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MFA + DIY: An Entrepreneurial Take on the MFA Debate

[1]Please welcome Gabriela Pereira [2], author of DIY MFA: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, Build Your Community [3], to Writer Unboxed today! Gabriela is a writer, speaker, and entrepreneur who wants to challenge the status quo of higher education. As the founder of DIYMFA.com [4], her mission is to empower writers, artists and other creatives to take an entrepreneurial approach to their professional growth. Gabriela earned her MFA in creative writing from The New School and teaches at national conferences, regional workshops, and online. She is also the host of DIY MFA Radio, a popular podcast where she interviews bestselling authors and publishing industry experts.

Today, she revives the MFA debate here at WU. In her words:

For the past eight years, I’ve dedicated my life to studying how writing is taught and learned. While I do believe the traditional MFA or typical workshop model we find at most writing schools can work for some writers, these pedagogical approaches are not universally effective. I believe that when writers take an entrepreneurial approach to their professional growth and education, they set themselves up for learning that gets results and helps them reach their goals.

You can learn more about Gabriela and DIY MFA on her website, and by following her on Facebook [5] and Twitter [6].

MFA + DIY: An Entrepreneurial Take on the MFA Debate

It’s back-to-school season, and like every year, thousands of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed writers are flocking to academic campuses around the world, searching for that golden ticket that will turn them into authors. This ticket, of course, is the Master of Fine Arts (or MFA) and it is perhaps the most over-priced and un-useful degree in all of academia. I should know: I have one.

When I graduated with my MFA, I didn’t feel as though I learned anything in that academic environment that I wouldn’t have been able to learn in another context. My concerns with the traditional MFA are not just ideological or economic, but also pedagogical. There’s a lot of debate around the advantages and disadvantages of the MFA, but rarely does anyone talk about curriculum.

Over the past eight years that I’ve spent developing writing curricula, I’ve discovered a linchpin, a core factor that can make (or break) a writer’s ability to learn and improve her craft. This is the entrepreneurial mindset, and it means adopting processes and systems from fields outside of writing (like tech startups) and using them to improve your craft. To learn more about how to take an entrepreneurial approach to your writing, you can download a free DIY MFA Starter Kit [7], but here are three techniques you can apply to your writing right away.

1. Use Iteration to Improve Your Writing Process. Most MFA programs focus on the workshop model: You write something, get feedback from your peers and an instructor, and then you fix it. The problem with this approach is that it assumes you have no problem getting words on the page. The workshop model might help you improve the words once you’ve written them, but it does nothing to help you with the first draft (other than that terror of missing a deadline).

This is where an iterative approach can help writers become more productive. Just as tech startups might beta-test a piece of software, then adjust it as they get feedback from users, so too can writers test and improve their writing process. Next time you sit down to write, treat it as a mini-experiment. Keep track of how long you write, and how many words you produce. Many writers already track their word counts, especially if they are participating in NaNoWriMo or working toward a deadline.

Instead of just logging your output, make note of other environmental variables as well. Were you writing at home at your desk or on-the-go? Was it in the morning, afternoon, or late at night? Was the environment quiet or noisy? As with any experiment, you will want to adjust one input variable at a time, so you’ll know which part of your process is having what effect on your output, and you will need to collect enough data so you can see a pattern emerge. I find that testing one input variable over 10-15 writing sessions is usually enough.

If you’re serious about making a career from your writing, you need to work on both the quality of what you write, and the quality of your writing process, so you can produce those words faster and more efficiently over time.

2. Read in a Way that Fuels Your Writing. Authors and writing instructors often say that to write well you must also read. But how do you do that without taking time away from your writing? This is where reading with purpose comes in. While I think there’s a time and place for reading for pleasure (it’s called vacation), I am also a pragmatist and firmly believe that you must read in a way that fuels your writing. This begins by choosing the right books.

There are four types of books you must read regularly: competitive books (i.e. comps), contextual books, contemporary books, and the classics. I recommend reading a minimum of three or four books in each category per year.

Competitive and contextual books relate directly to your own work-in-progress (WIP). The competitive books are ones that most directly “compete” with your current project. Knowing these comps is important both as you write your book and when you pitch agents or build your platform later on. Contextual books include anything that informs or lends context to your project. These could be books you read for research, but they could also be books with similar themes to your own.

Aside from reading books that are relevant to your current project, I also think it’s important to read a few recent releases and some classics. For these two categories, I recommend focusing on books in the genre of your WIP, so that you still build your reading around your current project. Keep in mind also that “classic” doesn’t necessarily mean “old,” and you can view a relatively recent book as a classic if it has shed new light on that genre.

3. Build Your Community and Assemble Your Circle of Trust. If you take an entrepreneurial or DIY approach you can assemble a circle of trust for yourself. Your support network needs to provide four things, and rarely will you find all of these in one person. The four components of a writer’s circle of trust are critique, accountability, support, and advice.

Critique is what people think of when they talk about having a network for their writing careers, but the other facets are equally important. Of course, your critique partners may also provide accountability and support, but that may not be true for all writers. Often your circle of trust may have many people filling different roles.

That iterative approach that you can use in your writing also applies to the reading and community pieces. Every few months step back and look at your reading and community. Ask yourself three important questions:

The beauty of a writer’s education is that it never comes to a close. We can keep learning and improving until our very last breath. As Eric Hoffer once said: “In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.”

What steps have you taken to improve your process and your craft? If you’ve taken a single step toward your own personal MFA, what is it? We’d love to hear from you in comments.