An Interview with Dana Crum
“Ultimately writers try to transcend other writers’ influence and find a unique voice, but imitation is a necessary part of development. Majoring in English was a great way to find people I wanted to imitate.”
Dana Crum is a writer and poet who lives in New York City. In addition to freelance writing, Dana has taught English and writing at the college and high school levels. He also tutors individual students and edits manuscripts for other authors.
Dana has a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts in English with a concentration in Creative Writing from Princeton University. His work has appeared in books, magazines and journals, including The Source, Gumbo: An Anthology of African American Writing and AP English Literature & Composition for Dummies.
In your own words, what is a writer?
A writer is someone who can capture in words what it means to be human. Writers convey complex emotional experiences like what it is like to have a loved one die. Writers illuminate what it means to fail or to deal with oppression. Topics like those are exhilarating to read about and they give readers a sense of spiritual fulfillment. On a personal level, writers are usually people who fall in love with other people’s writing.
I consider myself to be more of an English language expert, however, because my career extends beyond writing into a variety of different fields that have to do with English. In addition to writing, I am a public speaker, a teacher, a tutor and an editor.
If a student said to you, “I am interested in becoming a writer,” what would your response be?
I would tell the student that writing can be very rewarding but it is not just about the intrinsic motivators that drive us to create. Creative writing is a form of art, but the moment you try to get your book published, you are dealing with the business world. Many publishers care more about profit than about great literature. You might write a great book, but a publisher is likely to reject it if it will not sell. You have to keep the business side of writing in mind and learn to negotiate within that realm.
What level of education is necessary to become a writer?
If you want to be a writer, I recommend at least a bachelors degree. Beyond that, it is important to earn any degree or gain any experience that will enable you to be versatile in your career. I earned a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing, which gave me more skills as a writer than my undergraduate degree did. An MFA also allowed me to start teaching, which was a way to support myself when writing didn’t bring in enough money. Editing is another skill that I strengthened by earning an MFA, and it became a consistent way to pay the bills.
Why did you decide to become a writer?
I decided to become a writer because I have been moved by great books and I want to provide that same experience for other readers. In college, I spent a lot of time reading and enjoying books like Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, which illustrates what it was like to be African American in the middle of the 20th century. It still resonated with me, as an African American, even though I read it in the late 80s. It spoke to my soul. I realized that I wanted to be like Ellison and capture what life is all about and put it on the page.
What were the biggest misconceptions that you had about being a writer?
One of the biggest misconceptions you have as a young writer is that talent is enough to succeed and get published. The unfortunate reality is that you really need to network and know people. You can’t just sit in a room and write. With creative writing, like all professions, the easiest way to get a job is to know someone. You have to get out there, get to know other writers and go to conferences where you can meet literary agents and editors.
One more misconception is the idea that the first book you write is going to be amazing and flawless. There is an exception to every rule, and some writers and other artists just get it. For example, Picasso hit it big as a very young man. But Cézanne was an old man by the time he started making masterpieces. They both were geniuses, but Picasso’s genius became apparent right away, while Cézanne tried different styles of painting and experimented a lot before he found what worked for him. If you don’t have much success as a writer when you first start, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t do well later on.
What do you enjoy most and least about being a writer?
What I enjoy most about being a writer is that it gives me the chance to use words to show readers the truth about what it means to be human. I love words and the power they have to convey experience and understanding.
But there are a number of challenges associated with being a writer. The first challenge you face as a writer is finding sufficient time to write on a consistent basis. Writing regularly is really the only way to write a book, especially if you want to write a book of prose. It is difficult to fit in writing when you must work to support yourself and keep up with your personal life.
Another big challenge that all writers face is dealing with rejection. When you send your short story out to literary journals, it may get rejected 100 times before someone finally publishes it. You have to learn not to take it personally. Even very established writers still have to deal with losing literary competitions and other forms of rejection.
What is a typical week like for you?
My work week varies a lot depending on the projects I have, but I usually work at least 40 hours each week. Sometimes I work 70 or 80 hours, like when I am copy editing, which is fixing all the sentences in a book and making them smoother.
The amount of time I spend working alone also varies depending on my projects. When I am writing and editing, I am alone about 90% of the day. Of course, my teaching work is less solitary because I am in a classroom with students, but it also involves quite a bit of time on my own reading papers and making lesson plans in preparation for class.
Even though my own schedule may be different from other writers, many writers work a variety of jobs to support themselves. Writers who have published books and have an MFA can work as full-time creative writing professors and write during school breaks. But I am not yet at that point. I could be a part-time professor or teach in high school, but the pay is low, and if I spend too much time working it really interferes with my writing.
What personality traits do you think would help someone succeed as a writer and what traits would hinder success?
Discipline is a key personality trait that you need if you want to write. It is important to write every day or at least several times a week, especially if you want to write prose. Even if you feel like you have nothing to say that day, you can at least revise what you wrote the day before. You will find that sometimes just sitting there and writing something terrible is a way to get inspired to write something good.
The ability to keep learning is also a really important trait in a writer. Most accomplished writers and poets would say that they are always learning. William Faulkner said that every novel was a bit of a failure, but he would just try to learn from it and get things right in the next book. And even when Ernest Hemingway was well established, he would read other authors’ books with a vicious competitiveness in order to see what they wrote and surpass it. Hemingway helped change the way we write fiction, which he would not have been able to do if he had not kept learning and trying out new ideas.
Looking back at your formal education, is there anything you would have done differently?
If I could go back to my undergraduate education, I would have taken a wider variety of creative writing classes. I focused on prose fiction, which I still love, but I wish I had taken some poetry workshops as well.
I also would have gone to the most respected MFA program I could have gotten into. Virginia Commonwealth University is a great school, but if you attend a very well-known school, you’re going to have an easier time succeeding. The University of Iowa is essentially the Harvard of MFA programs. The faculty there includes some of the best writers in the country. Having someone famous in the literary world supporting you can really help your career.
Are there any extra-curricular experiences that a student interested in becoming a writer should pursue?
One of the non-academic experiences that is important for any writer is just to go out and observe. Sometimes when I am on the subway or bus I hear something that I use later in my writing. For instance, I heard a Dominican father ask his son, “Why you did that?” Not “Why did you do that?” but “Why you did that?” I would not have known how to write dialogue like that in a story if I hadn’t heard it in real life. You need to understand how people actually speak in order for dialogue to ring true on paper.
Another good experience for writers is to go to writer retreats like Yaddo and MacDowell. Those are secluded communities that artists can visit for a few days or weeks to concentrate on creating art without having to worry about work and other responsibilities. Retreats are also a great place to get advice because some of the best teachers and writers in the country go there.
What classes did you take during your schooling that you have found to be the most valuable for the work you do today?
One of the most useful courses I took was a novel writing workshop in grad school. Creative writing workshops are normally based on short stories because there is not enough time to work on a novel in one term. But a novel writing workshop lasts a full year, which was great because I had enough time to learn about all of the elements of a novel. It helped to demystify the writing process by breaking it down to the nuts and bolts, like conflict and character development.
All of my literature courses as an English major were also a big help. I got to read books by the writers who influenced me the most. Ultimately writers try to transcend other writers’ influence and find a unique voice, but imitation is a necessary part of development. Majoring in English was a great way to find people I wanted to imitate.
What words of advice or caution would you share with a student who is interested in becoming a writer?
I recommend that you find a professional mentor who can help you reach your creative goals. I wish I had done so, because I tried too hard to do things on my own. In the arts, you need a mentor who can tell you what you need to do to get your book published and how to get a peer writing fellowship. It takes longer to figure the business out on your own because you will make more mistakes. On a related note, you should also get a literary agent if you want to get a book published. It will be very difficult to get through to editors without having the connections that an agent can provide.
Also, anyone interested in creative writing or journalism has to pay attention to how digital media is changing the publishing world. It changed how much writers get paid and what it means to get work published. Generally, writers are paid less for articles because they are so easily accessible on the internet. As far as what it means today to get your work published, there are some great publications that are both online and in print. It is possible to be a professional writer if you know go through the right channels.