Stalking the Writer’s Life: Celebrating Katey Schultz

I always enjoy hearing dear friend Katey Schultz, author of Flashes of War, read her work. So I looked forward to hearing her again at Interlochen’s College of Creative Arts, where she was teaching a weekend intensive. Katey’s voice has a mysterious calm and her eyes are always direct and attentive.  She reads without ego and with great clarity. She lets the language carry its meaning, a subtle skill.  Like watching a really good actor, I don’t realize I am being lured because I am lost in her story voice. However this time, for her reading, she experimented with a new mode for delivering her tight, intense flash fiction.  In a reading-lecture-video amalgamation, Katey offered up “Narrative Genesis and Imagination.”  In a brief hour, she traced her thinking process for a half dozen key flash pieces. She showed us pictures that inspired her, places that motivated her, information that startled her, and feelings that nurtured her ideas.  She explored the relationship among life moments, deliberate research, and happenstance. She fearlessly waded into that bugaboo of contemporary literary thinking, her process. I’m often troubled by the process issue.  In my secondary creative writing classrooms, I was sometimes annoyed at my beloved students who, knowing they were expected to ask an intelligent question of a visiting author, would eagerly blurt out the one question they assumed would meet approval, “What’s your process?”  I would observe a look of alarm cross the writer’s face, and then, more often than not, that writer would launch into a list of actions that helped her get a piece of writing going.  Or he would describe the drafting process that seemed most applicable, explaining how the work evolves over time. All well and good.  But rarely would an author respond with the essences of early process, how in the world the ideas come to us, and how we know, I mean truly understand, what drives us to the page.  I suspect we writers resist explaining this internal complexity and unruly wonder because it is unique to each of us and hard to explain.  Experienced writers know this cold—and I respect Katey for taking it on with, as she says, as much transparency as she can muster. Recently, this process has been publicly addressed through the story of the story. In interviews and Q & A’s, many writers share the story of the story, and for us literary folk this is a valuable discussion. It allows a writer to share how she came to the narrative in large sweeping brush strokes.   However, in her presentation, Katey took the practice one step further, and using her own stories as models, traced the genesis before the story of the story.  She returned to the spring, remembering not just where she was but how her mind took in new information or lingered over provocative imagery. She talked about how she sifted, drifted, shifted in this mind pool before she launched narrative.  She touched on how place and culture, obsession and research conflate to influence and infiltrate her already deeply understood conventions of flash fiction.  She talked about the interplay of happenstance and deliberate study.  Her argument suggests that when we remember and observe our minds operating in pre-narrative state, we can “resee” what brought us to the narrative state.  And with practice, we may re-place or resituate our receptive minds in those best circumstances, thereby recreating and replicating good environments for writing.  She suggests that by understanding our pre-narrative state, we may create a more efficient way of coming to the writing. I have always hoped that in the messy and often ego-centered discussions of “my process,” there will be clear voices.  I have often been dismayed by so-called “surefire strategies” for developing good process because these are often misleading and inaccurate.  Process is uniquely individual and not only does it shift over time and purpose, but it often includes the later drafting process, complex approaches to revision, and all kinds of external demands of audience and editors.  Each of these has a different process, and prescriptive work, good as it is, can narrow the creativity each phase invites.  Katey’s was a rich and exciting talk because she grappled with the imagination as an extension of inspired materials—whatever they may be.  Katey’s kind of careful internal observation at the “pre-narrative stage” is an incredibly valuable analysis. She showed, through her own work, the essential preliminary.  She asked: what was all that stuff that brought me to that place where I could cross from wild genesis to the world on the page.  By exploring and sharing her own process, she gave us a bridge to narrative.  Her approach is inspirational in that it invites us to think about thinking, which to my mind is one of the greatest pleasures of process.