Writer Fuel: Jump First, Build After

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Writing

DIY MFA has reached a major milestone this year. That’s right — 2020 marks ten years since I started this project! To celebrate this 10th anniversary, I’ll be doing a series on the ten lessons I’ve learned in ten years of DIY MFA.

These essays will appear first in our newsletter Writer Fuel, so if you’d like to read them before they hit the website, sign up here with your email. As a bonus, you’ll also get a free starter kit! Now, without further ado, here’s lesson #1. 

Jump First, Build After

Many writers ascribe to the Field of Dreams myth that “if you build it, they will come.” There’s this notion that all a writer needs is a sparkly idea and the motivation to write it into a book. Then, poof! Hoards of fans will come running. The problem with this myth—aside from it being utterly ridiculous—is that it plays to one of a writer’s biggest vulnerabilities: the desire to make things.

If you’re reading this newsletter, you probably have a maker streak in you. Maybe you’re not yet ready to call yourself “Writer” or “Artist” or some other fancy-pants title, but deep down you have a creative impulse, a desire to make things, to turn the ideas in your brain into concrete objects out in the world. If you’re anything like me, you look at the world around you and see not just what’s there, but also what’s missing. And when you notice those gaping holes you can’t help but build something awesome to fix it.

But this Field of Dreams myth is dangerous because it makes us believe that the result lies in building things, and we forget that essential first step: making sure we build the right things. Does it sound like I’m intimately familiar with this scenario? That’s because until a few years ago I ascribed to this myth myself.

Back in the day (and let’s face it—sometimes even now) when left to my own devices, all I wanted was to hide away in DIY MFA headquarters, building cool stuff for my word nerds. In fact, that’s pretty much all I did in the early stages of DIY MFA, which is partially why our early growth moved at such a glacial pace. You see, when you spent most of your time in “build mode,” you overlook other important aspects of a creative career, things like “systems mode” or “revenue mode.”  If all you do is build, but you never find out if there’s a market for what you create, then you could wind up making a whole bunch of things that nobody wants. Kevin Costner was lucky in Field of Dreams; he built something that those baseball playing ghosts actually wanted. Can you imagine if he had built a hockey rink instead?

One of the most important—but also terrifying—lessons I learned in building DIY MFA is you have to jump first and build your parachute after. In the words of Ray Bradbury, you have to “jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.”

How this translates to a creative career is that first you have to get your audience—your readers—on board with a particular project or idea, then you actually build it. It took me three full years of tinkering, brainstorming, building stuff no one wanted (i.e. pushing the DIY MFA boulder up the metaphorical hill) until this lesson first sank in.

The first time I jumped and built later was in the fall of 2013 when I launched a speaker series. Up until this point I had never offered any paid programs. That’s right, DIY MFA existed for a full 3 years before we offered anything for sale. (Definitely not the smartest way to build a business.) I certainly made my fair share of mistakes when I rolled out that first paid program, but I also got a lot of things right, and more importantly, I learned a lot about myself and my word nerds in the process.

But, what if I fail?

As writers, we’re really good at asking “what if” when it comes to our stories, but not so much with respect to our careers. Part of this has to do with being protective of our ideas. If we tell people what we’re working on, they’ll know if we fail. Or worse yet, they may take our precious nugget of an idea and run with it. Both of these fears can feel insurmountable, but if we look closely, we’ll see that there’s not much to them.

The truth is that failure is inevitable. If you want to build a creative career, you must embrace the idea that at some point you will fail at something and that failure will be epic, potentially embarrassing, and also glorious. What matters isn’t whether or not you fail, but what you do after that failure.

In the words of Randy Nelson, former dean of Pixar University: “The core skill of innovators is not failure avoidance, but error recovery.” When I consider possible collaborators or members for my team, I’m far more interested in seeing how they rebound after an error than if they never make mistakes in the first place.

What if someone steals my idea?

The other fear—that someone might take your idea and run with it—stems from a misplaced understanding of originality. The truth is, there are very few truly new and “outside the box” ideas or innovations and originality is more about the execution of a concept than it is the concept itself.

Consider Disneyland. When Walt Disney first came up with the idea for the “happiest place on earth” it seemed like something out of a storybook. Yet his concept for that park built on other ideas that already existed, like amusement parks or state and county fairs. What Disneyland did was elevate those ideas and execute them in a vastly different way, a way that would redefine the entire industry.

The same is true of Cirque du Soleil, which reinvented the concept of a circus from sawdust-covered floors and bleacher seats and turned it into a high-end artistic theater experience. Similarly, the iPod, which replaced the walkman of the 1980’s (or the discman of the 1990’s) offered a smaller alternative, one that allowed you to have more songs at your fingertips, in a smaller device, and with better audio quality.

The point is, very few ideas are completely original. Most innovations build on something that has come before. That means that if someone were to take your idea and run with it, they would never be able to execute it in the same way as you. If you focus on making the way you execute your ideas unique—this means honing your voice, crafting imaginative characters, etc.—then it will be very hard for someone to steal your idea.

You don’t have to get fancy about how you ask.

When it comes to taking a creative leap, it’s easy to get caught up in the logistics. And if—heaven forbid!—we need to reach out and talk to our audience before we can make the jump, that can stop us dead in our tracks. Instead of keeping things low-key and relaxed, we tie ourselves up in knots creating fancy surveys or trying to get all scientific in how we get our readers’ opinions.

Want to know how DIY MFA first started? With a simple “what if” I posted on my teeny-tiny personal blog at the time. I wrote a post and asked my 12 readers (and yes, one of them was my mom) “What if there was a do-it-yourself version of an MFA? Would you be interested?” It was that simple and that un-fancy.

And don’t think that just because DIY MFA has gotten bigger and we now have a full-on team that we’ve upgraded this process. Just last week, my team and I were discussing a possible new offering for DIY MFA and after crunching the numbers I realized that it would only make sense for us to develop this concept if we knew we had some interest.

So what did I do? In a call for our HUB membership I shared the idea with them. I asked “What if we created this thing? Would you be interested?” And just by asking that question, my team and I knew that it made sense to move forward with the concept.

“Good enough” is better than perfect.

Another thing that often prevents us from taking a creative leap, even with positive feedback, is that we want our work to be absolutely perfect before we let it out into the world. I definitely understand this sentiment, in fact my perfectionism has often kept me stuck in the land of tweaking and tinkering far longer than necessary.

At some point, we need to recognize that “good enough” is in fact good enough. Sure, when it comes to a big project that has a longer shelf-life (like, say, writing and publishing a book) we might set a higher bar for “good enough.” We also bring in other collaborators, like an editor, who can help us elevate that level of “good enough.”

For something like a blog or social media post, you might be a little more lax with what constitutes “good enough.” When it comes to articles I write for DIY MFA or essays for the newsletter, I’ll proofread it at least once and get one other set of eyes on it before we hit publish. Does that mean that it’s absolutely perfect? Of course not. Occasionally a spelling mistake or grammatical error will sneak through. 

But at the end of the day, I would rather my team and I focus our time and energy on building more awesome stuff for our word nerds than scouring each and every post on the off-chance there might be a stray mistake. When we give ourselves permission to be “good enough” instead of perfect, we free ourselves up to do more creative work. 

Reward your early adopters.

This was a decision I made very early in the development of DIY MFA: no matter what, I would reward my early adopters. This means that we never discount our prices and that tuition rates only go up, never down. It also means that when we make improvements to our programs, those early students receive the upgrade automatically.

This idea of rewarding early adopters ties closely to the notion of “good enough.” At first, I was terrified of producing work that was only good enough because I thought I wouldn’t be doing right by my word nerds. But once I decided that I would grant access to any improved versions of our programs to our previous students, that relieved a lot of the pressure.

Now those early students weren’t just students, they were like co-creators, beta-testers who would help me make DIY MFA even better. And as a reward for taking a chance on me and on DIY MFA they got the most affordable tuition rates and any upgrades that came later. Rewarding our early adopters in this way allows us to produce—and release—“good enough” early versions of new DIY MFA projects without feeling like we are sacrificing quality or under-serving those first students. If anything, they get the best deals and the biggest perks because they took that leap together with us.

In a few weeks, I’ll be back to share lesson #2. In the meantime, let’s take a look at a few ways to start implementing this lesson in our writing lives.

Put It Into Action:

  1. What idea or project do you have percolating that could use some audience feedback? Ask “what if?” and listen to the answers.
  2. What ground rules can you set for yourself with respect to “good enough”? Different projects might require different levels of scrutiny. Practice releasing your work into the world once it reaches that “good enough” level instead of tinkering with it until it’s perfect.
  3. Who are the early supporters of your creative work? How can you make them feel special and reward them for taking a chance on you? How can you shower them with love?

Gabriela Pereira is an author, speaker, and entrepreneur who wants to challenge the status quo of higher education. As the founder and instigator of DIYMFA.com, her mission is to empower writers, artists and other creatives to take an entrepreneurial approach to their education and professional growth.

Gabriela earned her MFA in writing from The New School and speaks at college campuses and national conferences. She is also the host of DIY MFA Radio, a popular podcast where she interviews bestselling authors and book industry professionals and author of the book DIY MFA: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, Build Your Community.

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