Todd Schultz, who teaches psychology at Pacific University’s College of Arts & Sciences, uses his training as a psychologist, his love of writing and his passion for art to create something unique in his spare time.
Schultz recently wrote two successful books in a unique genre: psychobiography. In his two psychobiographies, Tiny Terror: Why Truman Capote Almost Wrote Answered Prayers and An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus, Schultz examines the life and psychology of the artist as an instrument to illuminate their art. He also looks at their art as a way to explain certain aspects of the artists. Schultz draws on the artists’ biologies, life histories and actions into question in an attempt to interpret their art.
Schultz describes his works as “interpretive. They’re more art than science, but they definitely have their scientific elements.”
He became fascinated by art in college as an undergraduate at Lewis & Clark in Portland, where he “started finding it fascinating and developing a taste.”
“I like the artists who are dangerous and shocking, and dark and obsessed,” said Schultz. “I think one of the functions of art is to agitate the sleep of mankind.”
He does not have a certain formula for choosing artists to write about; he waits for pieces of art to jump out at him.
“There’s no debate internally; I either like it or I don’t,” explained Schultz. “I like art that’s not bland and that forces people to see things in a new way.”
Arbus is known for her photographs of those who are unusual or outcasted and who are found in strange and abnormal situations.
The first step in writing these books was Shultz’s initial fascination by the photographs of Diane Arbus and the writings of Truman Capote. Schultz was very moved and impressed by their art and soon he started to wonder about their lives. In these cases, he wanted to more deeply understand both their life and art.
The second step was a lot of researching. Schultz conducted interviews, looked into secondary sources, talked to people who knew the artist and sifted through massive amounts of information as he learns about the person’s life.
Schultz doesn’t “feel like psychology is the only angle to understand or interpret art. It’s just one angle.”
He admitted he doesn’t think it is possible to ever grasp everything the artist put into to their work, but that the books are a way to comprehend a fraction of it.
He first became interested in psychology as he reflected upon his own family life.
“I had an unusual family and unusual experiences and events led me to be curious about people and why they do the things they do,” Schultz explained.
Schultz said his family always valued books. He was always interested in literature. “From a very young age, I had this notion I would be a writer,” said Schultz. “It’s a big part of my self-definition.”
Before hitting it big with his two books, which have received positive reviews from such publications as The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, The Economist, Vogue, The Daily Beast, The Weekly Standard, The New York Journal of Books and Guardian, and NPR, Schultz edited and contributed chapters to publications and wrote academically.
“I’ve worked at being a good writer for many years. I really do love the creative process,” Schultz said. “There are a lot of people who believe in what I do and believe in me as a writer. I feel very fortunate.”
Currently, he’s working on a biography of musician Elliot Smith. After hearing his daughter play some of Smith’s songs, Schultz became captivated by his work.
As with the subjects of all his books, Schultz feels a huge responsibility to the artists, their work and their loved ones. When writing and researching about Smith, Schultz is careful to be sensitive to those who cared about him and to be as accurate as possible.
While working on his new book about Smith, Schultz is still recovering from the shock of the positive international attention on the psychobiography of Arbus. “It’s exciting and a little shocking. I didn’t comprehend it would be this noteworthy,” Schultz admits.
“I’m not a person that enjoys a lot of attention,” Schultz said. “I just like to write in my quiet space.”
If history is any indicator, however, Schultz can expect ample attention to come.