By Sarah Williams, Staff Reporter
Bret Anthony Johnston is an international best-selling author and an enthusiastic entertainer by default. To a packed audience comprised of mainly UMF students, faculty, and a few community members, Johnston was not only an excellent reader, but he was funny! This combination kept his audience engaged as he talked to a full room at The Landing on Thursday September 29th.
Johnston started out with a few jokes and a “ya’ll,” bringing the audience to attention and laughter right from the get go. He was open and honest and even leaned back to ask Jeffrey Thomson how long he was supposed to read and where to go from here. With a warm accent, Johnston, the Director of Creative Writing at Harvard University, began with an anecdote about a famous American novelist who once got nervous while reading from her work. Apparently she had forgotten she was wearing the microphone when she left the room under the pretense of getting a folder of her work, when instead she headed straight for the bathroom. The entire audience could hear her vomiting.
After warming the audience up with his relaxed nature, Johnston opened up talking about various rejection letters he had received over the years. This brought more smiles and laughter, and even relief from the aspiring writers who needed to hear that even a famous author like Johnston had experienced rejection. “Bland language and not enough plot,” wrote one critic. “The talking cow is going nowhere.” The audience roared with laughter.
One of the first readings Johnston shared with was his “cover song version” of Jamaica Kincaid’s, “Girl.” His version, “Boy,” he read quickly, almost like a slam poem, full of emotion and passion. “This is how…this is how…,” each stanza lulled his listeners into seeing what this father was trying to teach his boy about life. “Coward,” was also sprinkled throughout the poem, as the father belittles his son with his words.
After this reading Johnston faced the audience and asked if there were any questions. He was endearing with his down to earth nature. He said that he hated writing and was driven by doubt, confusion and procrastination. He commented, “I hate writing, but I love having written,” said Johnston. “Never reread before the first draft is done,” he advised the audience, “I believe in work, I believe in hours logged.”
After a moment of silence, Johnston asks again with a straight face, “Anything ya’ll want to talk about?” And then a moment later, “Is anyone going to talk except me?” This kept the audience giggling and more than a few hands went up with more questions. Johnston, as humble as he appeared to be, was quite an entertainer.
“It just gets darker and darker people, ya’ll asked for it,” he began before he started reading from his novel, “Remember Me Like This.” His voice changed as he got serious and pulled everyone into the thriller, which began with the discovery of a dead body. Suddenly he stopped and started skimming through the pages, “Let me tell you there’s really good writing in there,” he said as he opens up nearer to the ending. “Imagine killing a man…” Johnston had the audience on the edge of their seats as he tantalized them with these integral parts of his book.
Towards the end he answered more questions, especially readdressing why he hated writing. “It just looks very ugly, it’s messy, it’s just horrible,” he continued, “There are far more profitable ways to spend your life.” Johnston admitted that writing was a calling, a vocation, rather than something you choose purposely to do. “It’s the best thing you could ever hope for, it’s the worst thing.”
Johnston said that the best piece of advice he’s received was to write two minutes a day. He explained that meant at least two minutes, and that sometimes would turn into two hours, and that sometimes it would just be two minutes. Do it for twenty-one days he advised. “I never go into anything with an agenda,” he continued, saying that he explored his own curiosities.
The evening was a pure pleasure listening to Bret Anthony Johnston. As a storyteller, a comedian, and a real down to earth guy. He won the whole room over at, “Ya’ll.”