Claudia Hunter Johnson had wanted to be a writer and mother since she was ten years old and living in Kingsville, Texas. She graduated in Letters from Oklahoma University, earned an MA in Folklore from Indiana University, and received a PhD in Creative Writing from Florida State University. She is not only an accomplished writer and the author of Hurtling Toward Happiness: A Mother and Teenage Son's Road Trip from Blues to Bonding in a Really Small Car; she is also a screenwriter and documentary filmmaker. Her memoir, Stifled Laughter: One Woman's Story About Fighting Censorship, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and her highly acclaimed documentary, The Other Side of Silence: The Untold Story of Ruby McCollum, won the Gold Jury Prize at the Seattle 2013 Social Justice Film Festival. It was also named Best Florida Documentary at the Ft. Lauderdale International Film Festival. Literary Mama contributor Gina Consolino-Barsotti virtually spoke with Johnson about what life influences she felt most greatly impacted her writing and motherhood.
Gina Consolino-Barsotti: You're a writer and filmmaker, and I'm interested in hearing about your writing process: do you begin with a screenwriter's mindset or begin with words, feelings, etc.?
Claudia Hunter Johnson: It's been different for every project I've worked on. My previous memoir, Stifled Laughter, began with emotion—shock, disgust, outrage that anyone would ban time-honored literary classics and deny high school students their right to read, which is protected by the First Amendment. My documentary also started with outrage that Ruby McCollum had been silenced and never allowed to talk to the press, a direct violation of her First Amendment rights. McCollum was the richest African-American woman in Live Oak, Florida in 1952, wife of numbers racketeer, Bolita Sam. A well-educated and devoted mother of four with a fifth on the way, she was wrongfully convicted of first-degree murder—the first woman sentenced to Florida’s electric chair. She was framed by the corrupt white power structure for the murder of her abusive white doctor, State Senator-elect, Dr. Clifford LeRoy Adams Jr. But, as I researched her story, I connected even more deeply to her as a mother, and that is the heart of the book about Ruby I'm working on now. Hurtling Toward Happiness began with my experiencing the miraculous transformation and reconnection that happened with my son Ross on our road trip.
GCB: When I hear the word, "hurtling," I envision objects moving in a haphazard fashion as in meteors hurtling through space or someone hurtling over the obstacles that they encounter. Would you describe the process of taking this trip with your son and your subsequent writing of this book to be chaotic or full of obstacles?
CHJ: The greatest obstacle on the trip was the emotional distance and disconnection between Ross and me, and I was terrified that a week on the road with a teen—in a really small car!—could drive us further apart. But as the trip unfolded and we shared time and family stories and laughter—oh, especially laughter—Ross and I reconnected in a way I would not have believed if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes.
That's why I decided to write a memoir about it—to document our miraculous transformation, which wouldn't have happened if I had gone on the trip intending to write a book. I would have been preoccupied as a writer instead of being fully present as a mother and it was that pure, profound presence we both brought to the trip that created a bond between us we both knew would last. And it has.
It only took me five months to write Stifled Laughter because I kept a detailed journal for five years. Writing that book was "silk off a spool," to borrow a lovely phrase from Thornton Wilder's Our Town. But because I hadn't kept a journal on our road trip (thank goodness!), the greatest obstacle to writing Hurtling Toward Happiness was recreating the trip. Fortunately, because we were on such a shoestring budget for the trip, I'd kept a meticulous record of every penny we spent—when and where—and this became my road map for creating the book. (I include the running financial tally in between chapters, which readers tell me creates real suspense.) I had all the detritus we collected along the way on the trip. And I interviewed Ross at great length many times to make sure I rendered his experience accurately. It was a long, long process getting it right.
GCB: In Hurtling Toward Happiness, you quote one of your favorite Zen teachers, Joko Beck, in your discussion of paradise. What about Zen Buddhism and Beck's teachings did you find most impactful on being a mother, screenwriter, documentary filmmaker, and writer?
CHJ: The simple instruction to be fully present, with others and ourselves and with our life. That is our birthright, Buddhists say. And to connect, to ourselves and to others, with loving kindness. That has helped me be a better mother and grandmother when I see, really see, my children and grandchildren. And that has also made me a better screenwriter, documentary filmmaker, and writer, inspiring me to find those indelible moments and render them for my readers or viewers, my own "single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe," as Joseph Conrad so beautifully said.
GCB: Your allusions to other literary and artistic works are quite diverse: Nietzsche, Spinoza, Kierkegaard, Thornton Wilder, and The Big Lebowski. What piece of literature or film has made the biggest impression on who you are as a person?
CHJ: That's such a difficult question because I've read so much literature and philosophy and screened so many films in my life. But I would say that what has been arresting to me and life-changing in literature and film is that which reveals the importance of presence, the soul, the timeless, "eternity in an hour," as William Blake put it. And the more deeply I read, the more I started seeing—really seeing—that there is so much more than meets the eye that we can so easily miss. Do miss, most of the time. In our life and in ourselves.
But if I had to pick one work of literature that startled me, woke me up, made me see that I don't see, that changed me as a person and especially as a mother, it's Our Town. Act Three in particular: Emily's heartbreaking speech that's achingly true for all of us, "Oh, Mama, just look at me one moment as though you really saw me." And she says, "But just for a moment now we're all together—Mama, just for a moment, let's be happy— Let's look at one another!"
Typing it now still brings tears to my eyes. I remember when I read it so many years ago how hard it hit me. And then Emily asks the Stage Manager, "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?" The Stage Manager says bluntly, "No—Saints and poets, maybe—they do some."
When I remember that, I look at my beautiful children, now grown, and my four darling grandchildren, as if I'm memorizing them. I don't always succeed, but I do try to be present with them, for them, and for myself, truly present, as I was with Ross on our miraculous road trip.
GCB: Your reflections on your mother and life with her as a child are an important part of yourself that you share with your son in Hurtling Toward Happiness. She might be described as having had grit. You, too, must have inherited this gift, as you were able to produce the documentary about Ruby McCollum, which dealt with racism and a truth that no one wanted to discuss. What kinds of support did you have in place to cope with any anxieties that may have emerged while writing and producing this and other pieces? If you had to embark on this journey again, is there anything that you would do differently?
CHJ: I love that you think I have grit like my mother! And I needed it when I fought book banning for five years in Lake City, Florida, especially during the years I researched Ruby McCollum and made the film in 2011. The greatest anxiety that emerged was the terrifying death threat I got on January 26, 1998 (I write about this in Hurtling Toward Happiness), and I coped by putting my Ruby research away and quitting writing completely. But the road trip with Ross was so healing and telling him my mother's courageous story was so inspiring, I decided to start writing again (though I left Ruby's story alone for 12 years, until my children were safely grown and living lives of their own far from rural North Florida).
My family's love and support and laughter have been the greatest help in coping with anxieties that emerged from my writing. And I get tremendous support—and laughter—from my screenwriting partner.
GCB: One of your other books, Crafting Short Screenplays That Connect, introduces new screenwriters to the craft of screenwriting and the importance of human connection. This theme of connection runs heavily through your current work: connecting to your son, connecting to your roots, maybe even reconnecting with yourself. Which connection was the most difficult and did writing play an active part in the solution?
CHJ: The introduction to the book (originally published in the AWP Chronicle as "The Other Half of the Story") recounts the blinding, life-changing realization I had while I was researching the story of Ruby McCollum for my documentary film. I could not fathom why I connected to her story so deeply when we had so very little in common, aside from the small town on the Suwannee River where we both lived. Then—in the shower!—I realized that my connection to Ruby was connection itself. That underlying the surface conflicts of her life and mine was a deeper, universal pattern of connection, disconnection, and reconnection. In the introduction I wrote, "The conflict and surface events are like waves, but underneath is an emotional tide—the ebb and flow of human connection. It's just as essential as conflict but it has been essentially overlooked." Especially in screenwriting books.
This realization radically changed the way I think about writing and the way I think to teach it. Also, the way I think about life and what truly matters. I understood why E.M. Forster's epigraph in Howard's End is "Only connect."
That realization came in January 1994, and it changed my life. Ross and I took our road trip in 1998, and I knew that the only thing that really mattered was reconnecting with him. Yes, I also connected to my roots on the road trip, and to myself, but if you read the last scene in Hurtling Toward Happiness—which is the most powerful and profound writing I've ever done—it's reconnecting with my son that caused the tsunami of joy I felt in that final scene.
GCB: In looking back on your projects, which do you think consumed you the most? How did you recharge yourself and obtain balance during this time?
CHJ: Definitely working with the story of Ruby McCollum, which is so complex and dark and heartbreaking. I've researched that off and on for almost 30 years.
For balance, sanity, survival, I laugh a lot. And spend time with my family—they're hilarious, as is my writing partner (we Skype almost every afternoon for a couple of hours to work on whatever we're working on at the moment). I meditate. I go for long walks. I just bought a sweet, tiny home on the water with a hot tub, where I have my coffee and my gratitude meditation every morning before I start writing (it's well documented that water fosters creativity). I've learned to be good to myself, like going to Wimbledon last summer (#1 on my bucket list), and I watch a lot of tennis on TV because I love the sport (I used to play as a girl) and it inspires me as a motivational text. But most of all, what recharges me, is time with family because nothing makes me as happy.
GCB: What words of wisdom do you have for other mothers who write for television, film, or other more prosaic media?
Life is long, but our children's childhood is short, so do whatever it takes to be present for them and still write. For many years I woke at 4 a.m. to write so I could be there for my daughter and son. And I wish I'd been there for them more than I was. But if we're truly writers, we have to write, so the trick is finding a way to do that, if even just a little—journaling or writing a paragraph or a page a day—and still be present for the lives that you're shaping. And remember that because life is long, there will be plenty of time to write once the children are grown and gone with lives of their own. I wish I'd known that—really known that—when I was a young mother. I would've been a whole lot more present and a whole lot more fun.
If all else fails, do morning pages (see The Artist's Way). Six months of morning pages led me to my breakthrough realization about connection in 1994.
Don't let discouragement overcome determination.
Be kind to yourself. And remember to breathe.
GCB: How do you define success?
CHJ: To me the greatest success is being fully present and connecting with others. At the deepest level. Heart to heart. As a mother and as a writer.
I know I've succeeded as a writer when readers tell me how deeply moved they were—often to tears—by the final scene of Hurtling Toward Happiness. I knew I'd succeeded as a writer and mother when Ross read the book before it was published, twenty years after our road trip, and said to me, "This is a love letter from a mother to a son." And it is.