The transition point in Dana Johnson’s life came at 31, when she won the Flannery O’Connor Award for a short story she’d written during her MFA program at Indiana University.
More than its prestige and promise of a badly needed check for the broke grad student, the award ended a period of questioning for Johnson. No longer would she wonder whether she was writer material or whether her plan to get a master’s degree was the right move. “All the work I’d done had come to fruition,” she says. “It was amazing.”
The short story made it into her first book, Break Any Woman Down, and her success set her on a path of writing and teaching that continues uninterrupted to this day. And though the life of a writer is one marked by constant self-examination and, sometimes, worry, she’s spent the 20 years since that first breakthrough using it as a tool of exploration.
“I feel like the goal is to tell as many stories as we can before we’re no longer here,” she says. “It’s not attached to the body, or looks, or not even accomplishments in the past. It’s like, ‘What am I looking at today? What am I trying to think about, to explore?’ You don’t necessarily get the answers in fiction, but its exploration can be illuminating.”
I feel like the goal is to tell as many stories as we can before we’re no longer here. It’s not attached to the body, or looks, or not even accomplishments in the past.
It wasn’t writing, but reading that became her first, preferred method of discovery. She remembers her father chiding her for sitting at the table with others, her nose in a novel. Spending her early years in South Central Los Angeles roiling from the danger of gang warfare, and the second part of her childhood in the tranquil, and white, suburbs of San Gabriel Valley had given her plenty of material to examine.
Instead, she opted for life as a copy editor at a law journal in Los Angeles upon graduating USC, a job she loathed.
“In order not to hate life, I took some writing classes at USC extension,” she says. A professor there liked her style and encouraged her to take her writing seriously. But taking a writing class and enrolling in a master of fine arts program were two different things.
“There was this question of, ‘How useful is an MFA degree?’” she says. “But for someone like me, who comes from a working-class background with parents that aren’t artists, that aren’t writers, it opened up a whole new world for me: what a writer was, who to read, traditions and literature, craft. That meant something to somebody like me who comes from folks who are mostly factory workers.”
She took every assignment seriously, throwing herself into her work and wanting her stories to impress. “It was more urgent for me, because I was soon to be 30,” she says. “If I didn’t do this, what was I going to do?”
The urgency and focus helped set her path and that’s a common trait among today’s women over 50. It’s so hard to find that one thing you’re truly passionate about and dedicate yourself to it; timing is so crucial in that process. Among the graduate students she teaches today at USC, there have been a few who have turned to writing later in life. Johnson sees no issue with that at all.
“I had natural talents, which was voice and dialogue; my parents are Southern, and I like storytelling in general, so I had that on my side,” she says. “I’m so glad I went later in life, because had I [started] in my early 20s I wouldn’t have known what my material was.”
These days, Johnson finds her focus is less on age as a subject but in experimenting in voice and methods. There was no tidal shift when she turned 50.
“I went out for a drink and called it a day,” she says. “It wasn’t a funeral of the past me or a celebration of the upcoming me. It was like, ‘Thank God I’m still here. I still have work to do.’”