Poets & Writers Magazine, “Trying on Voices for Size”

Phil Schultz waits while several students in his workshop make tactful criticisms about one of their peer’s weekly exercises. When they have finished, Schultz turns to its author, a nine-year veteran of his Writers Studio program who has published stories in several literary journals, and asks her, “What were you feeling when you wrote this?”

The writer hesitates. Then says, “Loss.”

“More specifically,” Schultz says, not satisfied. “What kind of loss? What did it feel like? A headache . . . or was it convulsing loss that makes you want to vomit?”

She is uncertain. In effect, her sense of what is at stake in the story is vague. Schultz seizes on this point, beaming. He has identified a weak link in the creative process. Saying what all his students hate to hear but have learned to take with sporting grins, Schultz concludes that the piece is “disconnected.” Why? Because the writer wasn’t aware of the mood and emotions that drove her piece. Schultz’s solution: A greater command of craft is needed before she can, first, identify, and second, remain properly in command of her emotional material.

“On some level people are afraid of what’s inside of them,” Schultz says, describing his school’s unique take on creative writing. “The right craft, or persona, gives you the right distance to access emotion. It allows you to connect to emotion that would otherwise lie untouched. The right craft lets writers be powerful.” As a teacher, Schultz has founded the studio upon the principle that the discipline of craft enables writers to, in effect, face themselves. As he puts it, “Craft is liberating.”

No stranger to the labyrinthine and fitful process of creating art himself, Schultz admits that “some of my best poems took me five years to write.” He also insists that the dogged, step-by-step study of what he calls “craft” will enable every writer to find his or her own voice.

With such a highly democratic ideal as a starting point, Schultz created his own school, a non-degree program in Manhattan, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. Formerly the director of New York University’s creative writing program and a 25-year veteran in the classroom, Schultz is as concerned with the psychology of writers as he is with the finished sentence. For him, the two are inseparable. And his Writers Studio has become an unlikely success story, a safe house and practice space for some 160 of New York City’s aspiring poets and novelists who want to avoid, or at least postpone, facing their literary undertakings as commodities.

“I think Phil’s much more interested in getting at a certain rawness and emotional truth than at a slickness,” says Jennifer Egan, who studied with Schultz for a half year shortly after he resigned his post at NYU and credits four of the eleven stories in her collection Emerald City (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday 1996) to the workshop. “I had gone severely off track, and Phil got me back on fairly efficiently.” Every week, Egan presented a new story. Inevitably, her classmates’ eyes would roll, and then Schultz would ask her to stop reading it because it was, as she puts it, “dead on arrival.”

“I would go home thinking I should stick my head in the oven. Finally, something really did click, the very thing that’s his specialty, which is emotional content. Before, my work was dead.” Egan remembers that when she brought in the breakthrough story, she felt like she was carrying a “weird animal in my bag” and that she stopped reading it midway and cried. “Phil ran and got a glass of wine. It was the first story I sold.”

“You’re not going to get a literary agent out of it; you’re not networking,” Schultz warns of his school, where Walter Mosley and poet Pat Mangan have taken classes. “A lot of people are going to look at this and say, ‘This is not for me.'”

Typical studio critiques aim less at form (“We don’t teach comely writing,” Schultz says.) and more at helping writers free themselves from the inner demons that may compel somebody, for example, to agonize over a single line and rewrite it 20 times rather than give his or her imagination room to explore, to try out new ideas, to fail, try again, and eventually hit on something fresh.

For Schultz, it is impossible to underestimate the obstacles that writers create for themselves. He learned this lesson in a painful way more than 20 years ago when one of his best friends, the poet Ralph Dickey, depressed and unable to write, committed suicide, an event to which Schultz traces the beginning of The Writers Studio and its method.

Schultz’s career began with a splash when his first poetry collection, Like Wings (Viking 1978), was nominated for the National Book Award. He followed with a second collection, Deep Within the Ravine (Viking 1984), and has contributed stories and poetry to many journals and magazines, including The New Yorker, Poetry,The Nation and The Kenyon Review. Poetry magazine awarded him the Levinson Prize in 1996, and his poem “Alzheimer’s” is included in the American Academy of Poets’ anthology 60 Years of American Poetry. Currently, Schultz is finishing a new collection, The Holy Worm of Praise.

When he was 20, Schultz went from his hometown of Rochester, New York, to San Francisco State University to study writing. Schultz buzzed through a 20-page story in a night and submitted it to his teacher, the novelist Wright Morris. Morris summoned him to his office. Holding the pages, he looked Schultz in the face, and said, “I hope you understand what I’m about to do.”

He then took a lighter from his pocket, set fire to the story, and threw it in a wastebasket.

“He hoped I got the message!” Schultz laughs. “It took me ten years.” The business of teaching creative writing is tricky, after all. Schultz readily admits, even enthuses over the fact, that contradictions mark the writing process. Even writers blessed with vocabulary, rhythm, and a sterling ear run into horrifying stretches of inability to make anything work. Schultz now understands that by burning his story Morris meant he had a facility for language. “He thought it would be my worst enemy,” Schultz says.

“It’s expensive emotionally to be good,” Schultz says. “Dancers know they’re going to have bloody feet. Pianists know they’re going to have to practice like crazy.” Conversely, many apprentice writers are lulled into thinking their art is less taxing because after all, everyone writes in the course of daily life, from term papers to letters.

Schultz believes writing is not only a matter of constant practice. It depends on negotiating buried, self-defeating emotions that he thinks cause people to veer away from their strangest, toughest, and presumably best material. He calls these feelings “the shitbird.” “The shitbird is depressed thinking,” Schultz explains.

When Schultz began graduate work at the University of Iowa in 1967, he met Ralph Dickey, a poet, he says, “way above the rest of us.” Already published, Dickey had just translated Paul Celan’s “Death Fugue” from the German, and his future seemed bright. However, after moving to San Francisco, Dickey became unstable and killed himself in 1972. In a letter to Schultz, Dickey talked about hearing two sets of voices, one in each ear. On one side Schultz and other friends encouraged him, assuring him that his writing was valuable. On the other was an aggressive little bird, “raining shit” on his shoulder.

“It was an awakening,” Schultz says of Dickey’s death. Since then he has seen many writers avoid their best work because it causes high anxiety. In class he once told a poet struggling with new material, “What we think we felt is what we can bear to tell ourselves.” His teaching method, he says, aims to give writers a wide enough range of technical mastery in order to negotiate more profound feeling.

“Kafka does it on a level that’s unbelievable,” Schultz says of the layers of formal distancing strategies and metaphor that Kafka used to control the painful and disturbing content of stories like “The Metamorphosis” and “The Burrow.” “You can be a great writer and go nowhere near that level,” Schultz says.

As a teacher, Schultz has changed over the years. Where he once told his students to aim directly for what hurts most, he now urges restraint, indirection, and above all, a concern for technique. Schultz has run up against too many students who “don’t learn tools.” He wants to sidestep what he identifies as typical problems, like students who write entire manuscripts before they can write one good poem, or who write stories without knowing how to create a narrator. Even though his former students from the late 1970s at NYU would hardly recognize him now, Schultz has always been concerned with the same set of problems. In particular, he is concerned with why literary writing is such a fickle, hot-and-cold project.

His current approach to teaching also stems from his own frustration. “I wanted to understand why I could and why I couldn’t write,” he says. “My first book had a lot of success. It almost stopped me in my tracks.”

Today, The Writers Studio offers 11 different 10-week classes devoted to the things Schultz calls tools, not plot points or rhyme schemes, but subtler strategies. For example, Harold Brodkey’s first-person narrators are studied for the use of an older persona’s language to describe his younger self’s perceptions. The distance between the two creates perspective, Schultz says, which enabled Brodkey to negotiate the younger character’s pain and make it into a story. In one of Schultz’s favorite exercises, students use John Cheever’s stories to create third-person narrators who have all the qualities of a fully developed first-person narrator, opinions, stances, attitudes toward and involvements with the other characters. The goal in all cases: To make writers aware of the distinctions between actual writer and narrative persona.

Studio students range from novices to published writers with writing blocks. In all, five teachers handle a total of 11 classes. In contrast to many degree programs, Schultz picks his teachers not on their publications or name-recognition but on “their empathic powers.” Of his teachers Schultz says, “They have a special talent for communicating with people.”

“Most people spend their lives developing defenses against their feelings. I’m aware of that. I developed a technique to address that,” Schultz says. “I do have a strong belief that talent isn’t something everybody is born to,” he says. However, he believes everyone can learn to write competently and originally about their experiences. To this end, he offers exercises that steer writers away from what Schultz calls “agenda” material: divorce, animal rights, mommy, or whatever. Everybody, he says, has his or her own ax to grind.

“Why are writers attracted to Updike?” Schultz asked his class after an exercise based on an Updike story resulted in several melodramatic and ineffective pieces. “Because he’s able to write about divorce. He puts himself on the operating table and does the autopsy. But they don’t see the technique.” Schultz’s advice: Borrow from Updike’s sophisticated use of third person, not his subject matter.

Rather than complete stories or poems, students practice a weekly regimen of exercises using models that veer from “one of the world’s most free and open personas” in Allen Ginsberg to the classical balance of Louise Gluck, from the expansive, wide-ranging third person of Edith Wharton to the elliptical, dead-pan narration of Denis Johnson’s short stories. An assignment one week focuses on the use of coldness, distance, and precision in the deliberate narrator of Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country; another week, the task is to borrow from Leonard Michael’s use of immediate dramatic situations, rhythm, and high velocity. Such exercises average one to two pages. During critiques the class rarely talks about whether a poem works or a story is promising. Instead, the topic is how closely the apprentice has followed the master.

How can imitation possibly lead to originality? The idea, Schultz says, is to “try on twenty voices until you find one that fits.”

As much as these exercises help students hone chops and explore personae, they also help Schultz tease out the problems each individual student faces. It’s his way of being an active teacher. When he started a private writers group in 1977 (this officially became The Writers Studio a decade later), Schultz had to confront a big problem. All that the students cared about was whether their piece succeeded,what needed to be changed so it could be sent out. Schultz found himself giving cosmetic tips, rather than grappling with earlier stages in the creative process, the area between raw, uncut imagination and the first or second attempts at expression.

“I felt I was having a very passive role in the workshop. If I told someone that I thought what they were doing was too personal, they would get upset and leave the workshop.” His way out of the impasse came by creating a second seminar, called the “Craft Class.” In this class, Schultz assigned readings, beginning with writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and J.D. Salinger in prose and Richard Howard and Philip Levine in poetry, and asked students to do short exercises aimed at imitating different aspects of the masters’ styles. Soon, these assignments replaced any other kind of writing in the studio, creating a purposeful atmosphere in which apprentices learned by aping the surer hand of the masters. More than anything else, this craft class continues to distinguish The Writers Studio from other workshops.

Among the highest praise writers receive from Schultz is having their week’s work called “a breakthrough piece,” which means that the writer has found a new way to use language, has done something different from what the class is used to seeing, but which is not necessarily publishable. Sometimes Schultz will tell a student: “Finish it. Send it off.” But one always gets from him a faint suggestion, a hint, that the process of seeking publication is tainted, earthly. It works against his ultimate goal: writing for its own sake.

Once, when a talented student brought in revised versions of five poems the class had already seen, hoping to brush them up before putting them in the mail, Schultz pointed out that “we don’t do that here.” He likes to needle his classes with impish observations, like saying about one of Kafka’s late, animal persona stories, “The New Yorker would never publish this!”

“It’s not very hard to write a bad poem or a bad story, and the market is flooded with them,” Schultz says, explaining his aversion to a product-oriented approach.

Each week in class, depending on who he thinks is ready to hear his advice, Schultz singles out one of his students for a close grilling. For the uninitiated, Schultz’s intimate questions and feedback can seem uncomfortably personal. Only one or two new faces join Schultz’s advanced workshops each session; in these, some students work together for years. Although Schultz insists that his method is not like therapy because of the “rigid, constant practice of technique,” he clearly enjoys working with writers long enough to go beneath the surface of their prose or poetry to the roots of their creativity, and, in the process, to get to know them and their work personally. Schultz never asks his students to discuss details of their private lives. He does, however, aim to get them to “connect” to deeper levels of feeling in their work. Like a classic Freudian, Schultz doesn’t believe in accidents. If one student doesn’t find time to write, it’s because he’s avoiding something. If another is writing badly, it’s not because she can’t write well but because she doesn’t want to. Backward steps are often more interesting to Schultz than easy success. Even better than the good pieces, judging by Schultz’s enthusiasm, is when somebody brings in a piece that blatantly fails. As a teacher who is keenly aware of his pupils’ emotional as well as technical progress, Schultz can snatch insight from the jaws of writer’s block. It is this kind of paradox that informs Schultz’s teaching.

While some students leave the studio before they even advance into Schultz’s workshops, a process that can take years, others stay to work on novels and books of poetry that originated in Studio exercises. Schultz has been known to disagree with students who decide to leave before he thinks they are “ready.” Even if it may seem farfetched to hope that everybody has it in them to write well regularly, it is an ideal that Schultz believes in. To him, writing one good paragraph is a far better thing than just finishing the next piece. As he said to one student who was frustrated with her progress on a story, “You see the Pulitzer Prize or nothing. Whereas what’s real is in between. What’s real is a human life and the writing process.”

Duncan Bock edited Spin magazine’s Underground U.S.A.: The Best of Rock Culture Coast to Coast (Vintage 1997), and has contributed articles to Vanity Fair and Details.

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