas ever! --- I know she's wondering what book to give me this year; because when your young reader grows up to become a writer, he tends to get fussy about what he reads, and giving him books becomes tricky. Any day now she's going to flat-out ask me what book she can safely get me.

Truth: The surprise of the book isn't important anymore; it's the history she loves --- the continuation of a gift that began when she first cracked that first book open before her little boy's eyes, and began to read...even if all that boy cared about was the pictures.