MFA Spotlight: The University of South Carolina

I’m pleased to welcome MFA Candidate, Chris Schumerth, to Niche. I want to take this opportunity to thank him for conducting an interview about the MFA Program at The University of South Carolina.

Chris Schumerth writes and teaches as an MFA candidate in creative writing at the University of South Carolina. His writing has been published by a diverse array of places, including Punchnel’s, Relevant Magazine, and the Florida Times-Union. You can find out more about him at his website here:

NICHE: What was your journey to the MFA Program like? Why the University of South Carolina?

CHRIS SCHUMERTH:  Like all “journeys,” it is hard to know where to begin. I’ve been a literary person for as long as I can remember, which is to say that I enjoy reading and writing. I’m probably incapable of not doing those things.

I spent most of my twenties not really knowing what I wanted to do professionally, but diving into things that sounded cool. After earning an undergraduate degree in political science, I headed to D.C. for an internship at the Middle East Institute. I taught elementary school as a part of the Teach For America program for two years in Jacksonville, Florida. I lived and worked for a nonprofit in Belfast, Northern Ireland for a year. I enrolled in an English M.A. program in Indianapolis, thinking maybe I wanted to study literature and become a professor. Going from there to an MFA definitely isn’t a “normal” track, but I took a bunch of creative writing classes, largely with a single professor, and felt like I was progressing through a few essays and even a book-length project. The constant deadlines and feedback really energized me.

As I moved toward graduation, I craved more of that, so I started researching MFA programs. But the more I learned about the application and acceptance process, the more daunting it felt. It’s so competitive, and I had no idea if I belonged, if these “committees” would like my writing. I was really blessed to have some money in the bank at the time, so I applied to 15 schools, three of which accepted me. Those three did seem to actually want me, so I was satisfied with that, but receiving all those rejections still took an emotional toll. The “not good enough” voices started speaking up in my head, and I wondered if I had wasted a thousand bucks and a year of my life applying. I chose the University of South Carolina – a place to which I had never been – quite simply because it offered me the best financial deal. There are certainly other important considerations: geography, faculty, the kind of writing a person is interested in doing. So I’m not saying my way is right for everyone, but I’m a pretty frugal person and can’t really feel right about living off student loans that may or may not pay off someday.

NICHE: Is South Carolina a fully-funded program?

CHRIS SCHUMERTH: Like President Clinton, I think it’s important to define our terms. What exactly constitutes “fully-funded”? Is there some sort of official definition for that? If there is, I’m not sure what it is. Anyway, I basically don’t pay tuition, and I also get a stipend in exchange for teaching three undergraduate courses a year. The money’s not great, and in fact I did have to take some loans out and work through my Christmas break, but compared to what else is out there, I’m mostly pleased with my situation. Figuring out how to pay rent this summer will be its own problem, so hopefully Trader Joe’s is hiring.

NICHE: The MFA program at South Carolina is a three-year program. Is a three-year program as opposed to a two-year program better in your opinion? Why or why not?

CHRIS SCHUMERTH: Well, I’m not going anywhere near which approach is “better.” I applied to a bunch of schools in both categories, but I’m sure the answer is some version of, “It depends…” Our program has a lot of academic requirements – theory courses, literature courses, pedagogy courses, a foreign language requirement, a comprehensive reading list and exam, and of course a thesis project – which is why our program takes three years. The length of time wasn’t my top consideration in finding a school, but maybe it is for some people. I can imagine there being a writing advantage to taking another year, but the financial struggle is also real, so I can’t blame people who want a two-year program. I suppose where someone is in terms of age and career matters, too. I’m 29 and wanted time and structure to work on my book, but I also like that our program seems to set students up for transitioning into some type of professorship or other teaching position after graduation.

NICHE: How would you describe the workshop atmosphere? Who have you gotten an opportunity to work with thus far?

CHRIS SCHUMERTH: The workshops here, like any workshops I’ve participated in, are mostly cordial but also constructive. It can be a scary thing to be on display that first time with people you don’t know, but I’ve gotten comfortable with my classmates. Learning to filter criticism is such an important skill for a writer. In terms of faculty, I’ve worked mostly with Dr. James Barilla. He had a book, My Backyard Jungle, come out last year. His interests tend toward the scientific world, which is a lot different from the kinds of writing I do, but I still feel like he takes my writing seriously and gives me good feedback, so no complaints there. I also look forward, hopefully next year, to branching out to workshops led by other writers who teach in our program.

NICHE: Tell us a little bit about the reading series offered at South Carolina. What writers have come to visit, and do MFA candidates get special accesses to those visitors?

CHRIS SCHUMERTH: Our program does bring in outside writers on a regular basis through three different reading series. When these writers come in, graduate students are often offered an hour “class” or meal with them. This past fall, for example, I sat in on small-group conversations with Susan Cheever and Cassandra King. We might start off with a writing exercise or two, but usually end up just firing questions at them. There’s a lot to know about the writing world, and these are people who have navigated that world successfully, so they’re worth listening to. I was impressed with how generous both Cheever and King were with their time and experiences.

NICHE: Does your MFA program have a literary magazine? If so, what can you tell us about it? Are the graduate students involved in its production at all, and if so, how?

CHRIS SCHUMERTH: We do have a literary magazine. It’s called Yemassee, and it’s completely run by students in the MFA program. First-year students start out as readers. That this is part of our experience here is really valuable because navigating the world of literary magazines and publishing in general can be really overwhelming. Yemassee publishes mostly fiction and poetry, but we also consider other genres: essays, drama, interviews, and reviews. If you’re a writer out there, you should submit to us!

NICHE: Does South Carolina help their graduates launch careers or move onto a new segment of their lives after the MFA Program?

I want to say yes, but I guess time will be a better indicator. I see a lot of career development emails and workshops and other opportunities, and I hear that our English department does a good job of placing graduates, but I’ve got lots of work in front of me before I’m on the job market.

NICHE: What advice would you give writers or prospective MFA candidates?

CHRIS SCHUMERTH: Oh man. On one hand, I want to say so much, but on the other hand, I’m still plenty new to all this, so what do I really have to say? If the MFA just sounds like a sexy thing to do, go find something else. But if you’re the kind of person who can’t not write, then maybe it’s a good next step for you. If you think you’re good, apply to a bunch of schools. Consider it an investment, but yes, it’s a total risk. Enlist the help of professors and writers and other people who have done an MFA. Let other people – readers you trust and who will give you honest criticism – see your work. It’s a vulnerable place to be, but I have yet to find a better way to improve. Be patient with publication because it’s going to take time and a lot of work. I think I’m speaking to myself here. Anyway, thanks for having me!

This MFA Spotlight was originally published on Niche’s website on February 13th, 2014

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