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Toni Ann Johnson, MFA

Antioch University Los Angeles

Toni Ann Johnson won the 2021 Flannery O’Connor Award for short fiction, selected by Roxane Gay, for her linked collection Light Skin Gone to Waste, forthcoming, October 15, 2022, from UGA Press. Her novella Homegoing won Accents Publishing’s inaugural novella contest in 2020 and was published in May of 2021. A novel, Remedy For a Broken Angel was published in 2014 and subsequently nominated for a 2015 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work by a Debut Author. Johnson is also an award-winning screenwriter with a number of produced film and television credits. She won the 1998 Humanitas Prize for writing Ruby Bridges, a Disney film. In 2004, she won again for her teleplay Crown Heights, a film for Showtime. Johnson also co-wrote the feature film Step Up 2: The Streets. She has been a Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab fellow, as well as Callaloo Writer’s Workshop fellow at Brown University. Johnson has received support for her writing from The Hurston/Wright Foundation, One-Story Summer Conference, and The Prague Summer Program for Writers. She’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize twice. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Callaloo, Hunger Mountain, The Coachella Review, and many other publications.

Johnson co-created a curriculum for a two-week screenwriting course for the Writer’s Guild Foundation that she and others taught at various Los Angeles High Schools from 2005—2009. From 2017—2021 Johnson taught screenwriting at USC.

Educational History

  • BFA Drama, New York University
  • MFA in Creative Writing, Antioch University Los Angeles

Teaching Statement

Whether I’m teaching screenwriting or fiction I encourage students to create work that’s unique to them. I borrow from the American painter and educator Charles White who was said to have asked his art students to consider three questions:

  1. Where do you come from?
  2. Why are you creating the work you’re creating?
  3. How do you know who you are?

The goal is to empower students to use their experiences and perspectives to write what they’re compelled to write, rather than what they think they should write to sell a script or a book. I’m interested in the writer’s authenticity. I strive to help students be the best artists they can be.

I assess the writer’s level and identify areas for improvement in the work. In screenwriting, mastering three-act structure is essential for a professional career, and so I endeavor to ensure that students understand the beats within each act and learn how to follow a central character’s trajectory. This includes a main character who pursues a goal and also has an inner need that will become evident over the course of a journey that culminates in either success or failure, and that typically leads to the character undergoing an inner change. The way the character changes, illuminates a main idea or theme that an audience can intuit. I use various methods to help students understand structure, character development, and theme. These include lectures, reading and analyzing scripts, craft books, worksheets, instructional videos, and class discussion and/or one-on-one meetings. We start with structure and then work on dialogue and subtext as well as the craft of visual writing. I read students’ material closely and carefully and provide detailed notes on what’s working as well as what could work better. A good deal of instruction takes place directly on the page.

When teaching fiction I read and assess the writer’s level and meet students where they are by identifying specific elements that can be improved upon. When necessary, I look for ways to help students become their characters and write from that place rather than as narrative observers. This may include exercises such as writing a letter or journal entry as that character, or even an “acting” exercise, where I interview the writer as that character.  I assign stories, novels, and craft books. As I work with a student I may assign specific books, essays, or articles that focus on the elements of fiction they’re working to improve. For example, if a student wishes to enhance their use of metaphor, I might assign novels, stories, or poetry books that will expose them to strong examples. If they’re struggling with “on the nose” dialogue, I may suggest a book on subtext, or script with excellent scenes, or a video lecture. I read students’ pages closely and typically offer an overall critique as well as detailed page notes.

In workshops, whether screenwriting or fiction, I endeavor to create a safe space for writers where they feel supported and encouraged, and where they’re free to be imperfect as they improve. I require students to work in a spirit of camaraderie and to learn what executable notes are and are not. In any writing career, the ability to give feedback in a way that inspires revision is a valuable and marketable skill. My goal, in addition to helping students improve their work, is to help them cultivate skills that will lead to good relationships with their workshop colleagues that they may take forward into their careers.

  • Light Skin Gone to Waste, UGA Press, forthcoming October 2022
  • Homegoing, Accents Publishing, 2021
  • Remedy For a Broken Angel, Nortia Press, 2014
  • Wonderful World of Disney Ruby Bridges, Random House Disney, 1997
  • Flannery O’Connor Award, 2021 Winner
  • Callaloo Fellow, 2016
  • Nominated—NAACP Image Award, Outstanding Literary Work by a Debut Author—2015
  • Humanitas Prize, 2004 Crown Heights
  • Christopher Award, 1998 Ruby Bridges
  • Humanitas Prize, 1998 Ruby Bridges
  • Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab Fellow, 1994
  • Pen America
  • AWP
  • WGA
  • Women Who Submit
Toni Ann

Visiting Faculty,

MFA in Creative Writing Program

CONTACT INFORMATION

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