Denis Johnson and a Writing Methodology for the Homeless Crisis

Someone had donated three books by Denis Johnson to a street library. I snagged them all. The prize consisted of two novels and a collection of non fiction, Seek: Reports From the Edges of America & Beyond, published in 2001. I’d read several books of fiction by Johnson, but never a word of his non fiction.

I read Seek in two sittings and annotated its pages because it stimulated my thoughts about how to write on the homeless crisis. I keep trying new methods, genres, mixing up methods and genres. I keep changing my mind because I keep walking into new encounters, interactions, or I revisit old ones with fresh insights. Perhaps, ultimately my writing about the New American Diaspora will shape shift and meander. Perhaps, ultimately this is more of a book about writing a book, rather than about the homeless crisis. I hope not! There’s too many of that type already! But sometimes a writer’s conceit overwhelms him.

It feels like every time I pick up a book, (almost always chosen at random from a street library) it shifts or enriches or demolishes certain thinking about writing on this subject.

This is what happened as I read Seek. In this collection of essays, Johnson acts as a kind of journalist, sometimes on contract for a big magazine, sometimes by sheer happenstance (like changing a flat tire). He attends a militia meeting, a Christian biker rally, a Rainbow Gathering. He reports from African civil wars, a gold mine in Alaska and a dive bar in Montana. At one point, he writes about Randy Weaver’s standoff at Ruby Ridge in Idaho before it turned deadly and said he should have visited Weaver’s armed compound and interviewed him because he was basically a neighbor, a mere 60 miles away. Johnson knew that’s where the story was but he didn’t go and blew an incredibly opportunity. He also didn’t have a fat contract to visit and write about Randy Weaver. I suppose that makes a difference to some writers.

I don’t have a fat contract to write about the homeless. Does any writer out there? I’m not attending events related to the crisis, like sweeping an encampment or a press conference at city hall. But wait, perhaps I am! I volunteer at a food pantry and street ministry. Those are regular events. I walk through my local encampments every day. That’s regular attendance at an event, if you want to call it an event.

Johnson engages with certain populations, most that are outright or potentially dangerous. I don’t want to do that. That’s not the place where I want to write from. Johnson does not try and interpret the madness and mayhem he encounters. He hints subtlety here and there but leaves the larger interpretation to the reader.

Is that what I’m doing? Is that the way to go about writing up my encounters with the New American Diaspora? I have opinions and speculations to reveal and have revealed some. Perhaps the answer is to keep probing, assaying, turning up the ground, looking under rocks and RVs and just throw everything I observe, think and write in there, including the kitchens sinks (note plural) because I’ve seen about a half dozen kitchen sinks in a homeless encampments that aren’t being used as kitchen sinks.

What about this method? I find a Magic 8-Ball on the fringes of an encampment. It will show up soon enough. I pick it up, shake it, and ask a question such as: should I write this particular incident up as fiction or essay or memoir or journalism or poetry or polemic or whatever genre pops into my mind? Then I would carry the 8-Ball around me everywhere I go, and use it every single time a new encounter with the New American Diaspora unfolds, which is every single day I live in Oregon.

What a way to write a book!