Book Review: DIY MFA

There must be something unique about a person who holds a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in writing who develops a writing program called the Do-It-Yourself MFA. Gabriela Pereira identifies herself not only as a writer and teacher, but as a word nerd whose goal is not to take over the world with prose (well, maybe a little) but to challenge the expectation that only those with a graduate degree and years of classroom-guided processes can be successful and published authors. After a number of years in development, Pereira has put her proven techniques into an easy-to-follow formula. Broken into 27 manageable chunks, she takes the reader from initial organization to publication preparation.The aforementioned conception of the MFA is described by bestselling author Jacqueline Mitchard:

The importance of the MFA was just coming to the fore, and “the equivalent” in published works didn’t have quite the same impact in the academic world. I had long wanted to teach at the college level, to help others learn some of what I had learned (mostly on my own, it must be said), but then, quite suddenly, I also needed a regular, reliable job … At the time, I didn’t think there was another way … (p. 1)

Mitchard continues by reminding the reader that while many published writers get there through submission of a graduate school thesis, an equal number of others do not.It is here that Pereira’s DIY MFA takes over.The first three chapters, posted under the ‘Orientation’ heading, provide the readers with a concise overview of what to expect. To be clear, the focus of the text is not on writing and technique only: it is designed to help writers establish techniques that intersect with other areas of their lives as well: it is vital to remember that a writer is also a reader and a learner. Having organization in the other aspects of life can help the writer add structure to the process.Fourteen chapters are devoted to focused writing. Readers may be surprised to note that Pereira begins with exercises related to failure in a section she titles ‘Fail Better’, where FAIL is Face Your Fears, Assemble Your Allies, Initiate and Iterate, and Let It Go. As she states in the introduction to the chapter on failure, there is a focus in society on the notion of instant success, which often undermines the writing experience. For every successful novel, there are many rejected iterations; Pereira reminds her readers that they are not failures but that something about the process failed:

Remember that mistakes and failure are part of the iterative process, and while they are inevitable, you cannot take setbacks personally. When something goes wrong, don’t say, “I failed.” Say, “This failed,” and then try something else …We writers are perfectionists, and we often make our failures worse by agonizing over them. We pick apart rejection letters looking for hidden clues … Just like compounding failure with guilt, when we agonize over our mistakes, we make an already-painful experience worse … (pp. 39-40)

Pereira provides ‘cheat sheets’ and examples to help writers gain understanding related to some of the more difficult aspects of writing, such as point of view (Chapter 14) and descriptions (pp. 144-145).The next three chapters provide a foundation for developing good writing habits through reading. Pereira indicates that most MFA programs include a reading component. One thing that non-academic writing programs often suggest is that writers should read in their chosen genre; while this is not a bad idea, the section in DIY MFA related to reading makes it clear that writers must also have a thorough understanding of classic works: “… in order to create fresh, new work, you must understand and appreciate what has been written before” (p. 171). Further, there are practical examples of books that should be on every writer’s shelf throughout the text. Guided exercises engage the reader and are designed for practical application (see for example ‘Read Like a Writer’, beginning on p. 185).Pereira tackles the fear factor in writing as well. Chapter 21 begins the final seven-section portion of the text in which she encourages writers to join the community of writers. Engaging with other writers, having critique groups, and attending writing workshops are some of the suggestions offered. There is a detailed section on creating an identity as a writer as well as identifying and establishing a proper audience. She makes the distinction between the ideal reader and the actual reader:

… while visualizing your ideal reader can be inspiring, it will not help you sell or promote your book. After all, you can’t get usable data and information from a reader who only exists in your head. (p 254)

The book includes information about how to best use writing retreats and conferences to best advantage as well as how to promote your book. To make the educational journey complete, the text closes with encouragement via a chapter titled ‘Commencement’.DIY MFA is written in accessible language, making it appropriate for adult readers of all ages. Detailed examples and quotes come from various genres, allowing the text to be of interest to writers in all genres. A thorough index at the back provides an easy way to return to specific quotes or exercises. It is a must-have for writers at all stages of their journey. More information available at http://diymfa.com/product/diy-mfa-book or by clicking the image below to visit Goodreads.26483784 

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