On Writing, Teaching, and Defeating the “Shitbird” of Self-Doubt: A Conversation with Philip Schultz

Philip Schultz’s memoir Comforts of the Abyss: The Art of Persona Writing was recently published by W.W. Norton. In the book, Schultz reflects on his journey as a writer and teacher, his discovery of persona writing as a means of accessing emotional truths, his belief in the sustaining value of literary friendships, and more. Hailed by Lawrence Joseph as “one of American poetry’s longtime masters of the art,” Schultz has received many honors, most notably a Pulitzer Prize, and he has published eight poetry collections, a novel in verse, and two memoirs to wide acclaim. I corresponded with Schultz about a sweeping range of subjects, including the power of abandoning the autographical “I” while writing, the role of self-doubt in the artistic process, the influence of his father on his progression as a poet, and his experience as the founder and director of The Writers Studio.

LM: Comforts of the Abyss focuses in large part on exploring how adapting a different persona on the page can allow a writer to achieve authentic self-expression. You quote Oscar Wilde: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” What are some of the ways in which persona writing has helped you tell the truth in your own work, and would you share with us some thoughts on the value of persona writing in the education of beginning writers?

PS: When I wrote fiction, I used an autobiographical “I,” the kind one uses to write letters, emails, and diary entries, a voice without any distance between me and what I was attempting to say. For reasons I didn’t understand, while writing poetry, I used the personas of poets I especially loved, including Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo, James Wright, and Elizabeth Bishop. I would look at my subject matter through the eyes of these wonderful poets, and the distance this provided made all the difference in the world. It gave me the sense that I was conferring with others about what I should explore in my work.

There is great value in teaching students to look at an emotional situation they don’t yet understand through the eyes of a writer who has managed to deal clearly with difficult material, which helps them to distance themselves from the duress and confusion of their own material. Familiarizing students with such writers encourages them to see even difficult subject matter through a more objective lens. For example, I often discuss with students how Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop influenced each other’s poems, and how Robert Bly used his translations of Neruda and Vallejo to help forge his own poetic style.

Emotional truth is one of the hardest things to achieve in writing, but once attained it allows us to discover, say, our real feelings toward someone about whom we’re writing an elegy, regardless of how uncomfortable that might make us. One example is an elegy that I wrote for a close friend. I struggled with it for many years, not realizing how angry I was that he died before the book on which he helped me was published and won acclaim. How could I possibly be angry at a dear friend for dying of cancer two days before his fiftieth birthday? My shame was too great to allow me to realize how complicated my emotions were, and I suppressed the truth of what I was really feeling. When I finally recognized my anger, the poem, which was titled “Welcome to the Springs,” came quickly.

Other examples include the many emotionally disconnected poems, stories, and novels I wrote about my father, who died bankrupt and emotionally destitute when I was eighteen. To placate my very confused feeling about him, I wrote elaborate celebrations of his life without ever going near these more volatile buried emotions. Eventually, I realized that the true theme I wanted and needed to explore in relation to my father was failure, his as well as my own. This allowed me, for the first time, to focus my attention on how his failures affected me and my mother, which was the real subject of the poems.

I tried out various personas in the process of writing about my father, but my breakthrough poem “Failure” (the title poem of my book about his many business failures) used a persona influenced by Robert Lowell’s great poem about his stay in a mental hospital, “Waking in the Blue,” which described his state of mind in a clear and straightforward manner. Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The End of March,” which deals with difficult feelings of loneliness and longing in a similar way, also influenced several poems in Failure.

LM: Your discussion of persona writing as a pathway to emotional truth brings to mind a central figure in Comforts of the Abyss, the poet Ralph Dickey, a friend of yours whose life, work, and early death due to suicide impacted you in profound ways. In particular, you explore Dickey’s concept of the “shitbird,” a term he coined in a letter to you as a way of describing the “black bird” of self-doubt that often perched on his shoulder when he tried to write. Can you talk more about how you see the shitbird as operating in the lives of writers, including both Ralph’s life and your own?

PS: There are always at least one hundred or more reasons not to write something that deals with difficult material, and only one or two genuine reasons to go forth. We all know that we tell ourselves lies to get through the day, to avoid confronting convoluted and fearful emotions. Ralph once told me that, every time he sat down to write, a black bird perched on his shoulder and whispered all of the reasons that he shouldn’t continue. The main thing the bird told Ralph was that he possessed no worth as a human being, and therefore anything he wrote would also be worthless. He continued to believe this, no matter how successful his poetry became or how brilliant he was at composing and playing jazz music.

Ralph could never overcome the pain of being placed in a foster home when he was seven years old. The rejection he faced may have inspired his gifts for poetry and music, but he was never able to escape the pain of seeing himself as unlovable. Our friendship was based on my trying to convince him of his great worth, to help him see himself through my eyes and the eyes of so many others who admired and loved him. I continued this losing argument with him, even long after he killed himself at the age of twenty-seven.

To some degree, all artists vacillate between self-loathing and self-love. I certainly wrestle with the tension between both extremes every time I sit down to write. Do I have anything of value to tell others, or am I wasting my time and theirs?  Ralph and I met at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop when we were twenty-two, and our friendship was based in part on our recognizing the same struggle in each other.

His idea of the “shitbird” catalyzed my creation of The Writers Studio. Though I didn’t understand it when I started the school in 1987, I was attempting to help students recognize and survive their own shitbirds. In my effort to help others, perhaps, I was also trying to overcome, and forgive, my failure to help my friend.

LM: In Comforts of the Abyss, you describe accompanying your father as he sold vending machines in Rochester, NY, where you grew up. You draw a parallel between his artfulness as a salesman and your own artistic imperatives as a writer: “Dad was always selling himself, while in writing I’m often selling an idea about trust, sympathy, and how I want to be perceived.” Would you elaborate for us on the role of salesmanship in both the poem-making process and the act of building a life as a writer?

PS: This is a wonderful question. The person to whom we’re almost always trying so hard to pitch something is, essentially, ourselves. Every time we attempt to discover and create how we truly feel about an elusive subject, we must convince ourselves that the results will prove worth the effort. The shitbird’s logic of avoidance and delay are forms of fearful obfuscation. We must sell ourselves on the struggle to overcome our terror of failure. To accomplish this, we must create in ourselves a salesperson as obstinate and indomitable as that of our shitbird.

LM: Another way in which your father’s salesmanship influenced your writing, as described in Comforts of the Abyss, was through his ability to use storytelling as a successful way to woo customers. You tie your father’s acumen as a teller of stories to your early roots as a fiction writer, the main genre in which you wrote before becoming a poet. How did starting out as a fiction writer shape your approach to creating poems, and can you elaborate on what you view as the role of cross-genre engagement in the education and development of a writer?

PS: The poet and fiction writers in me have seldom liked each other, at times finding it hard to even tolerate each other’s presence, let alone success. When I looked through my father’s eyes at my desire to write poetry, I resented both my passion for the art form and any success I achieved in it. I felt that way because the all-or-nothing, win-or-lose worldview that my father possessed as an immigrant didn’t seem to accommodate my identity as a poet. My father valued Ernest Hemingway’s achievement and acclaim, and though I didn’t understand this until I was in my late forties, my ambitions in poetry were a means of escaping my father’s influence on what I could or should write.

In a sense, my father became my shitbird. I adopted his negative logic and tried to suppress my drive to write poetry. But my great love for so many poets never let me wander too far from the art form. In writing all of my failed novels, heavily influenced by novelists like Ernest Hemingway, Joan Didion, and Walker Percy, I did manage to learn something about narrative craft. As we discussed earlier, my father was himself a gifted teller of stories, which served him well as a salesman. When I finally gave up fiction and turned entirely to poetry in my fifties, I used some of his storytelling techniques while writing my longer narrative poems, “Souls Over Harlem” and “The Wandering Wingless,” and my novel in verse The Wherewithal. My experience with telling stories on the page helps even when I’m writing shorter lyrics. Instead of constantly fighting my every narrative or lyric inclination, I finally learned to use this conflict in service of my poetry. The storyteller and the poet in me reached a truce of sorts.

LM: It is fascinating to hear about the influence of fiction on your approach to poem-making, given how often you create a striking balance between lyric and narrative impulses in your work. On a related note, you mention in Comforts of the Abyss that one of the great appeals for you in designing and teaching classes through The Writers Studio, the still-thriving writing program that you founded in 1987, was the ability to avoid rigid genre separation in the classroom.

PS: Yes, many of our beginner-level classes place fiction writers, poets, and nonfiction writers together. We do have classes that focus on poetry or fiction exclusively, but I’ve always believed poets and fiction writers benefit from exposure to each other’s ideas, critiques, and stylistic approaches. We can learn an enormous amount from attempting exercises in forms with which we wouldn’t normally engage, and the process of doing so helps us imagine ourselves as artists of varying aptitudes and ambitions. When asked which writer most influenced him as a young man, Hemingway said Cezanne. Far from being dismissive or ironic, he meant that Cezanne’s highly impressionistic and lyrical approach to visual art influenced his own vision as a writer.

I also put fiction writers and poets together in my Master Classes. We all learn from one another, and I have found that the level of feedback in the classroom, as well as the degree of mutual pleasure, increases exponentially when students explore different genres, forms, and concepts together rather than proceeding with an overly narrow focus.

LM: You write with moving acuity and often humor about how various literary figures impacted you during your early years as a writer. One of the pleasures of reading Comforts of the Abyss is encountering your stories about interacting, as an emerging poet in your twenties, with a range of prominent writers, including Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, George Oppen, Wright Morris, John Cheever, Denise Levertov, Philip Levine, and Elizabeth Bishop (“all of whom,” you note, “in some manner or form blessed me with their generous attention”). You have gone on, in your career as a writer and teacher, to provide the same kind of “generous attention” to numerous younger writers. What are some insights that you have gained, particularly in the context of founding The Writers Studio, about the most (and least) effective ways of helping beginning writers reach their full potential?

PS: When writers provide feedback on each other’s work, they learn a valuable lesson in self-regard. The ability to take oneself seriously isn’t the easiest skill to master, let alone pass on to younger writers. We all have inhibitions when it comes to hearing critiques of any kind. In classes at The Writer’s Studio, we teach new students how to give and receive constructive criticism, and how to tell the difference between the kind meant to enable creative growth and the kind meant to hurt and mislead.

Our beginning-level classes at The Writers Studio focus primarily on teaching students what persona writing means. We assign exercises that involve adapting the personality and temperament of an accomplished writer as a way to help each student find his or her own voice. Importantly, we distinguish between literary personality and literary style, so that students, in the process of assuming another writer’s persona, don’t simultaneously imitate that writer’s technique and stylistic approach.

This emphasis on persona writing continues as students advance to our second and third levels. The various levels have been constructed in such a way that they coincide with the stages of development that most beginners traverse as they evolve into serious writers. We cover all of this progression within the boundaries of an eight-week class.

The main idea behind The Writers Studio, which is to help writers achieve genuine emotional connection with themselves and their readers, requires a delicate balance of humility and courage. Humility is necessary when attempting to make oneself vulnerable enough to explore the deepest levels of one’s being in a public way, and probing one’s most profound fears and conflicts before an imaginary audience can’t happen without courage.

LM: In addition to detailing your encounters with the writers mentioned above, you also devote space in Comforts of the Abyss to exploring Joan Didion’s impact on you. You mention that reading Didion’s novel Play It as It Lays when you were young, during a hard time in your personal and artistic life, inspired you to send her a letter of admiration in the mail. She wrote back thanking you for writing to her, and she noted that she could sense in your message that you were a writer and that you were going through a rough patch. Her letter ended with a suggestion that you might view your current difficulties “in the nature of a test.” You write in Comforts of the Abyss about how the idea of seeing your struggles “in the nature of a test” transformed your way of looking at both art and life. Would you talk further about the ways in which Didion’s suggestion has influenced your trajectory as a writer, teacher, and human being?

PS: Yes, I wrote and rewrote the Didion chapter ever since I began this book back in 2003. I always understood what a profound impact her letter had on me, but I never really understood why until I decided, in a later draft, to call the chapter “In the Nature of a Test.” I was breaking up with a woman I loved and struggling through my first teaching job when I read Didion’s Play It as It Lays, and I was thunderstruck by Maria, the novel’s main character. Maria serves as both a third and first person narrator, and she manages to look with fearless intimacy at the human face of despair. She assists a close friend with committing suicide, understanding that it is the only feasible way out for him. This helped me better grasp Ralph’s desire to end his pain.

By viewing the world from Maria’s vantage point, and then being told by the author that I should try to see my own situation in the nature of a test, I understood that this was the very idea with which I’d been struggling in my writing and teaching. Didion’s novel and advice helped me more fully recognize the value in stepping back far enough from my material to see it through a more objective point of view. I realized that, in a sense, achieving this kind of objectivity meant seeing my own material through the eyes of the reader, the very listener to whom I wanted to tell my story.

All of this led to me asking my students to drop the autobiographical “I” and try on the masks of the writers who most inspired them. This was the birth of my idea about using persona writing not just to access my own truths on the page but also as a central teaching tool in the writing classroom.

LM:  Along with the emphasis on persona writing at The Writers Studio, in what ways, if any, do you view the program as providing writing students with an alternative model to the workshopping pedagogies used in traditional, degree-based academic settings? Related to this, what are some changes that you have seen over time with regard to the education of beginning poets in university settings, the challenges faced by new poets as they embark on their artistic lives, and the kinds of work that younger poets value and seek to produce? In other words, what are some differences that you see in today’s literary world as compared to the one in which you started out as a poet?

PS: When I founded The Writers Studio, I don’t believe I ever saw it as an alternative to MFA programs. I couldn’t be more grateful for the wonderful instruction from the writers I worked with at San Francisco State University and the University of Iowa, and I spent over ten years helping to develop and run a writing program at NYU in the late seventies and eighties. Though I haven’t had much to do with degree programs since then, other than giving readings at a few, students do enter our school from such programs, while others leave us to get a degree. Any kind of teaching that serves the ambitions of young writers performs a valuable service to the art form. I prefer to see our school as a community of writers refining their skills in a particular manner. Overall, I doubt that much has changed over the years in the literary world. Writers have always been driven by the same struggle to perfect an artistic vision. Styles and fashions change, but not the impulse behind the making of art. That impulse remains impossibly elusive and wonderfully provocative.

LM: Your mention of the art-making impulse brings me to one of the subjects at the center of Comforts of the Abyss, which is the question of whether or not understanding why we suffer makes our suffering worthwhile. Related to this is an inquiry that you raise while reflecting on the life and writing of Elizabeth Bishop: “Does knowledge bring redemption?” You argue that some of her poems, including “At the Fishhouses” and “One Art,” gesture toward the possibility that knowledge does indeed offer a form of redemption for human suffering. Yet much of English-language poetry points in other directions (“Gerontion” by T.S. Eliot and “90 North” by Randall Jarrell come to mind in this context). Can you talk further about what you’ve gleaned, through your decades of writing, reading, teaching, and living, about the relationship between suffering and knowledge?

PS: My friend Ralph Dickey’s life was a brief one, but I have no doubt that his poetry and music provided whatever sustenance, if not peace, he managed to create for himself. Yes, most certainly, art of all kinds provides many essential services, including entertainment, distraction, and delight. But did Lorca, Donne, Neruda, Amichai, Bishop, Plath, Lowell, and Wright, or poets like Larkin and Herbert, who used irony and whimsy to distance themselves from their often-harsh material, only mean to entertain or distract themselves and others? However welcoming and friendly our lives may feel at times, they are also often overwhelming and disturbing. Poetry, painting, and certainly jazz are ways of dealing with our suffering.

I use a quote by Spinoza as an epigraph for Comforts of the Abyss for good reason: “Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.” Art is an attempt to create for ourselves a precise picture of our suffering. The kind of havoc and profound disruption a painter like Pollock experienced certainly helped inspire his work. I can’t image my life without the sustenance and encouragement my poetry provides. This is where the title of my memoir comes from, E.M. Cioran’s great notion that “negation is the mind’s first freedom,” that by struggling to overcome this negation we can free ourselves from the “servitude of existence.” Literature is a means of turning our suffering, into inspiration, into poetry.

LM: The Spinoza epigraph that you’ve mentioned makes me think about how, while reading Comforts of the Abyss, my mind kept returning to the following sentence that appears toward the first half of the book: “I can say with some confidence that the alchemy of a genuine poetic persona derives not only from ambition, hard work, and technical ingenuity, but a sense of personal insecurity so forbidding and painful it fosters endless self-examination.” Would you elaborate further on the sources and manifestations of the personal insecurity that you’re describing here, while also touching on the relationship between engaging in continual self-examination and forging a genuine poetic persona?

PS: The answer to this question will bear some resemblance to the previous one because insecurity is most certainly a recognizable form of suffering. Theodore Roethke tells us that we “learn by going where we have to go.” Poetry is a means of continuing our journey through endless exploration and discovery of the self. Roethke also tells us that “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” I can’t remember a time when I haven’t had to wrestle with insecurity. As I mentioned, there are always so many more reasons not to do something than to do it. The shitbird feeds on one’s sense of worthlessness and fear, and its strongest weapon is invisibility, which causes us to think that our terrible fears comprise the very essence of who we are. Once we recognize that it’s the shitbird who is talking in our ear, we can begin to use fear as a source of philosophical inquiry. When we do as Spinoza advises, and create a mental picture of our uncertainties and struggles, then the road to inspiration begins.

LM: Much of Comforts of the Abyss, as we discussed earlier, centers on examining how persona writing can help a poet or fiction writer arrive at his or her most authentic voice. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on the role of creating a persona (or multiple personae) while penning a memoir, specifically in the context of your own artistic process during the writing of Comforts of the Abyss. Did you find yourself consciously trying to create one or more personae through which to speak while working on Comforts of the Abyss? What do you view as some of the central ways that persona creation can function as a tool in literary nonfiction, including the memoir form, as compared to how persona writing operates in poetry and fiction?

PS: Finding and using a persona shouldn’t be any different across literary genres. The process is the same in that it centers on locating a persona that provides one with a degree of safety and illumination. You may not want Huck Finn to help you tell your story about an immigrant childhood in the Bronx, but Finn’s appetite for adventure and his affection for the largesse of other characters can only help you tell a more personal story. For example, I’ve used Binx Bolling from Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer to write both poems and essays, and as a composite along with Hemingway and John Cheever when writing certain parts of Comforts of the Abyss. Using the strengths of writers we love as bridges to our own discoveries on the page is an ongoing process.

For the most part, Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast provided the model and inspiration, and to some extent the persona, for Comforts of the Abyss. It’s a memoir about his life in Paris during the 1920’s. He writes about all of the wonderful literary figures and visual artists who influenced him, including Ezra Pound, Joan Miró, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, T.S. Eliot, and most memorably, Gertrude Stein. But the book also deals with his development as a writer of stories and novels, and it contains many examples of his finest ideas and advice, such as his recommendation to write every day, no matter what you think you have to say, and to begin each day with one truthful sentence. Generations of writers have learned from this book. While writing Comforts of the Abyss, I could feel his rhythmic sentences and lyric descriptions of Paris, and his vividly wrought memories of life in Michigan, shaping my process on more than one occasion. A Moveable Feast is Hemingway’s most personal book, and its influence no doubt helped me create the persona I adapted while composing my own memoir about the writing life.

LM: It makes sense that Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast shaped your process in writing Comforts of the Abyss: The Art of Persona Writing, given how beautifully both books explore what it means to devote one’s life to the written word. You invite readers into “a moveable feast” of your own as we immerse ourselves in your memoir, and we are lucky to join you. Thank you for taking the time to converse with Literary Matters.

 

Philip Schultz is the author of eight poetry collections, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Failure and his most recent collection Luxury, which was published in 2018. He has also published a memoir titled My Dyslexia and a novel in verse titled The Wherewithal. Schultz is the founder and director of The Writers Studio, a private school for fiction and poetry writing with both in-person and online classes, featuring branches in New York City, San Francisco, Tucson, and Rome. He has received a James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, an American Academy of Arts & Letters Award, the Levison Prize from Poetry Magazine, and a National Book Award nomination. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Slate, Poetry Magazine, The Gettysburg Review, The Southern Review, and Five Points, among others, and he has received a Fulbright Fellowship in Poetry and a Guggenheim Fellowship. His new memoir Comforts of the Abyss: The Art of Persona Writing was published by W.W. Norton in 2022.

Caitlin Doyle

Caitlin Doyle

Caitlin Doyle is a writer and educator whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The Irish Times, The Atlantic, Yale Review, Best New Poets, American Life in Poetry, the PBS NewsHour Online Poetry Series, and elsewhere. She has received awards, scholarships, and fellowships through the Yaddo Colony, the MacDowell Colony, the James Merrill House Writer-In-Residence Program, and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, among others. Most recently, Caitlin has taught as Visiting Assistant Professor of English and Writer-In-Residence at Washington & Jefferson College. She earned a PhD from the University of Cincinnati, where she was the Associate Editor of The Cincinnati Review. Caitlin is a faculty member at the Frost Farm Poetry Conference, and she is working toward the completion of her debut poetry collection.
Caitlin Doyle

Author: Caitlin Doyle

Caitlin Doyle is a writer and educator whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The Irish Times, The Atlantic, Yale Review, Best New Poets, American Life in Poetry, the PBS NewsHour Online Poetry Series, and elsewhere. She has received awards, scholarships, and fellowships through the Yaddo Colony, the MacDowell Colony, the James Merrill House Writer-In-Residence Program, and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, among others. Most recently, Caitlin has taught as Visiting Assistant Professor of English and Writer-In-Residence at Washington & Jefferson College. She earned a PhD from the University of Cincinnati, where she was the Associate Editor of The Cincinnati Review. Caitlin is a faculty member at the Frost Farm Poetry Conference, and she is working toward the completion of her debut poetry collection.