You Wouldn’t Understand: In Conversation with Dana Schwartz, Creator of @GuyInYourMFA

It wasn’t long after finding the Twitter account @GuyInYourMFA that it became my favorite feed. Its precious nuggets of self-importance—think of it as mansplaining with a literary bent—could have been drafted on a vintage typewriter by any number of writer types I’ve encountered in my life (example: “Colors aren’t real. They’re subjective like everything else in this world.”). I was even more delighted when I found out that the person behind the @GuyInYourMFA persona is a woman.

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Dana Schwartz
Dana Schwartz

22-year-Dana Schwartz, a pre-med-student-turned-creative-writing-fiend who is in her last semester at Brown, told me that the idea for @GuyInYourMFA came to her late one night, when she was hanging out backstage in the green room during a university production of “Sweeney Todd.” She had a lot of time to kill and a stack of stories to read for the next day’s fiction writing workshop. “More than one piece in that pile was about a man who had to leave his family because he was so complicated and the woman just didn’t understand that.”

She realized that the writers behind those pieces embody a character most of us have encountered, be it across the workshop table or the coffee shop: the narcissistic hipster artiste hunched over his Moleskine, his backpack heavy with the burdens of his creative calling along with his copy of Infinite Jest. Schwartz explains: “It’s someone who is reclaiming what he believes masculinity is through his literature, and he’s emulating white male figures.”

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She decided to try and give him a voice on Twitter, a fittingly self-indulgent platform. “I feel like he’s the kind of guy who loves hearing his own voice and would actually love the idea of crowds of people listening to his brilliant ideas, so it seemed like a natural fit.”

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Schwartz started the account at the end of last September. It has now reached 42K followers, and it’s growing every day. She was thrilled to generate online buzz with comedians and writers she admired, including BJ Novak, who retweeted her and then offered to call her and chat about working in TV. Schwartz spent “the first seven minutes” of the conversation thanking him profusely and trying to keep her fangirl under control.

But as @GuyInYourMFA would be quick to point out, there’s more at stake in the Twitter account than plumbing an archetype for laughs. The tweets also exemplify a sense of assumed artistic authority that is specifically male, and which is deeply—almost imperceptibly—ingrained. Schwartz says she found herself using male pronouns in academic papers to sound scholarly, and in her stories to remove a heavy stylistic hand. “When I wanted to be as clean and empty as possible, I would use a male protagonist because that’s been the default for so long.”

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In comedy, too, she found that male characters were the “default.” During a summer research internship for Conan, she had the chance to ask one of the show’s writers why women were so infrequently featured in comedy sketches. The writer told her that male characters are simply the go-to in comedy. When a writer pitches a sketch, it automatically revolves around a man (e.g., “a guy is walking into a bar when …”). Audiences are conditioned to expect male characters, which act as a blank page on which comedic devices can be layered. Female characters make the joke complicated—the audience wonders if “femaleness” is part of the joke. What’s more, audiences are uncomfortable with women in physical comedy.

Schwartz is working hard at making her own voice in comedy challenge the male default mode, following the example of gutsy female comedians like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Even as she finishes school she’s “writing a ton”—two to three thousand words a day—and working on a dystopian YA novel in addition to a pilot (see her other Twitter persona, @DystopianYA). In addition to writing books and screenplays, her “dream is to work in comedy TV.”

If you’re wondering about the @GuyInYourMFA avatar, it’s her friend Simon. But the irony (there had to be irony) is that he’s wearing Schwartz’s hat. In addition to being a comedic and critical outlet, Schwartz’s @GuyInYourMFA alter-ego is also also a way for her to check her own writerly pitfalls. “A lot of the ideas that @GuyInYourMFA tweets are ideas I’ve had,” she says. “It’s a chance for me to laugh at myself and air out my work impulses.”

Maybe somewhere down the line, she’ll even get her MFA.