The thing that John Schultz built

Writing from start to finishJohn 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 twelfth-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.


    • Thanks for reading. John created the Story Workshop method of teaching writing and was head of the Fiction Writing department at Columbia College Chicago, where I got my MFA. The program has been gutted by bean-counters in the past few years, but it was a beautiful thing for a long while.

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