Trust Your Gut: My DIY MFA Story

by Leanne Sowul
published in Community

Seven summers ago, I walked into a small conference room at the Writer’s Digest Conference, wondering what I was doing there. The topic was YA literature, and while I was interested in YA, the novel I was working on was for adults. I think it’s safe to say that if there had been anything more applicable to my novel during that time block, I wouldn’t have walked into that room. But maybe the conference designers knew something I didn’t. Because that was the first time I met Gabriela Pereira, and the first time I heard about DIY MFA. I trusted my gut and wanted to introduce myself, but I didn’t right away.

The Beginning Was a Struggle

Back then, I was struggling to make it as a writer. I’d gotten exactly one short story published, and was among the throngs at the conference desperate to pitch to a literary agent. I had been working hard, but it felt like I was never going to get where I wanted to go. That was the mental place I was in when Gabriela started to speak. And somehow, even though it wasn’t even about my project, she said exactly what I needed to hear. She showed me that there was a path— a path that others had taken before me, a path that could illuminate my next steps. She showed me that it was normal to feel discouraged, but that there were places to draw courage from. She inspired me so much that when I left that room, clutching my worksheet with the DIY MFA logo on it, my gut instinct was screaming at me: “This is important. I want more of this.”

I immediately bookmarked the DIY MFA website. Then I thought up a question from the conference presentation to email Gabriela, solely for the purpose of establishing contact. I started reading the blog regularly. When Bess, then-editor of the site, published a post requesting submissions for their “5 on Friday” series, I jumped at the chance to write for DIY MFA. After a few of my posts were accepted, Bess and Gabriela invited me to join the team as a columnist. At subsequent Writer’s Digest Conferences, I wasn’t just an audience member. I went to DIY MFA gatherings, had dinner with the team, and once even recorded a podcast episode. 

DIY MFA Helped Me Build Community

This sort of inclusivity affected me deeply. I began to call myself a writer. I felt braver about reaching out to agents and publishers, and my writing resume grew. Gabriela showed me a path, and she showed me that I wasn’t alone, and that was all I needed to get where I am today. A place that I’m proud of. 

You may wonder why I’m telling this story, after nearly six years of writing the “Be Well, Write Well” column for DIY MFA. Sadly, this is to be my last column. Just as I felt compelled back then to reach out, I feel compelled now to move on. But I couldn’t leave without expressing my gratitude to Gabriela and DIY MFA, or imparting a few last pieces of wisdom. 

Be Well and Write Well

So, for the last time, here’s how to Be Well and Write Well: 

Keep your eyes open. Try new things. When in-person conferences happen again, go to them, and meet people. Listen to a new podcast; follow a new writer; reach out to an author on Twitter. Trust your gut. If your gut tells you that someone inspires you, stick with that person. If your gut tells you, “This is important. I want more of this,” go out and get more of it. Deepen your relationship until you’re a part of the conversation too. 

As you grow, inspire others with what you’ve learned. Be kind to those who come to you for help. Mentor whomever you can. Instruct with empathy and encouragement. Teach from the heart. 

When your writing life stagnates again— as it will, because it does for everyone— repeat the cycle. Keep your eyes open. Trust your gut. Deepen your relationships. Help others. Repeat, repeat, repeat. It all pays off, even when you can’t see it yet. It all leads somewhere, even when the path isn’t fully illuminated from the start. 

DIY MFA readers, team members and friends— thank you for allowing me a voice in this incredible community. I value each and every one of you, and I will carry all of your voices with me as I move forward. 

And Gabriela— thank you for being the first writer to show me the path. 

Leanne Sowul is an award-winning writer and music teacher whose work has appeared in such places as JuxtaProse Magazine, Barnstorm Journal, Rappahannock Review, Hippocampus, and Mothers Always Write; her live readings include Read 650’s “Gratitude” show at Lincoln Center. As an elementary band director, Leanne can play every woodwind, brass and percussion instrument (just don’t give her a cello!) and has directed over two hundred student performances. She also coaches adults in the art of creative practice through her newsletter, The Joyful Creative. In 2017, Leanne won both the Scott Meyer Award for personal essay and the All-American Dream Champion Award for music teaching. Leanne lives with her husband and two children in the Hudson Valley. Connect with her at or on Twitter and Instagram @sowulwords. 

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