Comforts of the abyss The art of persona writing

Philip Schultz

Book - 2022

"Persona writing, a method of borrowing the voice and temperament of accomplished writers, offers aspiring writers imaginative distance and perspective needed to tell their stories. Through a candid and generous account of his own story, acclaimed poet Philip Schultz reveals how his early struggle to find inspiration in his negative inclinations led to the idea of persona writing, the philosophy on which he founded the Writers Studio in 1987. Schultz reflects on his early life in an immigrant neighborhood of upstate New York, his first experiments with poetry and experiences of loss, his struggles with dyslexia, and the teachers and writers--such as Joan Didion, Ernest Hemingway, John Cheever, and Elizabeth Bishop--who encouraged and i...nfluenced him. Along the way, he develops the generative method of persona writing as the foundation of his work. Perceptive, enlightening, and moving, Comforts of the Abyss explores how writers can transform vulnerability and negativity into creativity"--

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New York, NY : W. W. Norton & Company [2022]
Main Author
Philip Schultz (author)
First edition
Physical Description
229 pages ; 22 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 227-229).
  • The Mind's First Freedom
  • The Shitbird, Named and Unnamed
  • I Never Wanted to Be Me, I Don't Think
  • Pity and Fear
  • My Two Libraries
  • The Poet and the Fiction Writer; Conduits of Revelation
  • Our Most Curious Artifact
  • Somebody Loves Us All
  • Penurious Arrogance
  • A Magic Act
  • Indian Wrestling
  • Which Side Are You On?
  • Voices Veiled and Unveiled
  • The Socratic Method
  • In the Nature of a Test
  • The Map of the World
  • Gussie
  • I Came, I Saw, I Suffered
  • In the Manner of Poetry
  • A New City of Words
  • Anger and Shame
  • The Argument and the Lullaby
  • What We Want
  • Acknowledgments
  • Credits
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Poet Schultz (My Dyslexia) delves into the written expression of real emotion in this eloquent guide to "persona writing," or developing a narrative voice and viewpoint different from one's own. Doing so, he writes, makes it possible to articulate difficult feelings and can provide a shield from the "shitbird," Schultz's term for one's sense of doubt and self-hatred. Key to his program is understanding that "making a successful poem or story is a process of trial and error, and that disappointment and confusion are important parts of the process" and doing "exercises in selfhood" such as writing a letter to one's "most pronounced antagonist." His tips are solid, and much of the book consists of rich anecdotes about writers he knew: Schultz recounts the time he played a game of chicken with Norman Mailer to see who would come closest to jumping off a cliff (Schultz won; Mailer grabbed him at the last minute and pulled him back), and there's a story about Elizabeth Bishop cutting a paper bird out of newspaper at a party in San Francisco, setting it on fire, and watching it fly through the air. This intimate account is sure to satisfy writers in the making. (June)

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

How a Pulitzer Prize--winning writer overcame his destructive demons. Schultz, founder and director of The Writers Studio, chronicles the challenges he faced as a poet, fiction writer, and teacher that led him to see the aesthetic and psychological value of creating a writing persona. He has long confronted a pervasive inner critic that he calls "the shitbird," whose "sole agenda is to negate and revoke; it uses confusion to disseminate remorse and self-reproach; its favorite phrases are 'I don't know,' 'I have no right,' and 'I don't want to hurt anyone.' " To counter an inhibiting presence, which besets many writers, Schultz advocates finding "an opposing phantom voice" by borrowing another writer's narrator, personality, attitude, and tone. Long fascinated with masks--"the ones we hide behind and those we create as friends, sources of inspiration, and companions"--the author discovered that a persona allowed him to distance himself from his material, such as his erratic, self-destructive father, and his own feelings of shame and fear of failure. Identifying with Walker Percy's protagonist in The Moviegoer, for example, led Schultz to see the world "from a more gracious and philosophical perspective." At times, the author adopted the "lusty bravado of a Walt Whitman or Ernest Hemingway," the irony of Holden Caulfield, and the sass of Huck Finn. Finding a persona proved to be a successful teaching technique for helping students to transcend the autobiographical. The process requires careful self-examination, Schultz counsels, "into the cause and effect of old mistakes and wounds, into the realm of mixed feelings for what has been lost and left unresolved, all of which requires an act of self-forgiveness and deliverance." The memoir is enlivened with deft anecdotes about Schultz's relationships with writers, including Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, Denise Levertov, Joan Didion, Wright Morris, George Oppen, and John Cheever. Insightful encouragement for writers facing their own "shitbird." Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.