In 2012, David Schuman, Director of the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program in creative writing at Washington University in St. Louis published a short story in American Short Fiction called “Squirrel.” Here’s how it begins:
“It was in the grass. He thought it was dead. It seemed as if it had been there for a while, like the grass had grown around its body. But it wasn’t dead. It quivered as he drew near. ‘Go climb a tree,’ he said to it. He nudged it with the edge of his flip-flop. It sprung up as if shocked and landed on the top of his foot. As he tried to shake it off, it bit. Then it fell from his foot and ran across the yard. It pressed itself against the fence. He reached down to touch the bite and then thought better of it. It was more of a pinch. He went inside. ‘A squirrel just bit me,’ he announced. ‘What?’ his wife said. She sounded skeptical and accusatory at once.”
As it progresses, Schuman links together several more episodes like this alongside a narrative about loneliness and fraught relationships within a family unit, which mounts to a surprising ending. He has developed a knack for constructing habitable worlds out of the mundane, a sensibility he brings to his classes where activities such as sorting through boxes of random trinkets or yearbooks from the 1940’s serve as catalysts for writing assignments.
Below, Schuman breaks down how writers make effective storytelling choices, the mechanics of craft and the elements of creative writing that can be taught. Hint: there are more than you may think. He will lead a writing workshop in micro-fiction at the Summer Writers Institute this July.
There are a number of interesting choices you’re making as a writer throughout the course of this story. The very first scene outlines what happens when a man gets bitten by a squirrel, which then brings out the family dynamics surrounding him. What was your inspiration for this story?
To be honest, it actually was a squirrel here on campus that inspired me. The squirrels on campus are very domesticated. They’re very used to people being around, so they’re very aggressive. They’ll just run right in front of you, or grab food if it’s anywhere near you. I was walking home one day, and a squirrel came within an inch or so of my foot. I actually had to step out of its way. The first line of the story came to me as I was walking to my car after that.
Then as I was driving home, I just kept adding to that line. I imagined that the squirrel actually had bitten someone and who that person might have been. I thought of the catastrophes happening in the world, and how it’s going haywire based on humanity’s impact. I was thinking about all of these catastrophic events happening in our natural world due to human actions that cause the animals to go slightly askew—which is exactly what’s happening.
I’m also interested in the American domestic, and how larger events affect the smaller microcosms of our homes. I thought about the family unit and tried to allude to some of the problems inside of a family, like alienation and loneliness. I’m interested in how every petty squabble or small moment of tension inside of a marriage—or any relationship—reverberates into the larger issues. I want readers to be able to sense the tensions between characters by using these little gestures and lines of dialogue. And I wanted to put all of those things in combination, to see what would happen.
The last section switches to a completely different perspective, almost like we’re being dropped into another story. But then, of course, as you read it, you understand the linkages. How do you make that work?
I’m really interested in an elastic point of view, which needs to be consistent to work. But I’m also really interested in corrupting, or subverting, point of view. So once a reader gets comfortable with something, I want to create some sort of shock or disturbance. And that doesn’t need to happen at the end of the story—actually, it doesn’t need to happen at all. But I wanted to remove the story completely from its setting and take the reader on a many-thousand-mile journey in the space of one transition. I thought it was very strange myself, and I wasn’t sure if it was going to work. But it felt right. I liked the language, and it felt like one of those things that just comes to you as a little gift.
Writing as you describe it seems to be a very intuitive process. How much of writing can be taught, particularly over the course of two weeks with a format like the Summer Writers Institute?
It’s a good question. My feeling about it is that craft is something that can be taught. And it’s not always necessarily about putting it into immediate practice, but being able to recognize it as a reader. Those two things are intrinsically linked: the writing and reading. They’re inseparable—and necessary—for anybody who wants to write.
In class, I try to establish a working vocabulary of craft ideas and elements to toss around. I can show them a story and say, “Let’s look at point of view, voice, tone, tense.” That, I think you can teach: how to recognize those things and put them into practice. Once you’re able to integrate them into your own thinking about reading and writing, suddenly you can subvert them and do something different. Those are the best writers.
At the Summer Writers Institute, you’re teaching students from all backgrounds. Some may go on to publish and become professional writers, and some may be looking for personal enrichment. What is it like to teach that range of students?
For me, personally, it’s great. I’ve had some really ambitious students who’ve gotten their work published—even some pieces that they’ve written in class—and I’ve always been really proud of that. There are also a lot of people from the WashU community who take this course and may not be interested in publishing a giant novel, but they like writing and personal enrichment.
For me as a teacher, it’s great to find a sort of common ground so we’re all talking about the same thing, and bringing together people from different backgrounds. I always say to my students on the first day of class, I have so much respect for you, because I know you’re coming from a full day at work, and you’re going to be here for three hours talking about something that has nothing to do with your job, and you could be at home watching TV and spending time with your family. But you’re here. That’s a particular kind of devotion.
For students who want to make a career of writing, how do you prepare them for how challenging that is?
I want the two weeks especially to be about the writing and reading, and not draw the publishing world into it too much. I figure that’s not what I’m there to do. Good work finds its way out into the world if the writer of that work is interested in putting it out there. I don’t feel like I have to guide that process. I do feel like writing completes itself by being seen in some way. I feel that’s part of the process: for a piece of work you’re really cultivating, the goal is not to keep it to yourself. The whole idea of writing is to communicate, and you can’t communicate to the self. I mean—you can, but for writing, that’s not how it really works. You communicate with other people, and I feel like that’s what writing really exists to do.
I try to get that across, but at the same time, there are a lot of rejections. And for those students who are interested in going on, I do give them that information and let them know how difficult it is. You have to have a strong stomach against things like that. But I try not to make that what the two weeks are about.