Monday, May 22, 2017

From the One That Got Away

You may have recently read about the death of John Schultz, the man who developed the Story Workshop approach to the teaching of writing, and started the Fiction Writing department at Columbia College Chicago. He wrote a collection of stories, The Tongues of Men, and two extraordinary books of reportage, No One Was Killed and Motion Will Be Denied. His text, Writing from Start to Finish, was integral to the approach he developed. And for the continued perplexed, or the inner circle, a teachers’ manual accompanied the text.
His approaches were, and remain, controversial among those who can use the term “pedagogy” without blushing. I am certainly not the one to defend those methods here, though I have gained greatly as a writer by them. If anything, I appreciate them more as the years proceed. I utilize a number of his approaches, though I can hardly be called a Story Workshop teacher.
For years, a rumor circulated throughout academia that Schultz and the teachers he trained formed something like a cult. I may even have assisted in promulgating the rumor. John had his circle within the semicircle (that’s a reference to the seating arrangement in his classes; the chairs were always arranged in a semicircle around the teacher, or “director”). From my perspective, that circle was an elite, the “chosen few” who would be anointed to spread the gospel of Story Workshop.
Then as now, I have an acute allergy to elites, no matter how strongly I might even believe in what that special group advocates. But that, as they say in therapy sessions, is more my problem than theirs. Within their circle, the world looks different. Some in that circle saw it as their family. Some saw it as home. The view from within always differs from the view without.
At John’s wake, I heard it described in just such terms by the faithful. Now, in 2017, with so many circles held so tightly – so many elites, so many cadres, so many “in groups” standing against what they perceive as walls of indifference and hostility, I can empathize with so many intelligent, sensitive, discerning artists who are in search of their “tribe,” or any group in which one does not feel like a stranger.
In the mid-1970s, when I first discovered Story Workshop, I was a troubled and insecure kid (as compared to the troubled, insecure old fart I’ve matured into). About the only thing I could say with any certainty was that I wanted to be a writer – I would become a writer, by hook or by crook, whatever that meant, whatever that entailed.
It didn’t matter that what I wrote was horrible – without skill, without vision, without anything that would interest a reader in the slightest way. The only thing I could do at the time was put one word after the other, albeit terribly.
I knew I had to get better, but I didn’t know how.
In those days, a number of colleges began creative writing programs. A handful had reputations. All those colleges with reputations were far away and very expensive. Their efficacy, even those anointed institutions like Brown, Iowa and Arkansas, was held in question. One would read interviews with authors who dismissed all these programs and encouraged apprentice writers to just sit down and write. The only way to learn writing was to write. Learn from your mistakes.
But what if all you learned from your mistakes was to make the same mistakes even better? What if it took you twenty years to learn your craft by trial and error? Was there any way to cut that time in half?
I didn’t know. I knew nothing. Really. You couldn’t find another person more stupid than I: rash and brash and volatile and emotional – but at bottom, stupid. It didn’t matter that I had a high I.Q. and a head full of facts. I was an encyclopedia without an index. Useless.
Add to that: I had no counselors, no mentors, no resources. No one gave a shit. My dad wanted me to be an accountant because he believed accountants always found work. My mother just didn’t want me to be arrested or dead. Neither of them wanted to have to pay any more money than was absolutely necessary. They never tired of reminding me what a burden it was to them to pay for my food and keep.
After high school, I left home in a panic. I didn’t want to be a burden. I just wanted to write.
Young men with high I.Q.s were and remain a dime a dozen. I operated mailing machines and mimeographs for a living. It didn’t take long to discover that the “dignity of labor” was a lie. Horatio Alger was a lie told to suckers. There were no ladders to climb in the world of work. Your job was your definition. Don’t try to step out of your place.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go to college. It was just that I knew that if I did go, it would be to a local school, and it would have to be while I worked fulltime. Even with the scholarships that were available in those days (few and paltry, but more than today), the dream of going to a school away from home, living in a dorm, devoting myself completely to an education, was impossible.
Most of the local universities offered only day classes. A few schools offered evening classes with limited degree opportunities. A fewer number of schools offered “regular” degrees. Columbia College was one of them, though their reputation was mostly for degrees in photography and, in a lesser way, for film.
And yet there was this program in Writing/English. And Story Workshop. Was it worth it?
There were certain things I knew – or thought I knew – about learning to be a writer: 1.) My work was crap; 2.) In order for it to be less crappy, I needed to write more; 3.) I needed to read as widely as possible; I never knew of a successful writer who wasn’t also an incessant reader.
I could just keep writing stories, novels, poems, etc., and continue on with my dead-end job, hoping someday to break through and write something worth publishing. I could major in English at one of the schools with evening programs and satisfy my desire to read widely and learn more about the history of literature. If I couldn’t become an out-of-work literary genius, at least I could become an out-of-work English major.
And then there was Story Workshop.
I hadn’t yet taken a class with John (or Betty Shiflett, or Larry Heinemann), but in the classes I had taken, I picked up two very important points my writing lacked.
First, the necessity for physical detail in order to make my fictional worlds into “real” places in the minds of my readers.
Second, the realization that I was writing to readers, to an audience. Up until then, what I was doing was writing for myself, to myself. A reader’s experience of my writing was of necessity different from mine. I left things out because I knew them – but a reader wouldn’t.
It seems painfully simple, but important, and important no matter what kind of writing you’re interested in doing: literary, popular, personal, fictional, journalistic, humorous – you’re writing to a readership.
I wallowed in my indecision – but briefly. I said to myself, “This guy Schultz and his Story Workshop thing have something to teach me – and it’s something I need. Desperately.”
Columbia didn’t have quadrangles and historic lecture halls. They didn’t even have a campus. At least they didn’t have a campus as repellant and ugly as U. of I. “Circle Campus,” as it was called in those days. I couldn’t afford to go to a cool place like University of Wisconsin – Madison, though I would have loved to. Would have sold my soul to go there, had I a soul to sell.
But Columbia had something that all these other schools lacked. They had John. And Story Workshop.
“This man has something to teach me that I need to know.”
So I chose Columbia over my other available options.
I have lived to regret many things, but I have never regretted that decision, even when I encountered students from other, more prestigious schools, who openly laughed in my face (may I repeat that because it was real, not just an expression: LAUGHED IN MY FACE) for attending Columbia.
Hey, I’m a science fiction writer. You cannot be more ridiculed in your profession than by admitting you write science fiction. But my years of flinching at ridicule are over.
And, as long as I brought up the subject of science fiction, let me assure you that John and his colleagues did their best to beat the science fiction out of me. They cannot be blamed for what I’ve become.
But this meager little fact also explains why I couldn’t remain at Columbia and become part of the inner circle.
Story Workshop was instrumental in shaping me as a writer. I learned much, and much of what I experienced in those classes took years to sink in. I am still learning from my experiences in those workshop sessions, now so many years ago.
It was an incredibly important decision for me to come to Columbia and study writing there.
The decision to move on was almost as important.
I was never one of the shining stars of workshop students. No gold stars after my name. No one ever read my stuff in class as good examples of “model telling” or “good seeing” – or good examples of anything but crap. But some of my crap showed a little flair. Some of the teachers took notice, including John.
Everyone who ever worked with, or for, or under, John has at least one “John Schultz Story.” The “John Schultz Story” folks are most fond of hearing from me has to do with the time he chased me into the men’s room when I registered for a senior semester and didn’t take a workshop. I got a “talking to” about what I needed to do and I told John that I needed to take more classes in more disciplines because … I just needed to know more stuff. John insisted I needed to do both, but I wouldn’t back down.
I remember how flabbergasted Pam looked (she was waiting for me outside) when I came out. “Rich, why did your department chairman chase you into the bathroom?”
“This is college,” I told her. “The really important decisions are always made in bathrooms.”
That is true. Bathrooms and stairwells. True to this very day.
I was never one of the shining stars, and on that day I lost my chance to become one.
When it came to the inner circle of Story Workshop people, I was the one that got away.
It may have been my doing out of pure, blundering ignorance. It may have been because I was attuned to some universal frequency that set me on a personal path of failure, despair, donuts and coffee. But I set out on a path that found me incapable of taking a well-rutted course, with rest stops and mentors and any sense of certainty that I was heading anywhere but to madness and an early grave.
But that’s what I did. And if I didn’t find a home at Columbia, I did no better at Northwestern (between classes I hung out in a bar and restaurant called The Third Rail, where the NU students rarely ventured). I did no better in science fiction fandom (the SMOF fans always sneered at me, like I must have belonged to the wedding reception in the hotel next door). I did no better among science fiction writers (the older writers always gave me the hairy eyeball, like they were afraid I was going to walk out of the SFWA suite with the ashtrays in my pockets). I met great people in all these groups – people who helped me, liked me, and even at times (forgive them, Lord, they knew not what they did) respected me. I loved all these worlds. I love them now. But they aren’t home.
For certain writers, there is no home. I happen to be one of them.
My curriculum vitae is, in some ways, fascinating but worthless. I’ve written a few things. I did some okay scholarship. I’ve worked hard to be a good teacher, and maybe someday I will be. But it has been and will always be from the periphery.
What little I’ve managed to accomplish, though, would have been far less were it not for John Schultz, Story Workshop, and that circle of writers he brought into being. I couldn’t be part of that circle, but the light at the heart of it, that fire, has guided me on my wayward path all these decades, as it has guided so many others.

May it continue to do so forever.