Seven Questions For ... Donna-Claire Chesman

"Articles are art — it’s in the name!"

Donna-Claire, with her bow tie-wearing cat

Every second and fourth Friday of the month, Brady Gerber’s “7 For Seven” publishes interviews with writers talking about writing. This week’s guest is Donna-Claire Chesman, Managing Editor of DJBooth. The Philadelphia-based Chesman loves Big L and The Fugees as much as jazz and her pet parrot. Past bylines include Pigeons and Planes, Mass Appeal, XXL, and Vinyl Me, Please. And Donna-Claire wants you to check out … DonnaCReads, her lil book and craft blog. Read this interview on your browser here.

Twitter: @DonnaCWrites

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Tell us: What (all) do you do?

Hey, everyone, I’m Donna-Claire and I’m the managing editor of DJBooth. Meaning, I run the editorial side of things, produce content for the site, manage the writers, prep the calendar, and make sure everything is in order with our social media team. I wear a lot of hats, but I’m happy to wear them. The best part of my job, by far, are the days where I have no calls scheduled and I can write one, two, three pieces without being disturbed. Those days are rarer and rarer, but I cherish them all the same.

Walk us through a typical day.

A typical day starts at 6 AM with some coffee. I am really into my little routines—they keep me together. I approach my desk, wonder if my computer will work today, and get to it. It being updating DJBooth’s homepage, creating shortlinks for social sharing, and penning copy for Twitter and Facebook to circulate our editorial. That takes up the first 45 minutes of my day. It’s rote work at this point, to be frank.

Then comes email up until 7 AM. I stop at 7 AM on the dot to journal, which I recommend everyone do. It’s so critical to spend time with yourself in some peaceful way so you can really appraise who you are and work on that person. After I journal, I’ll take a water break, take my meds, feed my parrot—Ernest Chirpingway—and get back to work. More emails.

After emails, I like to set aside some time, 30-45 minutes, to read. Reading is a critical part of the process for writers, and for myself, it’s very relaxing. Once I’m wrapped with reading and emails, it’s typically anywhere from 8:30-9 AM. I do a little exercise, and by this point, everyone is awake and messaging me for things on Slack. Now, the day can go any which way it wants, but those first three hours where I have time to myself to journal, write and read, and indulge in quiet, are the best hours of the day.  

Describe more about how you work; how do you do what you do?

I don’t actually know how I do anything. When I write, I go somewhere else. I really enter this trance and it becomes kind of a spiritual experience for me. I don’t do outlines or prep, I just dive into the writing of a piece and wade through my thoughts and emotions right there in real-time. This is all kind of bombastic as it happens on the page—a lot of backspacing and furious typing.

For interviews, there’s a little more structure. I prep a day or two in advance of the call if time allows, and then I do the interview itself, and then work through if it’s a profile-style piece of a Q&A, based on the flow of the conversation.

Essays are more of a crapshoot of writing and intensity. When I reread pieces once they’re live, I often have no memory of writing them and I’m not sure why or how that happens. I don’t black out, per se, but I certainly don’t stay on this plane when I am working, that’s for sure.

What’s your trick for when you’re feeling stuck?

When I’m stuck, I talk to myself. I love talking to myself. It’s a trick my mom’s best friend taught me for other applications, but I can apply it to writing with a lot of success. Basically, I pretend I’m being interviewed about the piece at hand. As I ask myself probing questions about the work and have to work out my answers, I find my mental gears start turning and I can get back into the swing of penning the piece.

If that doesn’t work, I can always turn to reading. I read at least 50 books a year—I’m on my fiftieth now. I’ll read any number of novels, nonfic, memoir, essay collection, you name it, so I can always find some source of inspiration right beside me. The thing about reading broadly is it makes you want to write because you’re never in a rut with your reading and you’re always enchanted by the variety of tones you come across. 

List some of your notable influences, past and present: writers, books, works of art, types of candles, anything and anyone that has inspired you. Also: Best article you read recently?

So, I’ll just tell one of my favorite stories here. Back before—really, right before—I was doing this in a professional capacity, I read a piece by DJBooth Senior Writer and my assistant editor, Yoh. I read his piece on Faces by Mac Miller and our attraction to suicide and I watched the way Yoh made connections. I’d read him before, of course, but this piece I read very closely. I realized as I was reading that there was someone out there who thought as I did. Who understood music and emotions the way I did.

I wasn’t influenced exactly, but I was enthralled. I felt so close to Yoh’s words and his perspectives. I wanted very badly to firstly thank him and secondly to achieve this kind of impact on a reader. Three years later, and I call Yoh almost daily and people really feel something when I publish an essay. I say all of this to say, you never know where you’ll end up if you dive into something. Your influences have the capacity to become your peers.

This is also where I break and say I’ve immense privilege which has no doubt helped me in my career. I’d be remiss if I said hard work was the key to success, because we all know meritocracies are a lie. That said, there’s something magical when you just go head-first into a creative pursuit. If you have the means, I recommend following your dreams.

As for the best article I’ve read recently, I have to give it up to the Jeff Weiss piece on the Beats. It’s three years old and incredible.

Advice time: What’s a piece of wisdom that you wish you first heard when you were starting out?

I wish I had a good answer for this, but I’m full of bad work habits and overwork myself way too often to stand on circumstance and say I’ve learned something of substance from my time working. I will say, my failure to stop working has taught me the importance of not working. I have a wonderful girlfriend who always tells me to get comfortable being idle, to sit in that feeling, and to allow myself to appreciate my idle time.

I never listen to her, but I should. Everyone should. Being idle is fine. I’ll get there.

“Art”: What the heck is it?

Art is anything that elicits a palpable emotional response. Video games are art, books are art, Polaroids are art, art is art. Articles are art—it’s in the name! A music video is a piece of art. The list is very long. I just believe in the power of feeling and the transference of energies. I think the most offensive thing is not “bad” art, because you have a reaction, but rather, totally banal “art.” If you have no reaction to something, I deem it a failure on the artistic level. It just is, and that’s not enough.

BONUS: Cats or dogs?

Well, between my girlfriend and myself we have two cats, a parrot, and two rats. Zero dogs. So, definitely cats. I’d also like to add, her one cat wears a bow tie. So bonus points to all the bow tie-wearing cats out there.

Photo credit: Donna-Claire Chesman


This is one of two monthly interviews with writers talking about writing, from Brady Gerber’s “7 For Seven.” Sign up for the newsletter here.