What Does It Mean, Denis?: Denis Johnson Remembered by Jackie Polzin

When Mitch told us Denis Johnson would be teaching our first graduate workshop, I didn’t ask if he meant Denis Johnson, author of Tree of Smoke and Jesus’ Son and whose short story “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” had just been published in The New Yorker, because the idea seemed too outlandish to state outright. I thought there must be a lesser-known Denis Johnson who teaches fiction writing in Boise. Then I found a promotional flyer online confirming the Denis Johnson was to teach a fiction workshop at Boise State. I was filled with excitement and dread. The dread was misplaced. Throughout the semester Denis proved generous beyond all expectation, offering his insight and his time without reservation. His wisdom sometimes proved elusive, like the cryptic message of a Zen koan. It seemed to me that Denis had reached a point of enlightenment. I hear his voice when I’m writing and I think to myself: but Denis, what does it mean?

Denis believed that all writing benefits from rigor. He considered himself to be always learning. He said he never felt as if he knew what he was doing. He read craft books often. At the time of our workshop he was reading a book on craft by Ursula K. Le Guin. Denis owned dictionaries dating back centuries in order to use the most appropriate dictionary for the setting of his work. He embraced discipline in many aspects of his life. Denis told us he tried to live a pure and honest life. He tried not to lie or cheat and if he lied, he tried to correct it, to come clean. He told us we were too young to worry about living pure lives. But Denis, when should we worry?

Denis emphasized engaging all the senses. He went through a period of trying to engage each sense on every page. ‘Listen, listen, listen,’ he said. He was an advocate of covert eavesdropping. He told us a fly that lands on the arm is felt only in motion. Once it rests on the hairs of the arm its presence cannot be detected until it moves again. But Denis, how does this make me a better writer?

Denis said it was important to learn the difference between what we expect to see and what we see. A painter friend had taught him this distinction. Denis thought we should all try painting and also that this quote from Kerouac explained everything: “Don’t think of words when you stop but to see picture better.” But Denis, what if we don’t see a picture?

Denis corrected the grammar in our stories with a bright blue pen. We met with him one-on-one to talk over his marked up copies of our stories. Denis scheduled the meetings generously. There were always periods of uncomfortable silence, though it’s quite possible he didn’t experience it as such. I never overcame my awe in his presence. Even when Denis invited us to his Boise rental for a hot dog party. He laid thirty-two hot dogs on the gas grill before turning it on. This struck many of us as the wrong way to cook hot dogs. But Denis, shouldn’t the grill be hot?

After the first round of workshops, Denis showed up at class with eight new copies of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. He told us he read it once a year. The implication was that we ought to read it as soon as possible. On the inside of the front cover he inscribed a quote credited to Isaac Babel, “No iron can enter the human heart like a period placed at just the right moment.” But Denis, what does it mean?

Idaho Review