The Thing That John Schultz Built

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BY IRA BROOKER

Originally published: irabrooker.com

John Schultz built a thing. A weird, wobbly, unwieldy thing that sometimes confused and frightened even those who knew it best, but a thing that worked. It was not an easy thing to describe, somewhere between a religious cult, an improv class, and a trust exercise, but again, a thing that worked. It was a thing built out of love and intellect, the brainchild of a man with a singular understanding of not only the science but also the spirituality that goes into any enduring work of art. A thing that encouraged artists to not only live in the moment but to climb inside it, sit astride it, see it from every angle, and give it out to the world using your full voice.

The thing that John Schultz built could be a scary thing. Any unfamiliar observer stepping inside of it and witnessing a semicircle of grown adults volleying nouns across the room, exchanging nonsensical hand gestures, listening intently to sounds that never existed, could be forgiven for believing he had stumbled upon something unholy. And perhaps the thing John Schultz built was indeed unholy, but unholy in the way that most of the best things are.

It was also something sacrosanct, a second or maybe even first home for a group of untethered misfits who had never before found a means to the ends they’d been flailing toward for their entire lives. We met people inside the thing that John Schultz built, people from all corners and castes who shuffled into his 12th-floor temple and formed an uneasy family of surrogates upon surrogates. Even more importantly, we met the people who lived within our heads and hearts, dynamic beautiful evil sympathetic loathsome pitiable vicious effervescent timid joyful lonely challenging real people who might never have found their way into our lives if not for a recalled image or an evocative word or a quality of light that we first discovered inside the thing that John Schultz built, and who would quickly become a piece of our being as surely and as irrevocably as most of our flesh-and-bone friends and relations.

The thing that John Schultz built moved and breathed, ebbed and flowed, opening its doors to allow new builders to construct their own extensions and additions but always maintaining its shape however full its hallways grew. The best and the brightest carved their initials in its walls even as it burned its brand upon them, a signifier of a symbiosis that would touch the souls of unknown thousands who never knew the name of John Schultz nor laid eyes on the thing that he built but felt its effects in the cores of their beings.

They came to destroy the thing that John Schultz built, a nest of nattering nabobs with their eyes fixed on the bottom line, the company line, and the assembly line. They stormed the gates and set about fixing that which was not only unbroken but unprecedented, instituting an all-too-familiar tyranny of the mundane as they drove out the disciples, subtracting by addition, division, and attrition. But the thing that John Schultz built could not be razed, evolving instead into a traveling temple that radiated its gospel from within the nomadic acolytes who by then had spread across the globe, carrying with them a font of art and identity that those ostentatiously ordinary minds could never quash.

Because John Schultz built a thing, and the thing that he built worked and works and will work, and those who have been inside the thing that John Schultz built will build their own things and those things will work too, and the generations will go on seeing and listening and describing and giving their voices and finding the moments of story and capturing the objects and gestures and qualities of light and always building building building, creating towers that will never be toppled, each of them standing strong upon a semicircular foundation.


Ira Brooker is a writer and editor living in Saint Paul, MN. He writes a good deal about the arts and is currently the editor of Minnesota Playlist and a regular contributor to MNArtists. He prattles on about pop culture at A Talent for Idleness and maintains an archive at irabrooker.com.

John Schultz, 84, an author, teacher, inventor of the Story Workshop approach to the teaching of writing, and a past chairperson of creative writing programs at Columbia College Chicago, passed away in his sleep May 6 at his home in Riverside, Illinois.

In 1966, Schultz began conducting private workshops with students in his Chicago Lincoln Park writing studio. He believed that story is an innate human talent that can be developed in anyone from any walk of life. “I had a very strong idea that writing should not be taught in a college context,” said Schultz in an oral history of Columbia College Chicago. “. . .it should be taught outside the college. . .developed in a living relationship with whatever kind of life events, careers, were going on for various people.”

Columbia College’s President Mirron “Mike” Alexandroff heard about Schultz’s Story Workshop approach from an article written by longtime literary critic Herman Kogan in the Chicago Daily News, and he was “. . .much taken by the approach’s fundamental philosophy of accepting people, voices and backgrounds,” remembered Schultz. “It meshed with Alexandroff’s open student admission’s policy, as well as Columbia College Chicago’s mission statement of teaching students to “author the culture of their times.” Shortly after that, Alexandroff hired Schultz to teach at Columbia, where he soon became the Chair of the newly created Writing/English department, and years later the Fiction Writing department.

Besides teaching, Schultz was a distinguished writer of fiction and nonfiction and author of four books — Tongues of Men, No One Was Killed, Motion Will Be Denied, and Writing from Start to Finish — as well as articles published in the Evergreen Review and The Georgia Review. As a Fulbright recipient, he spent time teaching creative writing at Shanghai Fudan University. He was also publisher and Editor-in-Chief of F Magazine, a literary publication devoted to novels excerpts.

His fiction ran the gamut of realism to dream-inspired fantasy. His stories such as “Daley Goes Home” and “Morgan” served in later years as examples for Vietnam veterans who took classes with Schultz and gave them valuable permission to write about their own uncensored war experiences. From among his nonfiction works, he was generally recognized as one of the foremost authorities on the Chicago 1968 Democratic Convention and the now famous “Conspiracy 8” trial that followed.

In 2001, Schultz started The Schultz Group as a sister organization to the non-for-profit Story Workshop Institute he began in 1997. Between these two organizations and the outreach programs he directed for 15 years through the Fiction Writing department at Columbia College Chicago, thousands of Chicago area students from grades third through twelfth benefited from the creative writing and supplemental education programs he created. He remained a teacher at Columbia College Chicago until months before his death. His extended short story “Custom,” an audaciously wild and engaging read because its relentless vivid prose and complete disregard for authorial censorship, was produced and preformed as a play by Dream Theater at the Body Politic.

A native of Boone County Missouri, Schultz served as a United States Army medic during the Korean War in Pusan, South Korea.

His marriage to Anne Schultz ended in divorce. Betty Shiflett, to whom he was married for 25 years, died in 2016. He is survived by two children from his first marriage, Tim and Susan Schultz; three stepchildren, Drew Shiflett, Melissa Shiflett, and Shawn Shiflett; and five grandchildren, Emma Schultz, Christian Schultz, Joshua Schultz, Rachel Kalina, Maggie Shiflett, and Cole Shiflett.

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