In light of his recent promotion, the Duncker Digest staff wanted to dig-in with David Schuman, Director of The Writing Program, and learn a little more about him, his teaching philosophy, and the creative process itself. Despite Hurst Visits, dissertations, and a generally busy spring semester, Dave was kind enough to get back to us right away! The Q & A went a little something like this:
Q: The Writing Program fosters so many creative pursuits. As Director, are you left with much time for creative pursuits of your own? Is there anything you are working on now that you would tell us about?
- A: I write all the time, even if it’s just a few minutes a day, which is all I sometimes have space for during the busy semester. I’m constantly tinkering with nonfiction pieces. My big project now is a novel I’ve been researching for a long time about murder, fascism, agricultural communes, art, punk rock, etc. Nobody who knows me will be surprised to hear it’s also about New Jersey. Funny story… a long time ago at a reading up in Hurst Lounge, the fiction writer Nancy Zafris (RIP), who was also an editor, was answering questions about what kind of work she wanted to read for the Kenyon Review. And she said, “Just no more stories about growing up Jewish in New Jersey.” Sorry, Nancy.
Q: I can't imagine The Writing Program uses many multiple-choice tests. How do you determine success within creative genres?
- A: I try to allow my students to create their own parameters for what constitutes “success,” although of course I have expectations that everyone take the work seriously. I want everyone to come out of the semester with some pieces of writing they’re proud of—whether that’s something publishable or just something they keep for themselves so they can encounter it sometime in their futures and say, “Wow, I wrote that!” I do everything I can to help them get there, but I also try to make it clear failed experiments are an integral part of the process.
Q: Has the program changed substantially over the years?
- A: The program has changed a lot since I was a student in it close to twenty years ago (!!!) Dillon Johnston was director when I came in, and his kindness and generosity did so much to set the tone for the program we have today. Mary Jo Bang was the next director, and I was assistant at that time. Under her directorship, there were so many positive changes—we streamlined our curriculum for both grads and undergrads. We saw a huge increase in applicants during those years, and we were listed among the top ten programs in the country (back when they ranked programs). Marshall steered the ship for the next few years after that—we added a lot of undergraduate course offerings at that time, and that’s increased the popularity of creative writing on campus. I’ve been directing for twelve years now, and in that time we’ve added both the creative writing concentration in the English major as well as the CNF track in our MFA. I think our program has gone from being a sort of sleeper-hit to a blockbuster, or at least I like to think so. Our alums are literary stars across the spectrum from indie presses to the big NY houses. But we retain so much of what made us a cult favorite way back when…our faculty, of course, including the faculty that’s come along in the last decade, but also the sense that we’re a place where a diversity of voices and styles are welcome. We also weathered a pandemic!
Q: Creative mediums often push the boundaries by subverting the norm; how do you create a structured teaching environment in a field which challenges boundaries?
- A: I’m really interested in boundaries and constraint…oh gosh, that sounds weird lol. But really, that’s why I love teaching microfiction. Constraints or boundaries might be seen as limits to creativity, but really they’re necessary for art and creative investigation. The brain loves a fence to get over or under, we’re trespassers by nature, and I always try to give my students challenges along those lines. And I want them to surprise me with subversions and mutations and weirdness. The structure in the classroom is more about setting up a community with shared values and a spirit of generosity toward each other.
Q: Do you have a favorite book of all time, or just of the moment? Why? Is there any book that you wish you'd have written?
- A: Hardest question! Currently, I am all over the place reading-wise. I’m reading a lot of nonfiction about the communist / socialist intellectuals of the last century, and a lot about Nazism in America in the thirties. Fiction-wise, I just read a novel called You Will Like It Here by Ashton Politanoff which is composed / collaged out of archival material from newspapers in the town of Redondo Beach. It’s set in the 1920s, but it reverberates into our current moment in some surprising ways. Luster, by Raven Leilani, is a novel that’s weird in all the right ways. But I can’t not mention Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenter, or really all of Salinger’s work, which I return to many times a year. He’s way more subversive than what he gets credit for, and I don’t think anyone reads him anymore because we’re all sick to death of Catcher in the Rye.
Q: What is your favorite meal in St. Louis?
- A: Any meal at Indo. And also currently obsessed with Monte Bello Pizzeria way down in South City near the river. It’s in the basement of an old house, it’s been around since 1950, and they serve STL style pizza but without Provel. I’m from New Jersey, so legally I shouldn’t even be calling what they serve there pizza, but the whole place is a slice (sorry) of America that is fast disappearing under the reign of corporate homogeneity. And now I’ve fulfilled my goal of the day by using the phrase “corporate homogeneity.”