Helen Schulman: The Writing Life, Opening Lines, and More

Helen Schulman began her NYU Shanghai writing workshop, as she does all others, by reading a letter that dancer and choreographer Martha Graham wrote to her fellow choreographer Agnes DeMille. “No artist is pleased,” Graham had said. “There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

“I find this quote so reassuring,” Schulman said, and wants all writers to keep it in mind as to not get discouraged whenever they begin to write. The fifteen students at the workshop at NYU Shanghai all sighed in relief for they all knew how it felt to be stuck on a piece.

This workshop, modeled after one she teaches graduate students in New York, was organized to initiate students to various techniques for writing.

She asked students to write a short biography which explained why they were present at the workshop. Most students found relief in writing. One student said, “I write to distract myself from all the work I have yet to do.”

Most of the same students were present the next day at her husband Bruce Handy’s workshop on how to get published. Correspondingly, he advised that practicing fiction writing is helpful for journalists because they learn to write a story. He added, “As journalists, you need to have a storytelling skill.”

Schulman disclosed that she finds most of her inspiration on transportation. “Things come to me in the subway that I didn’t even know were in my head,” she laughed. It takes her time to get places because she always needs to stop and write, “I have a process and I keep going back to it.” She urged students do the same.