How My Imagination Works

"Serious" Face

“Serious Face,” circa 1981

Stories are valuable. This idea was instilled in me at an early age. Raised by two English majors, I grew up in a house of books. I was freely encouraged to explore all kinds of passions: puffy paint t-shirt designs, homemade bubble gum recipes, performing skits, building tree-forts, and picking blackberries were just a few of my early obsessions as a girl growing up in Portland, Oregon. Maturing during the peak of the Grunge Music Movement, my skeptical, brooding, teenage self emerged. By the time I reached Ms. Wood’s English class as a junior in high school, I believed there were too many things that “didn’t add up” about society. I felt angry, confused, adamant. What was our purpose in life and did it always have to come at a cost to others or the environment? I wanted answers and many of the places I’d grown accustomed to looking, didn’t have them.

Through Ms. Wood’s reverence for the practice of writing and her passionate teaching of Walden by Henry David Thoreau, in particular, I was changed. The answers I needed could be found through action. I dove deeper into the music and coffee cultures spilling across downtown Portland, including frequent pilgrimages to Powell’s City of Books. Coffee, books, music, and the outdoors felt authentic to me; ripe with potential for something that mattered, something that could make a difference. I also spent more time in the wilderness, including a 5-day solo backpacking trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, which I saved money for, planned, and completed at the age of 16.

My attention to reading and journaling increased tenfold throughout college. For a semester, I even lived in The Writing House, a “special interest” campus housing option for creative writing hopefuls. Somehow, I reasoned that a writer was someone who decried the excesses of society, but still managed to engage in it with some measure of success. I didn’t know how to make that happen, but because I had always carried an idea inside of me that being a writer was an honorable profession, I wasn’t afraid to try and imagine how.

At Whitman College, I enrolled in creative writing classes but found myself utterly intimidated by the English Department. I admired scholars who could discuss literature in context, but never understood how their analysis pertained to the enthusiasm and heart I felt when I was working alone in my journal, crafting a poem or writing an essay. I was looking for something that felt as alive as the clubs I saw my favorite Portland bands perform in; something as vibrant as a triple Americano; something with stakes. To drink a cup of coffee is more than giving in to a craving or attempting to caffeinate; it’s an optimistic gesture, as if to say: Whatever’s next, I’m going to find it. Throughout college, I continued to read widely, but never enrolled in a literature course. I didn’t see this as a loss; simply an early sign indicating where my interests lay.

As it turned out, the Philosophy Department became my home, most notably because of a professor named Tom Davis whose passion for the Socratic Method infused his lectures. Professor Davis was able to bridge the gap between ancient and modern concerns, applying Socrates’ style of inquiry to today’s problems: We discussed the ethical dilemmas of then-President Bill Clinton’s personal life; we pondered the inherent misunderstanding of youth suicides; we argued for or against the usefulness of gender roles in 20th Century America. Every conversation—always framed as a journey along a particular line of thinking—ultimately led to a moment of ecstatic uncertainty.

What is ecstatic uncertainty? It’s the best phrase I can come up with to describe what it feels like when a person is presented with the opportunity to stretch beyond his or her comfort level and current understanding of the world. While Socrates was largely misunderstood (and ultimately executed) for cornering noble people into logical fallacies, Professor Davis helped his students see the inherent liveliness of such exploration. As students engaged in mutual exchange, we weren’t bullied into change, rather, brought to the cusp of opportunity where we faced an invitation to grow by seeing something in a new light. In short, we could choose to stick to our guns and argue a particular point to our graves, or we could choose to grow—to stretch further into what it means to be a human being, flaws and all, and to feel that ecstatic uncertainty—a feeling we came to understand meant we were embarking on meaningful internal change. Time and again, I chose to stretch into that feeling. I’m so glad that I did.

Spring semester of my senior year, I defended my thesis, “An Ethic of Generosity,” which detailed the Socratic method alongside the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche, Hélène Cixous, and others, and argued that the ultimate gift one person can give to another is the opportunity to grow; in essence, the chance to unwrap one understanding of themselves in exchange for something new. Socrates might have called this a “death,” and in a way, it is—when we change what we believe and how we see the world, we’re no longer the same person. We don’t position ourselves in relation to others or to society in the same way anymore, because we have grown. Therefore, I argued, to live “with an ethic of generosity” means to devote your life with the belief that if you leap, the net will appear (to paraphrase John Burroughs), and to enact that belief in as many circumstances as possible.

It became very clear to me that I not only wanted to live that way myself, but that in order to find meaning in whatever kind of career I chose, I would have to be able to create the kind of space in which myself and others could be encouraged to explore the unknown and trust that we would come out on the other side with stronger skills and deeper understanding. While I didn’t know it at the time, I’d started to find the answers to those questions my teenaged-self posed several years prior. Our society would continue to evolve at the cost of environmental sanctity and economic and social justice for others, but that didn’t leave me helpless. In fact, it left me poised to find a way in—to engage by looking closely, asking questions, and taking a leap.

Notably, those three things are also what it takes to write a good short story.

bootsAfter a year volunteering to maintain backcountry hiking trails for AmeriCorps in the Berkshires and Adirondacks, the career I chose was that of Montessori Adolescent Guide, teaching youths ages 12-15 at a Quaker boarding school in North Carolina called Arthur Morgan School. I quickly earned my certification and lived and loved hard as a teacher at that school, chairing the Academic Committee at the age of twenty-four, teaching current events, growing spinach in the community greenhouse, leading backpacking trips, and house-parenting teens from all walks of life. Meantime, my parents, who had fallen in love with the school through visiting me there, sold their house in Portland, Oregon (where I grew up), put everything into storage, left their careers in law and administration, and moved their lives across the country to devote themselves to teaching at Arthur Morgan School. We overlapped there for one year, “three Schultz’s” in a clan of 12 teachers and 24 students, before my situation became untenable.

While I was certain about striving for an ethic of generosity in my life, and certain I had a long ways to go with my own self-work in that regard, I hadn’t yet learned the pitfalls of my own determination and willpower. In three short years, I exhausted myself at Arthur Morgan School and, tearfully but with purpose, left full-time teaching in order to move into an off-the-grid cabin across the river from the school and write full time. Here, I found my Walden Pond. Here, I could breathe again. Here, I knew I’d be a writer.

That final year of teaching did much more than wear me out, however; it enticed me to seek out a meditation instructor in order to cope with the mounting stress I felt from living in a community where more work could always be done. I practiced diligently and with passion, moved by my early work with mindfulness. In many ways, focusing on the gap between the in breath and the out breath was like the gap Socrates brought his interlocutors into through conversation—that feeling of ecstatic uncertainty, which eventually dissipated into a feeling of basic goodness and non-resistance. Through this practice, I sensed there was potential for real change and growth. I wanted to work on my own mind and behavioral patterns so that I could engage with society in a sustainable way. I didn’t want to exhaust myself ever again, but I didn’t want to have to hold myself back, either. I had to find a middle ground. Within a year of my first meditation experience, I entered a 30-day silent meditation retreat in Nova Scotia and have been practicing Buddhism ever since.

In exchange for rent in the small cabin near Arthur Morgan School, I worked: I split wood, installed a cold-water, gravity-fed sink and drain into the cabin, raked leaves, painted, and completed other odds and ends for the couple who owned the tiny home. Between tasks, I wrote. I meditated. I grieved the loss of my identity as a teacher. I explored the Black Mountains, which were my backyard. Externally, my situation appeared uncertain: financially precarious, naïve, and without direction. But internally, I understood that I had taken the leap. I trusted my early experiences growing up in that house of books, in that city of coffee, and in the classrooms of Ms. Wood and Professor Davis. I trusted my insights from meditation practice. I knew the net would appear, even though I couldn’t quite articulate who I’d be when it was all said and done. One year later, I was accepted into all 6 graduate MFA programs to which I applied, and opted to attend the Pacific University Low-Residency MFA in Writing Program in Oregon. Secured in the cabin in North Carolina, I flew back to my “home state” twice a year for residencies and worked rigorously with some of the most highly regarded authors of the American West.

Ten years have passed since that net appeared, and many other moments of ecstatic uncertainty and leaps have occurred along the way. From 2009-2012, I spent 31 out of 36 months traveling across the United States in a 1989 Volvo station wagon. Awarded writing residencies in eight different states, I lived with what I could fit into my car and wrote the early drafts of my first book, Flashes of War. From 2013-2014 I made the biggest financial investment of my life at the time and hired a publicist and book tour manager on my own dime, embarking on a 52-event, yearlong book tour that—to this day—continues to yield literary, creative, and financial rewards. Not too many years later, my novel Still Come Home was released, and another (less arduous) tour ensued.Katey in an Airstream Trailer

I’m still a teacher. I’m still striving for an ethic of generosity. I’m still meditating. But now, the ground beneath my feet is made of words. This means that with each new private writing student I work with, with each public speaking opportunity I engage in, or with each new story I begin, every action is filtered through my aspiration to engage with the world as a writer who cares. I believe I have written a successful story or essay if it simultaneously depicts and provides an invitation to change. This is very different than saying my writing needs to cause change. It does not. It merely needs to embody the possibility; the prose and the circumstances—whether fictional or autobiographical—strive to evoke ecstatic uncertainty, paired with a sense of hope.

It’s one thing to be able to say “I believe in the power of story”—and I do—but it’s entirely other to say that my life is that story, and your story, and everyone else’s story who is eager to leap. I hope you’ll join me.