Episode 88: How to be a Learning Superhero (and Navigate the Great MFA Debate)

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Podcast

Hey there Word Nerds!

This is our last solo show before the Storytelling Superpower Summit and online book launch celebration in June. How exciting is that?

To get things going, we just rolled out the Storytelling Superpower Quiz  to help you discover your unique abilities as a writer. In particular, we’re focusing on figuring out what type of character really drives you as a writer, because as we all know, characters are the heart of your story. If you know which type of character you’re great at writing, then you can play to your strengths and write that amazing story that you were meant to write.

But the fun doesn’t stop with the quiz. In June, we’ll be doing a series of podcasts that dig deeper into the storytelling superpower archetypes and help you put what you learned into action. We’re calling it the Storytelling Superpower Summit and our goal is to make it a massive multimedia extravaganza!

So get ready for some epic awesome because it’s coming! Woohoo!

OK, back to the episode.

Today I want to talk with you about learning, and why process is so much more important than the end result. This topic ties in nicely with the Great MFA Debate that is going on now, and that goes on every year. (Cue rolling of the eyes here.)

It seems like every spring, the internet gets all in a tizzy over the pros and cons of getting a traditional MFA. Recently an article appeared in the Atlantic where a couple of researchers used computer analysis of texts to come to the conclusion that there was no distinct difference between the writing of those with formal MFA training and those without. The internet–especially the die hard MFA fans–proceeded to lose its collective mind.

I wanted to share my thoughts on this debate for two reasons. First, while I usually don’t like to get anywhere near the MFA debate (mostly because I find it pretty ridiculous) as the founder of DIY MFA it kinda goes with my territory and at some point, like it or not, I have weigh in. Second, I think many people with a horse in this MFA-or-No-MFA race often miss the mark and end up arguing about things that don’t matter. The rants and raves we find online might be great for clickbait, but frankly, they’re not going to help YOU–a normal, sane writer–figure out whether you should (or should not) get an MFA.

People who get all worked up about whether or not an MFA is “valuable” often forget the most important part: the writers! In this episode, I want to break down the benefits and costs of getting a traditional MFA, so that you can figure out if it is actually right FOR YOU. And if you decide that the traditional MFA is not your thing, I’ll share an alternative approach that will help you learn just about any creative skill. Listen here:

The Great MFA Debate

Here’s a breakdown of the benefits and costs of the traditional MFA.

The Benefits

There are several good reasons to get an MFA. I myself have an MFA in Writing for Children. I loved the program and benefitted greatly from it. In fact, DIY MFA wouldn’t exist, if I hadn’t gotten a traditional MFA myself. Here are some of the benefits you can get from an MFA program.

  • Focus and Motivation
    • Committing to an MFA means you really don’t have any more excuses not to put in the time and get those words on the page.
    • Deadlines can be incredibly motivating, and the Thesis requirement forces you to get a manuscript done.
    • It can help you get the pieces in place so when you graduate you already have momentum going and can continue the work on your own.
  • Publishing and Networking
    • You have a built-in network of professors, alumni, and authors who give talks/readings. These are prime networking opportunities you might not have otherwise.
    • Some programs have big-name authors and publishing pros as professors. This is a chance to study “under the baton” of your literary heroes. How amazing is that?
    • Some programs (but not all) will build a publishing component into the curriculum, bringing in agents and editors to speak about the industry.
  • Craft and Community
    • An MFA makes you practice, and practicing your craft will help you improve as a writer, no question.
    • The workshop is a central component of most programs, so you can find a group of peers who may eventually become trusted readers and critique partners.

Caveat: beware the post-graduation slump. When you become too dependent of assignments and external motivators, you might find that you’re unable to write without those external motivations. Make sure you have an “exit plan” in place so that when you graduate you don’t hit that post-graduation slump where you finish the program and lose all writing momentum.

The Costs

  • Financial Costs
    • The most “affordable” programs can run about $20,000 per year, but most programs cost more than that!
    • While some MFA programs might offer funding for participants, most do not have total funding or do not fund all their students equally.
    • Funding also often comes with TA responsibilities. As someone who TA-ed for years as a psychology student, I can tell you it’s lot of hard work for not a lot of money.
  • Opportunity Costs
    • If the program has daytime classes, you may need to give up your job or scale back your hours.
    • Unless you happen to live somewhere with a great MFA program in your backyard, you’ll likely need to move in order to attend the program.
    • You might also have to commute or travel (like for a low-residency programs).
    • And even if location isn’t an issue, sacrificing time with family or loved ones can put pressure on those relationships.
    • While none of these are “deal-breakers” they are all aspects of the traditional MFA that people often forget to talk about.
  • The Genre Problem
    • If you write “genre fiction” (e.g. sci-fi, fantasy, or anything not considered “literary”), you will have a hard time finding an MFA program that specializes in what you want to write.
    • The same is true if you write children’s books or YA (young adult), although there are a few more Writing for Children MFA programs than there are programs for genre writers.
    • This means you may not even get into an MFA if you submit a genre or writing for children portfolio with your application.
    • And if you do get in, you may feel pressured to put aside the writing you really love while you’re at the program.
    • Or if you decide to keep writing what you love, you may end up feeling like an outsider in your own MFA program.

Is DIY MFA the “anti-MFA”?

I get asked this a lot, especially around this debate. And the answer is emphatically no.

As I said before, I have an MFA and I don’t regret my decision to get one. I also firmly believe that the MFA is exceptional at serving a specific group of writers very well. DIY MFA exists for is those who don’t fit into a traditional MFA mold. Whether it’s because you can’t afford to take time off from your job (or your life), or because you can’t get accepted into the program you wanted to join, DIY MFA is an alternative to the traditional route. DIY MFA exists for you.

What does it mean to be a DIYMFA Word Nerd?

If you’re part of this community, it means that you’re committed not just to becoming a better writer, but to becoming a better learner. Applying the DIYMFA concepts to your writing is awesome, but when you apply them to your LIFE, that’s solid gold.

“In a time of drastic change, the learners inherit the future.”
–Eric Hoffer

Right now, the publishing world is in a time of drastic change. We are in the thick of it, folks. Every creative niche is in a state of flux, as a matter of fact. This age of digital sharing via the internet has turned all creative industries on their head. Sure, we can focus on becoming better writers, or better at any other creative skill, but whatever we learn might become obsolete in the blink of an eye. If we focus on becoming better learners, we can adapt, roll with the punches, and embrace new ideas more quickly.

Can DIY MFA help you learn better? Funny you should ask. The answer: OF COURSE! You an apply the three pillars of DIY MFA to just about any creative skill and become a better learner in the process.

Write with Focus

This isn’t just about putting words on the page, this is about creative output. Writing with focus means creating a body of work and taking a project from beginning to end. It means building a foundation of creative practice into your life, so you can try different skills, master them, and then apply them to your creative body of work.

Creative output is a fine balance between motivation, creativity, and craft. You need to develop a creative habit or process, because without that momentum no amount of inspiration or skill will help you. Once that foundation is in place, you can develop skills to help you get creative on demand. (Believe it or not, creativity is a skill that can be learned, just like knitting or arithmetic.) Finally, you can improve your technique as a writer (or painter, or whatever other art-form you choose) by learning the elements of the craft, practicing them until you figure them out, and then applying them to your work in progress.

Whether you want to write a short story or a symphony, writing with focus–i.e. creative output–is the cornerstone. You can’t learn to write by reading about it in a book; at some point you have to put a pen to the page. The only way to learn a creative skill is to do it.

Read with Purpose

Reading is the literary equivalent of creative input. It means taking in new ideas and studying the masters who came before you. Just be strategic about the information you consume and make sure it’s a “balanced diet.” Focus on topics and niches that interest you, but also stretch your own limits and challenge yourself to read outside your comfort zone. And remember to dedicate some time to the classes, to the masters stood the test of time.

Whether your creative input involves reading, or visiting museums, or taking a walk and experiencing the creative mastery of Mother Nature, build time into your life to “fill the well.” When you find something that truly speaks to you, look closely at it. Think about how the piece was created, and why. Try to get inside the artist’s head and understand how she crafted it. Then–and only then–can you begin to explore how you can create something like that, too.

Build Your Community

Community is perhaps the most powerful of the three pillars. When you connect with others in your niche and exchange ideas, the impact of those ideas is multiplicative (if not exponential). When two people each have an idea and they exchange those ideas, then each person can come up with a totally different combination of those ideas. From two people you can get four or more ideas! Imagine how many you could get if you had a community of ten people. Or a hundred!

A few caveats about community:

  • Workshops: 
    I find that workshops, while they are useful, are not the most effective approach for teaching. This is because workshops are reactive, rather than proactive. Instead of giving a writer the chance to get things right before they receive critique, they correct mistakes after they have already happened. Critique and feedback is super-important, but they should come later in the process, after you’ve built up your skills and learned the basics of your craft. Join a workshop and get critique, but wait until you’re ready.
  • Creative Distraction:
    Writing friends rock! They are your birds of a feather and unlike “muggles” they understand what it’s like to be a writer. But be careful. Don’t spend so much time talking about writing that you forget to do the creative work in the first place. Remember: community is about exchanging ideas and creative work, You can’t do that if you haven’t spent time developing your own creative practice first.

Be a Learning Superhero!

The MFA debate is a perennial conversation, but I think it’s gotten a little ridiculous. Instead, I think we should all put aside our differences and just write! If an MFA is right for you, if it helps you to be the best writer you can be, that’s AWESOME. Go for it. Rock the MFA world and create something amazing. If you can’t or don’t want to get into an MFA program, fear not. There are alternatives (like DIY MFA) and you can find ways to recreate that experience without going to school.

Above all, let’s focus on learning. After all, that’s what will help us grow as writers, as creators, and as human beings.

Link to Episode 88

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Until next week, keep writing and keep being awesome.


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