“Pleased to meet you / Hope you guess my name”
I haven’t been R Dean Johnson my whole life. My parents named me Robert Dean Johnson, Jr. They called me Bobby. Everyone did until high school when I graduated to Bob. It felt mature, so I went with it. Who doesn’t like a guy named Bob Johnson? It’s a fine name up until the point you think you might want to be a writer.
I didn’t know I’d want to become a writer. In fact, I started college at Cal Poly Pomona as an engineering major who wrote stories rather than doing his physics homework, graduated as a business major who wrote really plot-heavy stories about people who didn’t like their jobs as business people, and left an ad agency job in Los Angeles after four years to go back to school and learn more about writing stories. Good ones.
It wasn’t until a brief stint in the MFA program at the University of Alabama that I discovered my namesake, The Robert Johnson. The guy whose name is synonymous with the Delta Blues. The guy who may or may not have sold his soul to the Devil at the crossroads and suddenly started doing things with a guitar unlike anyone else. The guy who died young and mysteriously. How can some kid from Anaheim (yes, home to Disneyland) compete with a guy that dangerous? A guy that cool? Well, I can’t. And frankly. publishing anything as Bob Johnson sounds about as real to me as John Doe or Anonymous. So, I have two early publications as Robert Johnson, Jr., and the bulk of my work appears under the name, R. Dean Johnson.
But really, I’m just Bob. The guys on my softball team call me Bob. My undergrad and graduate students call me Bob. My wife and sometimes even my 6 year-old son call me Bob.
I hold an MA in English from Kansas State University (Wildcats, not Jayhawks). After that brief stint at Alabama, I went on to earn an MFA in Creative Writing from Arizona State University (Sun Devils, not Wildcats). Before arriving at the Bluegrass Writers Studio, I taught at Prescott College (AZ), Yavapai College (AZ), Cameron University (OK), and Gotham Writers Workshop (NY).
I have no song lyrics / pertaining to Workshop
The first real, mature-like, magazine or journal or collection-type, story I ever tried to write is wonderful. It’s never been published, but I’ve re-read it several times and still see why I wanted to learn more about writing. And how bad I needed to. Many years later now, I also see how much better I’ve become and how much more I actually do know, but I also see there’s a real writer back there, that guy who pushed fearlessly forward and wrote, “The Ghosts of Valentine’s Past” (Yes, we talk about titles in my workshops, so feel free to laugh).
At some point in a graduate school workshop I turned in a story titled, “Catching Atoms.” My classmates and instructor loved it (though this is not the point of workshop). My instructor even encouraged me, privately, to send the story to some literary journals. In fact, he had a connection with one and told me to send it to them and use his name (again, not the point of workshop). Unfortunately, the story was rejected, though with an encouraging note, and the story would go on to be rejected more than 60 times—often with glowing notes from editors such as MMM Hayes at Story Quarterly and Junot Diaz at Boston Review.
The first story I actually published was from a manuscript I rushed to write for class. I’d already turned in a story I’d been working on and a story I’d been thinking about. This last story, “The People We Were,” began from a single line: “For the record, I’m not a drug dealer.” I didn’t know what that meant or who said it, but I wanted to find out. A few revisions later, I began sending the story out and it found a home after just a handful of rejections. (For the record, “Catching Atoms” was finally published in Ruminate and has since been anthologized twice. I love and believe in it as much now as I did before the first of the 60+ rejections. I love it and believe in it even after the editor of one of the anthologies asked me to chop off the last two paragraphs).
And that’s just it. Writing is a lonely endeavor, even if you do it in a coffeehouse. Your characters (in fiction or creative nonfiction) become your good friends because they’re party to this excitement that you feel even if few other people know about it. Or appreciate it. Yet.
The great thing about workshop is that it is anything but a lonely endeavor. We’re a community of writers. Yes, it is an online community during the semester, but we’re all looking at the same manuscript on screen and talking to each other live, so that makes it ours and that’s as good and valuable as any bookstore in San Francisco or coffeehouse in The Village. It doesn’t matter who you are at your day job or who you’ve been in the past, in workshop you are an artist, an emerging writer, and a person of letters. That’s not to put the pressure on but, rather, to take it off. You’re among compatriots and sympathetic ears here, and we’re pleased to meet you.
Books that matter to me (in a kind of order and incomplete)
The Catcher in the Rye –J.D. Salinger
Cliché, sure, but I didn’t know until then you could write like that and get away with it.
Mysteries of Pittsburgh –Michael Chabon
I wrote my first short story after reading this (see above). It’s all Chabon’s fault.
This Boy’s Life –Tobias Wolff
What memoir does at its best—make you care about something that has nothing to do with you.
The Great Gatsby -F Scott Fitzgerald
All things in literature can be compared to baseball, punk rock, or Gatsby. Really.
Hiroshima –John Hersey
Not just a great example of the kinds of stories narrative nonfiction can tell, a great
example of how to craft them in the first place.
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant –Ann Tyler
It happens so quietly, so casually, that you’re in with both feet and you don’t know how
or when it happened. So smart.
An American Childhood –Annie Dillard
The other great thing memoir can do—build, and build, and build, then turn on you just enough to keep you thinking about the work long after you’ve finished it.
Tumble Home -Amy Hempel
Stories that read like poems, except with the whole narrative arc thing.
“Norte Americanos.” Agave.
“The Last, Best Epigraph.” Arcadia Magazine. [online: http://www.arcadiamagazine.org/3/post/2013/03/the-last-best-epigraph.html]
“A Few Hills Over From Hollywood.” Ascent.
“Water Gates.” Natural Bridge.
“Saints with Toys.” Slice Magazine.
“Everybody Knows Freedom.” The Southern Review.
“Outside the Palace.” Atticus Review. [online: http://atticusreview.org/outside-the-palace/]
“Something Good.” Coe Review.
“Beginner’s Guide to Brugge.” Juked. Pushcart Prize nomination
“The People We Were.” New Orleans Review. Pushcart Prize nomination
“Catching Atoms.” Ruminate.
“Captain of the Drive.” Santa Clara Review.