David Schuman’s fiction has appeared in Missouri Review, Carolina Quarterly, Conjunctions, Black Warrior Review and many other publications. He won a Pushcart Prize in 2007 and his story, “Stay,” was listed as one of a hundred distinguished stories in Best American Short Stories. He serves as Director of the MFA Program at Washington University.
Robin Tung: What sets WUSTL’s MFA program apart from others?
David Schuman: We are among the smallest of the top ranked programs, with a student body of 20 (10 poets, 10 fiction writers, although we’ll have more students in 2015 with the introduction of our new CNF track). Our small size allows us to fund each student with a full tuition waiver and a stipend of $21,500 per year. We fund each student equally, which contributes to a non-competitive culture. Our students don’t teach until their second year in the program, and when they do it’s in their own genre (an introductory fiction or poetry workshop).
Our Hurst Visiting Professorship brings four distinguished writers to campus every year for visits of a week or more, during which time they give readings, craft lectures, and meet individually with each student in their genre. Each semester we also bring several one-night visitors to the program through our reading series.
I mentioned the new CNF track above. We’re very excited about this new addition to our program. We’ve already established a great conversation between the genres here—our fiction and poetry students take craft classes together, attend each other’s readings, and read each other’s work, which results in the sort of thrilling synaptic pinball that expands everyone’s craft. I can’t wait to see what adding CNF to the mix will do.
Another thing that sets the program apart is the city itself. St. Louis is a surprise to most everyone who visits. We have a thriving literature scene, which seems to keep growing along with the arts and the food culture here. Aside from our reading series, there are three other local universities with terrific literary events, and several independent local series, including the Observable Series and the Fort Gondo Poetry Series that bring writers of renown to the city. One of the satisfying things as a resident of St. Louis is to see that every year more and more of our MFA grads stay on to write, work and live here.
I could go on (proud director that I am)—our faculty, our third-year opportunities, our community outreach programs, the unprecedented success of our alums—but space is limited!
RT: What qualities do you look for in a prospective student?
DS: Our students come from a range of backgrounds and experiences, so there isn’t any absolute answer. I think the faculty would agree that we want students who are ready to commit to the demands and intensity of the program, who are willing to offer their work to rigorous scrutiny, and so their applications should provide some evidence of this. A student who’s been out in the world, who’s maybe taken a while to find their way to writing but who’s picked up a lot of experiences along the way is often attractive, but we also usually take a few students every year right out of undergrad. The main quality, always, is work we’re excited about.
RT: What tends to stand out in a manuscript submission? And does the program lean towards particular styles or content?
DS: There are so many ways a submission can distinguish itself among the many we receive—but uniqueness of voice seems foremost. Although it’s expected that one’s work will reflect her antecedents, it’s exciting when what rises out of the influences is someone marching to the beat of her own drum. Also, work that’s engaged with the world, work that investigates specific experiences and places (even though these may be imagined), work which siphons from a spectrum of perspectives, rather than the kind of navel-gazing or “provincial” aesthetics one might associate with writers new to their craft. I’d add rigor to the list, too—evidence of a consciousness that isn’t taking the easy route; that displays fastidious attention to craft even when taking the boldest of risks. We’re looking for writing that exhibits potential—it doesn’t need to be perfect, it just has to attract us into saying, “We need to work with this person! We need to see what she can do!”
The program doesn’t lean toward any particular aesthetic, which allows us unlimited range when it comes to selecting our students. There’s amazing diversity in the work of our faculty and our students, and one of the thrills of working here is watching the bridge-building that happens between disparate voices. I’d call it essential to this program.
RT: If you could give a single piece of advice about writing, what would it be?
DS: Before you consider anything finished, read it aloud to yourself—from start to finish, no matter how long. It’s amazing what you’ll notice; redundant language, your own annoying writerly tics, syntactic stumbles, ugly transitions, etc., etc. And apart from all the stuff you won’t enjoy noticing, it’s also a chance to isolate and really hear the rhythm of your work, which you might not pick up on inside the confines of your clamorous head. Noticing and learning to understand these rhythms is part of how you figure out what you are as a writer.
RT: What are you reading now?
DS: Right now I’m in the middle of a re-reading frenzy. In the last few months I’ve re-read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Safety of Objects, Desperate Characters, Franny and Zooey, Honored Guest by Joy Williams, and Sylvia by Leonard Michaels. Kind of a weird list. I’m twenty-five pages into The Moviegoer and remembering why I love it. One newish book I read among all these oldies-but-goodies is Taipei by Tao Lin, which I admired and despised, which is a good thing—challenging art begs for a love/hate relationship.
RT: What are you working on now?
DS: I shuffle between several projects at a time. I’m working on a few pieces to round out a collection of stories loosely organized around the themes of parenting and the decline of civilization. I’m also working on a chapbook of microfictions about artists of the mid twentieth century. There’s a novel in there too, but I work on it furtively, like I’m committing a crime.