Writers in search of a Master of Fine Arts program have innumerable opportunities to consider. There are programs of all types available: some general, some geared toward writers interested in a specific discipline; some require a full-time commitment, while others can be completed at home.
But what about those writers who can’t – or don’t want to – manage all of the hurdles attached to committing to an MFA?
Enter the DIY MFA, a wholly self-guided, online, do-it-yourself writing program that offers many of the lessons and benefits of the traditional MFA – minus all of the hassle.
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DIY MFA was created by Gabriela Pereira, a graduate of a standard MFA program. The idea actually came to her at her graduation ceremony.
“I went to an MFA program because I felt like I needed some sort of stamp of approval that would help me feel like a writer,” Pereira says.
“I expected that on graduation day a beam of light would come through the stained glass window of the church we were in and angel choirs would sing and someone would whisper, ‘You are now a writer.’ Of course, that didn’t happen. Instead, what did happen was I got this idea while I was sitting there. I started thinking that I had this great experience, and it was very valuable, but what about all the other writers who can’t take two years off to go back to school or can’t afford to take out loans or would take out loans but wouldn’t be able to pay them back?”
Pereira began researching and floated some of her developing ideas on a personal blog where, she says, she had “about 12 followers, including my mother.” When she checked in the next day, “There were all these emails: ‘I wish there had been something like this when I started out writing.’”
Pereira blogged her ideas daily for a month; before long, her audience had grown to 400.
“I realized that this idea is here to stay,” she says. “Now what do I do with it?”
She then began to build DIY MFA (DIYMFA.com), which today encompasses an online course, a book (also titled DIY MFA), a podcast (with more than 140 episodes, available on iTunes), a newsletter, and a blog.
The site hosts regular columnists, who write on topics such as “Five Ways to Manage Multiple Creative Passions” and “Why Kid Lit Matters.” Those who sign up for the newsletter can download a “Starter Kit” that includes various resources for writers.
“I have an MFA myself and firmly believe that the MFA is incredibly good at serving a very specific and very narrow population of writers,” says Pereira, who is based in New York City.
“For that population, it’s phenomenal. For everybody else, it’s not the best choice. What DIY MFA tries to do is provide an option for the ‘everybody else,’ which is a big chunk of people.”
It should be clarified that DIY MFA is not the equivalent of a traditional university MFA program. Nor is it intended to be.
“It’s more of a school of thought,” says Pereira. “The more I’ve built DIY MFA, the more it has become a teaching philosophy, kind of akin to the Suzuki method for violin or the Montessori method for early education. The DIY MFA mindset is all about three pillars: Writing with Focus, Reading with Purpose, and Building Your Community. It’s all about testing different approaches to writing and reading, and then adapting them to what works best for you as a writer. There’s a lot of writing advice on the internet, but not a whole lot of it is going to apply to one specific writer. So it’s on you, as the writer, to figure out what writing advice actually works for you.”
DIY MFA “is all about doing it yourself, so it is not for people who need hand-holding,” she says.
“With that, I am very clear from the get-go. It’s not a workshop where people come in and a professor reads a page of their book and they revise it. My approach is that we should proactively learn the fundamentals first – not the rules, but the basics, and then do the experimenting and the workshopping or whatever; you can find your own workshop. It really is about people taking that initiative and forging their own path. If we did it for them, they wouldn’t learn the skills they need to be able to do it on their own once they complete the class.”
Those who become involved with DIY MFA do so at their own pace, on their own time. “The level of engagement varies,” Pereira says.
“If someone wants to get a sense of what DIY MFA is all about, the first step is to visit the website and sign up for the Starter Kit and our email updates, our newsletter.”
Once completing the program, says Pereira, “they will be a stronger writer and they will know a lot more about the craft of writing. They’ll have a lot more understanding of how to read like a writer. They’ll have a better sense of how to build a community for themselves as a writer. But if we go in on a deeper level, what they get is the confidence of trusting themselves and not needing that external stamp of approval. The goal of DIY MFA is to help writers realize that they’re already writers. They just need to own it. What I hear over and over from people is that it’s not just about learning how to write better; it’s learning life skills and building that confidence and resilience as a person. The writing is just an extension of that.”
Jeff Tamarkin is a freelance writer/editor. He lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, with his wife, novelist Caroline Leavitt.
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