How The Creator Of Your Favorite Parody Account Became A Voice For Teen Girls

Photo: Courtesy of Razorbill/Dana Schwartz.
It’s difficult to introduce Dana Schwartz, because there isn’t just one thing about her. You might know her as the entertainment writer at The Observer who wrote a scathing open letter to her boss, Jared Kushner. You might know her as @GuyInYourMFA, the Twitter account parodying pretentious male writers, which currently boasts more than 86 thousand followers. Or, just as Dana Schwartz, 24-year-old internet star and author. Her first book, And We’re Off, which is out today, follows a high school student taking a whirlwind trip around Europe with her mom before diving headfirst into college applications, deciding once and for all whether she wants to pursue being an artist, or play it safe.
When I went to meet Dana for coffee — don’t tell my editor, but — I hadn’t prepared any questions. Dana and I are the same age, went to similar schools, and both graduated as creative writers but didn’t really know what that meant. It felt weird to prepare stiff, unfamiliar stock questions for someone with whom I already felt a connection.
“I figured we could just talk,” I said, hitting record and putting my phone in between us. What followed was an in-depth conversation about writing, being a teenager, and our embarrassing Tumblr personas — but don’t worry Dana, I cut that part out.
I first discovered you through @GuyInYourMFA, when did you start that?
"My senior year of college."
What prompted you to create the account?
"I was pre-med my entire college career, a bio major, spent my summers working in labs…and then I had like a come-to-Jesus moment — a Jewish come to Jesus moment — where I realized I did not want to be a doctor. I’d always sort of felt like I was on my back foot in that world. Like everyone else had a packet that I didn’t have. And so I sort of addressed that feeling and realized I was becoming a doctor because I felt like I should, not because I wanted to. And then I did a senior year 180, and took all the creative writing classes I could. So it was born out of taking a lot of writing classes at once and having to read a lot of those stories."
What made you decide to make the 180 to writing? Did you write on the side before?
"Yes, so I always wrote for fun my whole life. When I was a kid I wrote books, but then even at Brown I wrote a few mediocre short stories. Nothing I ever took seriously because it was never something I thought I’d be able to do."
Because you were like, “I’m a doctor.”
"I was like, I’m not going to need this. But I remember having four packets to workshop for the next day, and I think they were all about an unnamed male protagonist leaving his family. I was just sort of rebelling against that instinct in others, and also in myself. I had to sort of fight, as I was writing, my own preconceived notions of what sophisticated literature was."
Right, like you were saying you were pre-med because you thought you should be a doctor, and I think there is a thing where you write a certain way because that’s how you think writers should write.
"It was this strange thing where after I had already started @GuyInYourMFA for a little while, I had this weird moment where I looked back and realized all of the pretentious awful short stories I wrote had a male protagonist. I think I wrote men because in my mind that was a more serious story. I definitely had this really intrinsic feeling about what a serious story looked like."
Right. I was a creative writing major, and it took me until I graduated to be like, “Oh, I don’t want to write that.” I would be like, “Oh, I'll write about a death in the family” and all this stuff, stuff I hadn’t experienced and that I didn’t actually want to write about.
"Totally. I’m like a Jewish white girl from the suburbs and I sort of felt like my experience wasn’t worthwhile to talk about at all. And then, totally natural segue, the young adult novel really is about a normal girl from the suburbs, and writing it I sort of have to reconcile that those are stories worth telling. 'Normal teenage girls' are worth talking about."
Do you encounter @GuyInYourMFA types now that you’re in the publishing world yourself?
"Oh totally, and I think I still encounter it in myself. Also, like, ideas that he has are secretly, not-so-secretly ideas I had. And then I look back like, 'Oh, that is dumb.' I think every writer has that element in themselves a bit, and he’s just the most exaggerated un-self-conscious version of that."

A girl who reads this is a worthwhile protagonist, just because you’re an interesting and worthwhile person.

When did you start sitting down, and saying, like, “Okay, chapter one”?
"I did the totally not normal way that book publishing works. I had an agent from @GuyInYourMFA because I tried temporarily to see if that could be a book, but I couldn’t really figure out how to do it. And then the good people from Razorbill at Penguin reached out to me. They asked me if I was interested in writing a young adult book, and I was like, 'Absolutely.'
"Usually when you write a book you have to write the whole thing, then it goes to an agent, and an agent sends it to publishers. This was sort of backwards. I met with the publisher, we fleshed out an outline, and I sent them a few chapters. And then they were like, 'Great, sign your name on the dotted line.' So I think I started working on it when I moved to New York after that would be fall or late summer 2015."
The book is more about a mother-daughter relationship. Did you purposefully not want it to be a romance?
"What I wanted to do the most was tell an honest story about a teenage girl. It goes back to the @GuyInYourMFA thing, where I was re-teaching myself as I wrote it what sort of stories were worthwhile. I was writing it to prove to myself, and hopefully the reader, that a 17-year-old girl who wants to be an artist, who gets to go on an adventure, is a worthwhile story. She doesn’t have to be saving the world in a dystopian fantasy, she doesn’t have to turn out to be a princess of a small town. A girl who reads this is a worthwhile protagonist, just because you’re an interesting and worthwhile person.
"The thing with the mother-daughter, I think that’s a genuine issue that people have. The mom’s not an abusive mom, she’s not an alcoholic, there’s no logline drama there. I think it’s a problem that everyone sort of faces when you are going away to college. When I was leaving for college, it was like the worst relationship I ever had with my mom. I think people have this anxiety, you’re at the crux of your growing up and there’s this tension there and you don’t know how to release it and you get in fights with people because you know you’re leaving, your parents are scared that you’re leaving. So I wanted to sort of capture that anxiety that I think everyone shares.
"I feel like if there’s a book about a normal boy growing up, it’s Holden Caulfield. We ascribe a certain significance to the male experience and women’s experiences are seen as flippant and shallow.
"The main reason I wanted to tell this story specifically is because I did not study abroad, so after I graduated I didn’t have a job... So I took my savings and just traveled... It was amazing. I met amazing people. I met people who the characters in this book are based on. It was the best experience of my life."
Where did you go?
"I started in Ireland — which is where a majority of the book takes place — London, Belgium, Amsterdam, Berlin, Munich, and Rome. My character, mostly, she just happens to go to places that I went to. What a coincidence! She’s an artist who is making the decision to pursue art as a career. She’s becoming a senior in college and she wants to apply to art school, and she’s dealing with a mom who wants her to have a more stable career, and definitely in my mind I was projecting onto that the decision that I was making to be a writer. My parents are incredibly supportive and wonderful. I think the mother’s voice in my book is the other half of my brain telling me I was making a bad choice."
But you’ve made a pretty good choice. Your most recent brush with fame was the Jared Kushner letter. I think everyone is more involved in politics maybe than they were previously thanks to this election. Is politics something you’re interested in writing about, or did that come from a personal place?
"I am not a politics writer. I just don’t think I have the training or the knowledge base that the brilliant politics writers do. But there are things that I’m incredibly passionate about and just have to say. I even remember the weekend before I wrote that open letter, I was getting horrible harassment. I was so angry, I was flipping through it, it was like a magma pit of bubbling hate and rage. That whole weekend I was like, I’m gonna write a letter. I’m going to write a letter to Jared Kushner. I’m going to write a letter to my boss. And my boyfriend was like, 'Are you sure you want to do that?' I honestly had blinders on. I was not thinking of the consequences, I was not thinking that anyone would even notice or care. I was just like, I have to write this."
You have so many followers. What is it like knowing anything you say has such a huge audience?
"Nothing is different in my life. My room is still messy, I still hit snooze 11 times in the morning, I still think my butt looks fat when it’s naked and weirdly dimpled. Twitter followers, and even like career success, don’t make you happy. It’s all an internal thing. I feel really fortunate every day that I get paid to do what I like, that I get to write and make money from it, and that I’m not shouting into a void. I think my ultimate nightmare is being alone, but not isolated, like, alone in anonymity. People ignoring me. Yelling and no one listening. I really just want to use the opportunity I’ve been given to do good work."

We ascribe a certain significance to the male experience and women’s experiences are seen as flippant and shallow.

You’re writing more. What’s next?
"I’m working on a memoir. It’s called Choose Your Own Disaster, and it’s a choose your own adventure memoir."
That’s really cool!
"So not all of it is true, exactly. It all comes from a place of truth and then you can take tangents. But it’s really about...if this young adult novel is about finding yourself when you’re 17 and who you want to be, this memoir is about kind of the next stage when you graduate, transitioning who you are into the real world."
Are the experiences just after college? How far back do you go?
"I talk a bit about college. I had like horrible eating disorders in college and I talk about that a bit. And then I talked about moving to New York and like, dating terrible people.
"The reason I like the idea of a choose your own adventure memoir in the first place is because I went through phases where I wanted different personas for myself, so that’s what you can choose. I wanted to be the cool New York girl who wore all black, or the literary person. You want an identity. It’s why everyone wants to know what Hogwarts house you’re in, or if you’re a Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, which Divergent character you are. We hate uncertainty. People want to be told who they are so sometimes we put that on ourselves."
What else are you interested in doing? Are you interested in TV and movies?
"For sure. I want to write more books. I really love the masochism of writing a long story. I do really want to help with screenplays, maybe adapt screenplays. Adapting a book to screenplay is a dream of mine, not even my book. Just taking something that exists and figuring out a way that it would work on screen is like a dream of mine. I would love to write for a TV show, but I think the ultimate goal is just get better at writing. Just be better, keep working hard, and see what I can do."

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