Archive for May, 2017


I woke up this morning to the news that writer Denis Johnson has died (two days ago). He was 67 years old. I don’t know what the cause of death was, but, as Buddha reminds us, the real cause of death was being born.

I was introduced to Denis Johnson’s writing during a time in my life when my circle of writer-friends and I were infatuated with the idea of the visionary, self-destructive artist, a crew that we casually lumped Johnson into. Like many young self-styled bohemians, we were enamored with the ideal of the reprobate-renegade writer in pretty much the same way we’d been infatuated with rockstars, imitating their “look” both in life and on the page. You know––the style but not the substance. We had no idea.

In many of the descriptions of Johnson’s writing that I’ve seen today, the word “raw” comes up a lot, as if there’s some special virtue in being wounded. There’s not. Everyone is wounded, sooner or later. What matters is how you heal. Or how you don’t.

As anyone who has spent time trapped in the jaws of addiction and depression will tell you, when you find a source of beauty in the world, you swim toward it and hang onto it like a life preserver. Because that’s what it is.

Denis Johnson, like many of us, found that beauty in words. There are still plenty of people out there who think of writing (especially personal writing) as an elitist activity, something that comfortable and privileged folk do with all that time on their hands. Even people for whom art and life are a struggle sometimes say that when life becomes too much of a struggle, art (and art-making) has to wait––sometimes forever.

But here’s the problem. Art will not wait because life will not wait. Waiting to make art is like waiting to be yourself. Or waiting to breathe. Denis Johnson knew that. I don’t know, but I believe that he made art because he had to in order to live. That’s the sense I get from his words––that they were necessary in a way that went way beyond being published or getting awards or good reviews.

When I read Johnson today, I no longer feel that he was romanticizing or celebrating the darker edges of his life––he was transforming them, practicing the writer’s alchemy of turning base metals into gold. Jesus’ Son. Angels. Fiskadoro. The Stars at Noon. Resuscitation of a Hanged Man. The Name of the World. Tree of Smoke. The Incognito Lounge. Train Dreams. He tried. And he succeeded. We should all be so lucky.


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