Sunday, February 27, 2011


There is a great difference between teachers and mentors. And as I discuss my experience with both, I’m bound to reveal some things about myself I’ve never said publicly before. So let the chips fall where they may.

When I was 15-years-old, I studied with cartoonist/writer Lawrence Lariar in his two-year correspondence course, which today we would probably call distance learning. He was prolific (something I admired), the author of over 100 books, some of these being murder mysteries he wrote under a couple of pseudonyms. He was cartoon editor of Parade magazine, of the Best Cartoons of the Year series, and at one time he was an “idea man” (not an animator) at Disney studios. I “found” Lariar when I was 14-years-old  and had the only serious argument I ever had with my father when I announced to him that I planned on a career as an artist.

Later, my senior year in high school, I was accepted at an art school in Illinois, then bailed out at the last minute---in May, 1966---when I decided I couldn’t gamble the hard-earned money my Dad was paying for my college education on a career that might be financially questionable. I was, after all, the first member of my family to go to college. So I went downstate to the only school still admitting students in late spring, and majored in Journalism, which gave me the chance to draw---and, as it turned out, write. Decades later, I relished the years my daughter went to Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, because she was living my teenage dream, and I could drool over her textbooks.
But when I told my father my plans at age 14, he was rightly concerned, and said, “Chuck, they don’t let black people do that.” His words were simply unacceptable to me. If I couldn’t draw, I didn’t want to live. Back then, I read Writers Digest for its profiles on famous cartoonists, and I came across an ad for Lariar’s course. I wrote him a letter, explaining what my Dad had said, and asked him if he agreed with that. Lariar fired back a letter to me within a week. (He was a liberal, Jewish man living on Long Island, who changed his last name in the 1930s, I guess, and once delighted in infuriating his neighbors by having black artists over to his house for drawing lessons.) In his letter, he said, “Your father is wrong. You can do whatever you want with your life. All you need is a good teacher.”

My father backed down , admitting that when it came to the arts in the 1960s, he didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, and he paid for my lessons with Lariar between 1963-65. During those two years when I was still in high school, I’d take the Greyhound bus from Illinois to New York, stay with my relatives in Brooklyn for a week and, wearing a suit and tie, pound the pavement in Manhattan with my “swatch” (samples) from one publishing house to another, looking for work (It was during one of those meetings that I met a young editor/cartoonist, Charles Barsotti, who was very encouraging to me when I was a kid, and is still publishing in The New Yorker). 

Friends of mine have often told me that they wanted to be writers since they were five-years-old. That was never me. I knew from an early age that I was good at writing, sure, and writing was fun (On weekends when I was an undergraduate, I use to write the term papers for other students in my dorm when they wanted to party, $5. per paper. Money back guaranteed if they failed to get an “A.” I never had to return those payments, and the assignments I did for them meant later I would become a writer and they wouldn’t). However, from kidhood forward all that I was burning to do was draw. Visual artists (then later philosophers) have always been my heroes. Those were the first two Tribes I belonged to. I can only say that about a handful of writers. There are, of course, many, many writers I greatly respect, but my passions for art and philosophy pre-date my entry into the world of “creative writing.”

During those New York trips, I naturally visited with Lariar, who fixed me lunch (when I was in my teens) or dinner (when my wife, new-born son and I visited him during my days at SUNY-Stony Brook). He loaded me up with original art from the days when he had a syndicated strip (he wrote, someone else drew it), and regaled me with stories about the comic artists I so admired. In college, I sent him copies of every editorial, panel cartoon, comic strip and illustration I published (between 1965 and 1972 there were over 1,000 of these publications in Illinois periodicals, The Chicago Tribune, black magazines like Jet, Ebony , Black World, Players and some risqué places I dare not mention and would like to forget), and he’d always write back something encouraging. 

My 1970 PBS series “Charlie’s Pad” is based on his two-year course, and was inspired by a TV spot he did in the 1950s when at the end of a news program he drew something funny about that day’s headlines. Once at his house, he told me I was more like his son than his own offsprings, who I believe went into other fields. Later, when he read Faith and the Good Thing, he wrote me a letter, saying “You have the ‘touch." I still have a box of old correspondence between Lariar and myself, who died in 1981, the same year as my mother (and the year my daughter was born).

 But while Lariar was a fine teacher, John Gardner was a true mentor.
When I decided to take an introductory class Gardner offered in the fall of 1972 called “Professional Writing” (which I only went to once, preferring to meet with him in his office to discuss my work since I’d already written six novels before Faith and the Good Thing), I read Grendel, which at the time was newly published. I would never take something as important as an art course without first seeing if the (literary) artist was someone I might be able to get along with. I was at that time finishing a master’s degree in Philosophy, and supporting myself by working part-time on a newspaper called The Southern Illinoisan,  writing news stories, features, obits, a weekly column, farm news, drawing their editorial cartoons, and proof-reading the Sunday paper for eight hours on Saturday night, all for the princely sum of $50. a week, which I supplemented by drawing 25 panel cartoons each week as a free-lancer, and usually selling about five, which paid for our weekly groceries when I was in grad school. (My wife, then an elementary school teacher, was obviously doing the bulk of supporting both of us.) I was impressed by Gardner’s credentials as a medievalist, by his interest in thinkers such as R.G. Collingwood and Alfred North Whitehead (and, of course, his constant disagreements with Sartre), his devotion to writing, and his appreciation for the religion of my childhood, Christianity (Gardner’s father in upstate New York had been something of a preacher, and Gardner drifted into medieval studies because of his love of Chaucer and the religion that animated that artist’s vision). To be perfectly honest here, I’m sure I could never have apprenticed myself in a highly personal, one-on-one relationship to a writer who was irreligious or indifferent (or hostile ) to all the richness offered by life of the spirit.


We hit it off when I was writing Faith---he thought my characters had “dignity,” liked the storyteller voice in that novel, and my being in Philosophy. (Unfortunately, he did make the unforgivable mistake of telling me that my work as a cartoonist had just been "practice" for writing fiction.) Early in our relationship, I saw how other students were constantly asking for his support. So I made a point of never asking him for anything. But he took me under his wing anyway, generously helping me at every turn. Again, to be honest here, I have to say that since I was in Philosophy, and training for a career in that field, the literary book world was of very little (or no) interest to me. I just wanted to write the books I felt needed to be written. A “career” in creative writing was not only the farthest thing from my mind, but I was actually turned off by the negative "wild and crazy" things I’d read over the years about the so-called “writer’s life.”

Even today I have slightly the same attitude, I suppose. The joy of creating---writing, drawing---is everything for me, but the “careerist” aspects of the profession have always left me cold. They don’t mean much to me. Unlike some writers I know, I’m not looking for love (or even approval) through my work---I got loads of that from my parents, and after that from my wife and children. So I’m liable sometimes to create something for free, and for an obscure publication, simply because I’m excited about and believe in the project or feel that creative contribution is for a good cause. (Thank God for my literary agents who protect me from that tendency in myself.)

 Nevertheless, Gardner after Grendel (which won him critical praise) and 1972’s Sunlight Dialogues (his first bestseller) brought me into the book world. He was becoming famous, and he was generous toward his students, perhaps because for 15 years he experienced so much rejection of his own work. Once or twice he canceled our conferences because he was traveling back and forth to teach at Northwestern University. Returning from one of these trips, he smiled ear to ear and thrust into my hands an issue of a Chicago-based publication called Fiction Midwest. The lead piece was my first chapter of Faith, which Gardner submitted on his own without telling me. “Now,” he said, “you’re published.” He talked to everyone about the novel before I finished it, assuring me, “Don’t worry, I won’t let you make a mistake.”

I took notes on even his casual remarks about fiction, and ordered all his earlier works of criticism. Not only did he engineer my first “serious” literary publication, but Gardner orchestrated my first public reading as well. In the spring of 1973, he convinced me to appear with him and eight other writers he knew and nurtured. The thought of reading before an audience terrified me. I asked, “What should I do?” Gardner shrugged and simply replied, “Eh, you put on a mask.”

When Faith was finished, Gardner referred me to his agent, the best literary agency in America, George Borchardt, Inc., which has represented all my work since 1973. When I was at SUNY-Stony Brook, working on my Ph.D. in Philosophy, we were chatting by phone in 1974 and he casually mentioned he’d be reading at Hofstra. Then he said, “Be there.” So we were, my wife Joan and I, sitting down front beside his first wife (also named Joan) in the audience as he read from his fiction. Then he said he had something better to read, and---to my shock---brought out his copy of Faith. I squirmed down in my seat, but oh, Gardner’s mentoring did not stop there.
 He put my name forward for a dozen teaching posts even before I could take my Ph.D. qualifying exams, and the letter of reference he wrote for me in 1976 when I applied for an appointment at the University of Washington (which I never saw) is, my colleagues told me, a classic example of a literary lion using all his celebrity and clout to clear a way for his former student.

 In 1977, Len Randolph at the NEA was talking to two film-makers from WGBH/Boston, Fred Barzyk and Olivia Tappan, who were looking for a black writer to script a screenplay about the oldest living American, Charlie Smith, then 137. Gardner told Randolph they should call me---that reference led to 20 years of teleplay-and-screenwriting for PBS and later Hollywood studios.  One of my most anthologized short stories, “Exchange Value,” is a piece Gardner published in the 1981 issue of Choice that he edited, then he included it in Best American Short Stories as a guest editor. Another much reprinted story, “China,” he published in his literary journal, Mss., after we’d been arguing back and forth about my increasing movement toward Buddhism, a religion he---very Protestant, very Western--- once told me he felt was “wrong,” though later he softened his stance in an introduction called “Meditational Fiction” he wrote for Tengu Child, a collection of stories by   Kikuo Itaya that he edited and translated with Nobuko Tsukui. (“Since we are not Buddhists, one might ask, why should we read the stories of Itaya, a writer not widely read even in his native Japan?” he wrote. “The easy and immediate answer is because they’re beautiful.”)

 But even the best of literary apprenticeships, those based on love and mutual respect, can have drawbacks. The elder artist, if his personality and gifts are as strong as Gardner’s were, may have problems with new directions his student may take. Through his example of generosity, he showed me how to work with my own students for 33 years, always putting their interests and needs first, helping them get published, and so forth. There was no falling out between us---that could never be---but with Oxherding Tale I desperately needed to push beyond his conception at the time of what black literature, culture (and Charles Johnson) should be. When he read that manuscript and responded to it---we were meeting at his home in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania---he said with a bit of uncharacteristic bafflement, “This is a different Charles Johnson.”

Not different, really. As a young writer, I composed  Faith with the intention of getting a rise out of Gardner and showing him what I could do, all that I’d managed to master on my own. With Oxherding Tale, on the other hand, I was writing the “platform” novel, as I call it, that I would build the rest of my writing life on, the novel with which our intellectual and artistic paths would diverge.  Although we never saw eye-to-eye on Buddhism, he called my publisher for that novel just before its release, and asked if he could endorse the book---“words,” as critic Roger Sale pointed out, that were “among the last John Gardner wrote”  before his fatal motorcycle accident on September 14, 1982. (The material on Gardner in this post is drawn from my essay “John Gardner as Mentor,” published in the special issue of African American Review devoted to my work, Winter 1996, Volume 30, Number 4.)



  1. In 1987 I was taking my second fiction-writing course at the University of Washington. Midway through the term, my teacher wrote on one of my papers, "You WILL be a writer of distinction someday." What this meant to me, coming from this very respected teacher, is hard to express. Today, as my third book nears completion, I can only say, thank you, Charles Johnson.

  2. I think this is the most extensive writing on Lariar's influence on you that is extant. I've seen parts of this elsewhere, but some of it is new, at least to me. Very interesting--a great portrait of this individual.