The MFA degree, or Master of Fine Arts degree, in creative writing can be a hot commodity. Those three letters after an author’s name can open doors to publishing and teaching opportunities. But what if a writer lacks the time and the thousands of tuition dollars to enroll in such a program or simply prefers to design a self-paced course of study without the pressure of working toward an official academic degree?
Enter DIY MFA. In 2010, New York author Gabriela Pereira founded what she describes as less of a program and more of a virtual experience to assist writers in achieving their literary goals. Many participants show up mid-career, she says; others are retired and eager to write the novel they’ve been dreaming about for years.
“We’ve designed everything to be very compressed and efficient, so they have the continued support if they want it, but we also acknowledge that their lives are busy and that the experience we’re providing needs to work around their schedule,” Pereira explains.
She describes DIY MFA – accessible via a cheerful, user-friendly website at DIYMFA.com – as a totally unconventional experience with numerous opportunities for learning and experimentation. “I can’t tell you how many program participants came to us afterward and said, ‘I never thought I’d write x. And now I’m working on a whole novel.’ It’s delightful.”
How it works
The pie graph that guides DIY MFA suggests that most participants will want to spend half of their allotted creative time writing, a quarter reading for pleasure, and a quarter in building community. This balance may change, Pereira says, if a participant is gearing up to attend a multiday writers’ conference or launching a new book out into the world.
You can participate in DIY MFA in numerous ways. Simply visit the free “Writer Igniter” feature on the website to receive a randomly generated prompt, including character, situation, prop, and setting details. Listen to podcast episodes from DIY MFA Radio, including interviews with Emma Straub (“Writing the Multiple Point of View Novel,” July 13, 2016), Ashanti Anderson (“How Poetry Communicates a Deeper Truth,” Jan. 5, 2022), and Sue Campbell (“Marketing Mindset Shifts for Writers,” Jan. 26, 2022).
You’ll also be invited to play a new program titled ScribLandia, which Pereira describes as “role-playing meets workshopping meets writing practice.” Writers choose a story track, then create a character who gathers with other participants’ imagined characters in a virtual space such as an oceanside resort and spa. “They receive emails and voicemails from hotel staff, and there are activities like a gala and plot twists like ‘Oh look, there’s a dead body in the library,’” she says. “We create opportunities for the stories to evolve. But at the end of the day, it’s up to the writers to kind of take the story where they want to go.”
When writers join the foundational course (DIY MFA 101), they have the opportunity to meet with fellow students and DIY MFA staff throughout the term, and they’re invited to weekly write-ins. “If you’re a particularly engaged participant, you might decide to continue on with one of our advanced programs,” Pereira says. “You may also want to join the DIY MFA membership community, the HUB, which features many resources as well as two weekly calls led by me or another member of the team.”
What you’ll learn
Pereira explains that, ultimately, DIY MFA helps participants to build a practice around their writing. “Each student’s practice is going to be different because their life is different, and their experiences are different, and their constraints around their writing are going to be different,” she explains.
Writers can take DIY MFA 101 in the spring or fall of each year, and every summer, they can enroll in “Pixels to Platform,” which teaches students how to build their author brand and build an audience for their books while learning to streamline marketing efforts in order to focus first and foremost on their creative writing.
Similar to MFA instructors at formal institutions, Pereira and staff share resources and professional contacts with their students. “When a student comes to me and says, ‘Hey, I’m at this point, and I need help,’ I find them someone who can assist,” she explains. “I had a student the other day who had a question about copyright, and they needed to find a lawyer who was good at that. And so I connected them to the lawyer who handles the trademark and copyright details for DIY MFA,” Pereira says. “I wouldn’t be where I am if I hadn’t had people open doors for me. So why would I slam doors in the faces of my own students?”
She never charges people to take the same course twice. “They can take our courses over and over if they want to,” she explains. “We want to encourage people to stick around for as long as they need the resources.”
Some DIY MFA participants have gone on to publish books with major publishers. Others opt to publish independently. Pereira recalls one participant who didn’t have time to write during a course he took with her, but then published an essay in his alumni magazine about how playing in the college jazz band impacted his life.
“He wrote this beautiful essay for his alma mater, and I was absolutely thrilled,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what the success is; what’s meaningful is the fact that the writer achieved their goal.”
Melissa Hart is the author, most recently, of the novel Daisy Woodworm Changes the World (Jolly Fish, 2022). Twitter/Instagram: @WildMelissaHart.