I’ve been reading nonstop during the pandemic—about a book a week—and it got me wondering: How do others become writers? How do others know what writing genre to pursue?
Palm Desert resident Kristin Johnson is an author, screenwriter, ghostwriter and writing coach. Of course, she started life as an avid reader.
“My mother says I began reading at age 2!” Johnson says. Her favorite childhood books were The Sugar-Plum Tree, Charlotte’s Web and Black Beauty. The authors she now lists as favorites include Daphne du Maurier, Dostoevsky, Dickens and Shakespeare.
“I always read more than one book at a time,” she says. “I just finished one by Lou Diamond Phillips, and I have several piled up right now on my bedside table. On top of the stack is Dead Storm, a Zombie apocalypse novel.” She adds with a laugh: “But I don’t read it right before I go to sleep.”
Johnson was born in Flint, Mich., and raised in nearby Grand Blanc. She has lived in the desert for more than 20 years, moving here after graduating from the professional-writing program at the University of Southern California.
“My family had been here for a long time,” says Johnson, “and in particular, my grandmother was here. I’ve always strived to live by her example. My mom had been a teacher and librarian. She had actually written a book, Libraries Are for Children; then she worked as a full-time mom. She was an educated, gracious and kind woman. She was always interested in everything—and lived to learn. She once told me, ‘You already know what you know. Listen to other people, and find out what they know.’ Sadly, we lost her a few years ago. I often think to myself, ‘What would mom do?’
“My dad is still here, and we’re a very close family. He was in the business world, a very sociable man, very aware, and always supportive of my mom’s love of learning. I’m the younger of two daughters, and I have a wonderful niece and nephew. I’m divorced, and having family close by is one of the blessings of my life.”
While attending the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where she majored in creative writing and arts and ideas, Johnson’s first writing job was reporting for the university’s daily newspaper, The Michigan Daily.
When did Johnson know she would be a writer? “When does anybody know they can write?” she responds. “Maybe it’s when teachers tell you, ‘One day, you’ll be famous.’ And it’s when you feel the drive and desire—the need to tell stories. My mother and grandmother always said that I had that talent. Their faith in me meant a lot. Plus, I always enjoyed the writing itself.
“There are so many different forms of writing. Stories and plays are very different. I had won prizes for some early poetry, and I began writing screenplays at Michigan. I’ve always loved movies and TV, so I had an idea I wanted to do that. There’s a very specific format for writing for screen and for television—almost akin to poetry, in the focus on images.
“At USC, I collaborated with Dr. Rupert Perrin, and got hired to help write his book, Ordinary Miracles. Ghostwriting is an interesting business. You have to enter into someone else’s mind, to connect with the person and really relate. It’s a lot like a marriage, where you get to know each other on a deep level. It was a great opportunity for me, and I knew I could do it as a career.
“I also like to coach people about their writing, and assist them with dialog and structure, figuring out what their story is, and helping them shape the work.
“My own writing is primarily fiction and screenplays. I work on several different projects at the same time. My preferred genre is fantasy/science fiction. I first outline so I can know where I’m going with a piece. I think, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if …’ and I try to figure out what the angle is going to be. I listen to the characters once they start to seem like real people—whether they’re really people, or elves, or unicorns.”
Johnson says that one of the best decisions she ever made was to join writing groups and connect with other writers. “We need a community,” she says, “or it can seem very lonely.
“Oh, and of course my best decision was to move to the desert!”
The pandemic has not had as much of a professional impact on Johnson as it has on others.
“I worked from home before everybody else was doing it, so I’ve adjusted to the new reality,” she says. “It’s really all about keeping one’s loved ones safe—there are a lot of people experiencing a lot of pain.”
When I ask Johnson what she learned from her biggest mistake in life, she doesn’t hesitate to share her philosophy: “There are no mistakes. There are only learning experiences. I know that when I haven’t thought things through, I come to find my assumptions were faulty. We need different perspectives and not to jump to conclusions too quickly—to think we know something when we don’t. To paraphrase Maya Angelou: We do what we know, and when we know better, we do better.”
One of the projects Johnson is very proud of is her essay “Words Change Lives,” included as part of Paul Lowe’s book Mastering the Game of Life. “There were 22 of us as contributors, on subjects ranging from the miracle birth of a son to planting forests.
“We all have stories, and there’s power in sharing our stories. For example, I still remember one of the early Twilight Zone episodes as an illustration of how books have a hold on our lives: The character was the last man on Earth—and he finally had time to read.”
Kristin Johnson has found her calling—not just as a writer, but as someone who has the wisdom to make time to read … just not zombie-apocalypse fiction before bedtime.