How to DIY Your MFA

Gabriela_PereiraThis is a guest post by Gabriela Pereira—author, speaker, and self-proclaimed word nerd—whose new book DIY MFA: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, Build Your Community shows you how to recreate the Master of Fine Arts experience without going back to school. As the founder and instigator of DIYMFA.com, Gabriela’s mission is to empower writers to take an entrepreneurial approach to their education and professional growth. She earned her MFA in creative writing from The New School and teaches at national conferences, local workshops, and online. She also hosts the podcast DIY MFA Radio, where she interviews best-selling authors and book industry insiders about the art and business of writing.

Today she shares the secret formula for how you can create your very own do-it-yourself MFA.


DIY MFA by Gabriela PereiraIn 2008, I enrolled in an MFA program (Master of Fine Arts) at The New School in New York City. Little did I know I was about to stumble upon a concept that would change my entire outlook on writing and on life.

While I enjoyed my years in graduate school and would not trade them for anything, I recognize that this experience was also a privilege. I had the financial freedom to go back to school without incurring a ridiculous amount of debt. I was at a stage in life where I could take two years off from work and immerse myself in a graduate program. Not all writers have that flexibility. In fact, if given that same opportunity today, my choice would be entirely different.

I still remember the exact moment when then idea for DIY MFA came to me. I was sitting in a hot, un-air-conditioned church for our graduation ceremony. I was giddy and half expected the skies to part, for angel choirs to sing and a beam of light to stream down and anoint me “writer.”

I also felt a pang sadness because I was sorry to see this MFA experience end, and a twinge of frustration because I realized that most of what I learned in school I could have taught myself. That’s when it hit me. Why not create a do-it-yourself version of the MFA for all those writers who couldn’t go back to school?

Thus, DIY MFA was born.

WHY DO IT YOURSELF?
MFA fans insist that if you are serious about your writing, you will do whatever it takes to go to graduate school. Whatever the cost, whatever the sacrifice, you make it happen because you’re a serious writer and you’re willing to put it all on the line for your work.

This is utter baloney.

The unfortunate reality is that there are many writers who truly want to do a traditional MFA, but they can’t do it. You might be one of these. Maybe you gave up your MFA dreams because of a busy day-job or your family responsibilities. Or maybe you live three hours from the nearest graduate school and your commute would be unreasonable. Or maybe you’d have to take on a mountain of debt in order to pay the tuition. These reasons don’t mean you’re not serious. They mean you have common sense.

Over the years, I’ve noticed an even bigger problem with the traditional MFA. By isolating writers in the shelter of academia, many MFA programs train writers to write–and often, to write well–as long as the circumstances are “perfect.” But life is far from perfect and most writers are best served by learning how to fit their writing around their crazy lives and day jobs.

DIY MFA empowers writers reclaim their education and create a writing life unique to their goals, but that also fits within the constraints of their real life. From its inception, my goal has been to represent all those writers who have been shut out of the traditional MFA and offer a do-it-yourself alternative to the traditional graduate degree. DIY MFA is not about putting your responsibilities on hold in order to write, it’s about building a life where you can both write and live.

HOW DOES DIY MFA WORK?

The curriculum for DIY MFA is based both on what I observed while in the traditional MFA program, and research I did comparing top MFA programs across the USA. While each graduate program is unique, there are certain common threads that come up again and again. The writing workshop, for instance, is the cornerstone of almost every writing program. Many schools also place strong emphasis on studying literature and attending author readings or similar events.

There are also some pieces of the writing and publishing puzzle that seem underrepresented. For instance, few MFA programs emphasize the importance of students joining literary associations, attending conferences, or understanding the publishing process. In the five years I spent honing the DIY MFA curriculum, my goal has been two-fold: to incorporate the strengths of traditional MFAs and also include pieces that many are missing.

The typical MFA boils down to one simple formula:

MFA = Writing + Reading + Community

DIY MFA recreates that formula, with a twist:

DIY MFA = Write with Focus + Read with Purpose + Build Your Community

Traditional MFA programs bake writing, reading and community right into the required coursework. But with a little ingenuity you can easily find ways to recreate this experience outside academia. Here’s how.

Write with Focus

When you write with focus, you learn how to make writing a priority while still fitting it into your existing life. This means boosting your creativity through prompts and learning to generate ideas on demand. You also need to hone your craft and master writing techniques. There is always something new to try and you must continue to challenge yourself.

Most important, you need to learn how to motivate yourself and finish that project you’ve always wanted to write. Writing with focus is not about drafting stories aimlessly or getting caught in the “perpetual first-draft cycle,” where you start countless new projects but never finish anything. Most MFA programs require a thesis for a reason: learning how to finish is as valuable (or more) than learning how to start.

Read with Purpose

If you’re anything like me, you probably have more books on our TBR (to be read) pile than you will ever read in a lifetime. If you’re going the most of your reading time, you need a plan and it’s called reading with purpose. When you take a literature course, the professor tells you what to read and gives you assignments to help you better understand that literature. In DIY MFA you learn to do that for yourself.

This means you build your own reading list, based on the topics and genres you care about. You also develop techniques to help you read like a writer. Reading for pleasure is great, but if you want to grow as a writer, you need to read like a writer.

Build Your Community

These days, it’s not enough to write a book, send a query, and hope for the best. Maybe you’re hoping to publish your novel, or you want to see your story grace the pages of a literary magazine. Maybe you plan to self-publish your work. Whatever the goal, you need to build a community of readers. You need to find your audience.

You also have to find a group of trusted writers who will give you feedback and challenge you to do your best work. Whether you find these fellow writers through a workshop, writing conferences, or online, you need to build a network that specific to your writing goals.

Finally, you also need to understand the business side of writing. If your plan is to pursue a traditional book deal, you must understand the rules of the game so you ask good questions and make smart choices. If you plan to self-publish, you need to learn the necessary steps for publishing your book and getting it in the hands of your readers.

In the end, it’s all about understanding strategy. You can figure out most of those publishing and promotion nuts-and-bolts by doing a Google search or watching a YouTube video. You can also delegate some nitty-gritty tasks, like copyediting your manuscript building your website. But what you can’t delegate is the strategy behind everything. When you build your community the DIY MFA way, you learn how to develop a business strategy unique to your writing and publishing goals.

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