Make Your Writing Education Smooth Sailing with DIY MFA 101

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Writing

That’s right, Team DIY MFA and I are on the brink of launching our newest, biggest program ever, called DIY MFA 101. I am so excited, I think I just might start squealing like a twelve-year-old girl. Part of my excitement is in seeing years of planning and mapping out ideas finally come together, but it goes deeper than that. This course gets at the heart of what I set out to do when DIY MFA first started tickling my brain back in 2010. But first, let’s take a little walk down memory lane, shall we?

Why I Started DIY MFA

In 2010, I was sitting at a graduation ceremony–mine–and I got this twisty feeling in the pit of my stomach. I was about to receive my Masters in Fine Arts for writing and yet I felt conflicted. On one hand, I was excited to reach this goal but at the same time it felt bittersweet. While I was happy for the years I’d been in school, I also I knew of many writers who did not have the opportunity or money to do an MFA, even though they wanted it as badly as I did.

Also, while I had learned a lot in my MFA studies, there was a certain anti-climactic feeling, a sense that I could have gotten more out of the experience, if only I had known the right steps to take. Or maybe–did I dare even think it?–maybe I could have gotten a similar experience without actually doing an MFA.

In that moment a seed was planted. I began to noodle with the idea for a do-it-yourself MFA and started sketching out a curriculum and mapping out ideas. Before I knew it, I had enough material written that I could blog about the subject every single day for over a month. When other writers started coming out of the woodwork and commenting on those posts, I realized that there might be something to this idea after all.

There are two core reasons why I created DIY MFA three years ago. First, while traditional MFA programs have their advantages, they are seriously lacking in a few key areas. The second reason is a secret that traditional MFA programs don’t want you to know. For years, MFA programs may have cornered the writing education market, but these days you don’t need an MFA to be a successful writer and most of what you learn in those programs you can actually teach yourself.

Traditional MFA programs can be great, but many lack key components.

Here’s the thing. I did the real deal and did a traditional MFA, which means I got an inside look at how MFA programs really work. What I discovered is that while the traditional MFA programs do serve a small niche of writers very well, they leave much to be desired for the vast majority. Writers hoping to focus on anything outside literary fiction, creative non-fiction or poetry will have a hard time finding an MFA program that will suit their needs.

Add to that an even bigger problem: many traditional MFA programs do little to educate their students on the business side of writing. Sure, some of these programs might include a token publishing lecture now and again, but that’s not nearly enough. The publishing industry is changing much faster than academia, and if academia doesn’t keep up the students will be the ones to suffer.

I say this because in my experience, it’s absolutely crucial for writers to understand the publishing industry and stay abreast of the rapid changes. Informed writers can make smarter career decisions, ones that will serve them for the long term. This is why, if a writing program doesn’t include a publishing or business component in its core curriculum, I strongly recommend students fill that gap elsewhere. Some options include attending conferences or taking an outside seminar. Unfortunately, this added expense can be a tall order for writers already with thousands of dollars of student debt.

Traditional MFA’s no longer have a monopoly on writing education.

This brings to my second point: you don’t need an MFA in order to become a better writer. In many cases you don’t even need an MFA in order to teach writing… even at the college level. An MFA won’t guarantee that you’ll get a publishing deal when you graduate. It won’t even guarantee that you’ll finish a full manuscript. Crazy, right? The even crazier thing is that a large part of what you learn in a traditional MFA program, you can actually teach yourself or substitute for a fraction of the cost, provided that you’re motivated enough to take the initiative and you know where to look.

Here’s an example. Before I enrolled for my MFA, I had already been working consistently with a writing group for over one year. Our band of misfits–nicknamed Quill & Coffee–met weekly. We knew each other’s work inside and out and we weren’t afraid to challenge each other and dole out the “tough love” when necessary. Sure, the workshop I had for three MFA semesters was solid and many of the writers were quite strong. But can I say that as a whole the MFA workshop greatly surpassed the critique group I had assembled for myself? Not really.

The take-home message here is that in large part, you can recreate most of the traditional MFA experience without going to school. Of course, for people who need external motivators (like course deadlines or curriculum requirements), a structured program like an MFA might be necessary. Most writers, though, are by nature self-motivated and driven. After all, why else would they expend the time and energy to write and polish a manuscript if they didn’t have that “fire in the belly” in the first place? This means that for a large number of writers, the benefits of a traditional MFA are moot. You can learn most of it on your own and fill any gaps by taking a course now and then or attending an occasional conference.

If a do-it-yourself MFA is such a no-brainer, why don’t more writers choose this route? The answer is simple: you already know why the do-it-yourself alternative is useful, you might even have an idea of what goes into a DIY MFA, but you need to figure out how to put these ideas into action. This is where DIY MFA 101 comes in.

DIY MFA 101 gives you structure, while fitting your unique writing needs.

From the first moment I started working up plans for DIY MFA 101, I knew that the key would be to create a structure to help writers assemble their own, personalized do-it-yourself MFA programs. This wouldn’t be a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all curriculum. On the contrary, DIY MFA 101 would be about giving writers the tools to create their own curriculum and forge their own path.

Instead of focusing on do’s and don’ts of writing or imposing a rigid set of requirements, I wanted to take a meta approach. DIY MFA 101 isn’t just about teaching you the “rules” of writing, reading and community. Rather, DIY MFA 101 provides to tools that writers need to become better learners so they can take the reins and continue growing on their own. I’m not going to hand you a fish. I’ll show you how to build a boat and make a net so you fish on your own.

I’ll be completely honest here, if you’re determined enough and you’re willing to spend lots quality time bonding with the Google machine, you can probably cobble together all the concepts for this course on your own. This isn’t rocket science or some huge state secret. All I did was take what I learned from inside an MFA program and created a series of tools to help writers do it themselves. In the end, there’s two ways you can solve any problem: you can use the “brute force” method and muscle your way to a solution, or you can take a “smooth sailing” approach and learn from watching others who charted a similar course ahead of you. DIY MFA 101 is the smooth sailing approach.

What is DIY MFA 101?

101-ProductPackageThis is simple: it’s an online course divided into six workshops delivered to your inbox over six months. Each workshop includes video lessons, audio interviews with two industry experts (12 expert interviews in total) and worksheets so you can implement what you learn. My team have also created an online community where you’ll be able to interact with other writers in the course and attend Q&A sessions with yours truly.

It took several years to build DIY MFA as a whole and to map out the different components of this specific course. I tested this material over and over, tweaking something here, adding another thing there until everything felt in balance. Building a course is a lot like revising a novel. You have to keep rewriting and iterating until each scene, each sentence, each word carries its weight. Likewise, I’ve honed this material so that each piece is essential, with no extraneous fluff or filler.

Assembling an team was another critical component in this process. Last week I introduced Team DIY MFA, the group of talented writers who have helped DIY MFA grow in ways I never before dreamed. Having this support network was a key piece in allowing me to create the course I had always envisioned when I first began toying with the idea for DIY MFA. Building DIY MFA 101 has been a labor of love for me and I am delighted that I can finally announce it to the world.

Registration is now officially open!

As of Tuesday, January 21st, we’ve opened registration, but the course will only be available for a limited time (through 1/31/2014) . Also, since this is the first time we’re offering DIY MFA 101, there will be a limited number of spots. Head on over to the registration page to grab your spot.

If you want more information about DIY MFA in general join for the DIY MFA email list. I’m so thrilled to announce the release of DIY MFA 101 and I’m delighted to be able to share it with you.

Keep writing and keep being awesome!

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