An Interview with Philip Schultz

By The Editors on 10.17.11

Last week we ran a brief excerpt from Philip Schultz’s new memoir, My Dyslexia. Today Schultz joins us to answer a few questions.

Q:Your new memoir, My Dyslexia, chronicles your discovery that you are dyslexic, something that you didn’t learn until well into your career as a poet. How did you come to realize you were dyslexic?

Philip Schultz:I found out when my son was diagnosed with it in the second grade, back in 2003. I was 58 years old and shocked to learn that all his symptoms were the same as mine, that there was a rational, medical, and scientific explanation for what I as well as others saw as my obdurate stupidity.

I had learned, over time, to segregate my perceptions of myself as a way of tolerating the bad and trying to appreciate the good: Yes, I could make up stories, and draw (I was a cartoonist in high school) and write poems, but I wasn’t smart in most academic subjects like math and science, and I was a painfully slow reader, someone who had to carefully select each book and avoided any unnecessary reading.  I was kicked out of Hebrew school in a week, and the Boy Scouts in two weeks (couldn’t follow instructions or read a map). I sat alone on field trips, which I mostly didn’t go on, though I could entertain my parents’ friends with funny stories and tolerate large amounts of time alone in my backyard, dreaming up adventures.

Q: You write about how much difficult you have reading. What made you want to pursue poetry despite that?

PS: If there’s any one reason it probably has to do with the emotions I was struggling with due to my dyslexia and bullying, which I could express more quickly and directly through poetry. I could encapsulate my ideas and feelings into tiny missiles that alleviated the pressure and stress of constant confrontation, and allowed me islands of peace and relief. I think poetry offered me a sanctuary from a prosaic world of struggle, which it still does, perhaps more often than I’d care to admit.  Poetry was respite and rescue, a cooling place in which to recoil and refine my sense of self; a place to heal. It still is.

Q: In a recent interview with Wired, Brock Eide mentions you as someone who shows one of the strengths of dyslexia—narrative reasoning. He says that dyslexics are better observers of narrative, and that they have a strong memory for stories. Do you think this strength influences your poetry?

PS: Yes, Brock Eide and his wife Fernette have written a valuable book in The Dyslexic Advantage. Their work has been invaluable to people like me, and I thank them. In his interview with Wired Eide highlights four particular strengths he finds dyslexics share, narrative reasoning being one of them. I found early on that that best way to manage, if not survive, many of my experiences in school was to invent a character, a stand-in for me, and then place him in a story similar to whatever ordeal I was struggling through, thereby allowing myself the luxury of creating my own ending. I was an only child in a house full of cantankerous immigrants loudly defying the various accumulated indignities of their fate, and this technique allowed me to not only not be swallowed up completely in the travails of their endless drama to survive, but to carve out an identity that both consoled and encouraged me during dark times. It encouraged further invention and characters until writing itself became a way not only to survive, but to thrive.

I should add, too, that another strength of dyslexia that Mr. Eide mentions is his idea of interconnected reasoning, which, if I understand it correctly, allows someone to see “the big-picture from multiple perspectives.” I can identify with this notion, too, because I’ve been doing some version of this in all my writing for a very long time. Seeing things from multiple points of view is a technique I also used as boy to fortify my own meager position in school and at home, creating entire gangs of imaginary friends who kept me company and shared my adventures. I would hold conversations out loud with several of them in my back yard or at the beach, and learned to balance and juggle a variety of narratives simultaneously. This skill allowed me to write the long poem in my poetry collection Failure, which won the Pulitzer in 2008. “The Wandering Wingless” is a 52 page poem with many characters and narratives and I doubt I would have won the award without it. In daily life my concentration must be focused on a single thing at a time in order to get anything accomplished. Sustaining shifting perspectives in my work allows me to relieve the anxiety that this single-mindedness creates. I use the same technique in shorter poems too, when possible.

Q: You’re also the founder and director of The Writers Studio, which offers classes and workshops for poets and fiction writers. Does your learning disability influence your teaching style? What advice do you give to other writers working with a learning disability?

PS: Although the vast majority of our students aren’t dyslexic, I’ve found that these same techniques help all writers of serious fiction and poetry. I didn’t know I was dyslexic when I discovered my method of writing, which I did by working with non-LD writers. In my first real teaching job, at Kalamazoo College back in the early 70’s I discovered that every student made the same mistake while writing fiction: they used the same I in their stories that they used to write letters and diaries, an I than was really a me.
Once I showed them the invented I’s of Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield, personages created to express an attitude and temperament, they became excited and started to experiment and move in the direction of fiction, and the imagination.

It took me the next thirty years to perfect and understand this approach, but it’s both mysterious and inspiring for me to realize that a technique that gave me the imaginative room in which to create my ideas and express my feelings, also helped others to do the same. I can’t think of another thing that provides me with more pleasure, and satisfaction.

topics: Interviews