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Stanford scholar, bestselling author Adam Johnson shares secrets of his writing process

The author of the bestselling novel "The Orphan Master's Son" says the personal characteristics seen as flaws during his early years ‑ daydreamer, liar, rubbernecker, exaggerator ‑ all came together to make for a successful career as a storyteller.

L.A. Cicero Adam Johnson portrait

Adam Johnson, associate professor of English and best-selling author, uses a spreadsheet to track his productivity.

Spreadsheets are not typically equated with creativity. But acclaimed novelist Adam Johnson relies on rows and columns to keep him focused and on schedule.

In addition to his bestselling novel The Orphan Master's Son, Johnson's numerous short stories and essays have appeared in Harper's Magazine, Esquire and The Paris Review, to name a few. His first novel, Parasites Like Us, won a California Book Award. Given Johnson's prolific creative writing endeavors, one might imagine that words flow effortlessly from his mind to his keyboard.

But, as Johnson shared during a recent presentation as part of the "How I Write" series at Stanford, each of his works is the result of methodical research, self-imposed discipline and a lifelong passion for storytelling.

An associate professor of English at Stanford, Johnson records his writing habits in a detailed Excel spreadsheet. He keeps track of the location, number of words he writes, the time of day he writes and how many of those words actually make it into the final product. 

His data revealed that he was the most productive at the medical library at the University of California-San Francisco, a fact he attributes to his lack of access to the Internet and the effort needed to use the bathroom there. 

"In the library, honestly, you have to pack it all up and take a trip," admitted Johnson. "I would just think, 'I can make it another half hour before I have to pack all my gear up.'"

Working in his home office proved to be difficult because he could hear his children playing in the room above him.  "I had to put the test to my work," said Johnson. "Are these imaginary people more important than the real people I am spending time away from?" Johnson found that moving outside of his home put some of that guilt to rest and allowed him to focus on his writing.

His spreadsheet also keeps him on a writing schedule.  If he missed writing days, it would become increasingly apparent.

 "When you miss a day or two it's like a gap tooth, but if you miss a couple of weeks it's like someone died," Johnson said.

Finding fictional inspiration in facts

Research played a major role in the development of The Orphan Master's Son, Johnson's New York Times bestseller about a young man's journey through the world's most evasive dictatorship – North Korea, under the rule of Kim Jong Il. 

Johnson, who received his doctorate in English from Florida State University in 2000, did everything in his power to understand this isolated culture, about which precious little is written.  

He read everything he could get his hands on, including agricultural and historical books and propaganda materials. He also read the few available testimonials of people who had escaped the country.

"Once I started reading these stories, everything changed," said Johnson.  "There was a weight of them in me … They were real people."

To prepare his writing, Johnson combined general knowledge, personal stories and first- hand impressions he gained from a tightly controlled, state-sponsored trip to North Korea.  With these multiple perspectives, Johnson attempted to write from the point of view of a native North Korean.

With the personal stories, Johnson felt a familiar pull.  "When you get that story, you are beholden to it," Johnson admitted.  "It is like bearing witness to it.  You have to live up to it."

Despite Johnson's organized academic approach to his creative work, he ran into all the typical setbacks faced by writers – including writer's block.  "I think [being] stuck is part of the process," said Johnson. 

He would write until he would not believe the setting, the person or the place he was writing about, then he would hit the books again, "extending my imagination as far as I trusted it and then going back to the sources," said Johnson. 

The making of a writer

The accomplished fiction and short story writer began his "How I Write" conversation with a deeper look into his own life.  He talked about going to the zoo after hours with his father, who was a night watchman at the Phoenix zoo; digging through neighbors' trashcans to figure out more about their lives; and working as a construction worker, all the while looking for stories. 

It was not until he took a creative writing class at Arizona State University as an undergraduate that he found a home for this inquisitiveness.  "Suddenly all the flaws I had been told I had had in my life – I was a daydreamer, a liar, a rubbernecker and an exaggerator ‑ they all came together to make a story that was suddenly valuable." From that moment on, he devoted himself to telling stories and figuring out what stories do for us as people. 

Throughout his career, Johnson has attempted nearly all forms of storytelling, including work on graphic novels such as Shake Girl with the Stanford Graphic Novel Project. He has found that writers must often place themselves entirely outside of their own experience to gain a more truthful outcome. 

Johnson said storytelling has contributed to his own self-awareness. "I was using the distance of fiction to get to know the stranger of myself," admitted Johnson. 

"If your story is overwhelming enough that it could incapacitate you, then you're going to have to break it into pieces," Johnson said.  "You have to break it, or tell it out of order, or tell it without causality, or tell it as if it happened to someone else, or leave out the pain altogether."

Johnson's talk will be available on Stanford on ITunes U, where more than two-dozen previous "How I Write" talks are archived.

Kelsey Geiser is an intern with the Human Experience, the Humanities web portal for Stanford University.

Media Contact

Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156, corrieg@stanford.edu