DIY MFA - Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, Build Your Community
How much do I want to read more? 8/10
Hmm, it really takes writing seriously. That's the finding of the process for successful writing.
It got inspired from the lean startup, with tweaking, iterating and incrementing.
Lots of good stuff here and practical advices.
As they say, it's broader to writing and this methodology can apply to Life in general. It brings the discipline and the wisdom.
Note: spoilers around:
- Harry Potter series
- The Hunger Games
- Pride and Prejudice
About the Author
Gabriela Pereira is a writer, teacher, and self-proclaimed word nerd who wants to challenge the status quo of higher education.
her mission is to empower writers to take an entrepreneurial approach to their education and professional growth.
Foreword - Jacquelyn Mitchard
When I went to graduate school nearly ten years ago to earn my Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, it was just a couple of years before I turned fifty, and I had already published fifteen books, including three novels that were New York Times bestsellers.
Why did I do go back to school?
the human heart and mind. Among those are the reasons I write. I write because I want to understand what happens to people, to characters and their relationships, when they are pushed outside their comfort zones. I want to see how these ordinary people change in extraordinary circumstances. I don’t write for me, although writing saves me. I write for the reader I imagine out there, and the dance isn’t complete until the reader takes my hand.
I agree with her that the surest way to grow as a writer is to grow as a human being. To know yourself as a writer, and perhaps, first, as a person.
Chapter 1 - Discover the DIY MFA Mind-Set
What Is DIY MFA?
DIY stands for “do-it-yourself” and MFA is short for “Master of Fine Arts,” the graduate degree for creative writing.
DIY MFA is not so much a writing curriculum as it is a way of life, an approach to learning and problem-solving that will change the way you write, read, and look at the world.
it’s about balancing your writing life and your real life.
you’ll not only be a better writer but also a better thinker and learner.
“In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future.”
—- Eric Hoffer
you must put the techniques into action and adapt the tools to fit your writing and your life.
The DIY MFA Mind-Set
- “Write with Focus,”
- “Read with Purpose,”
- “Build Your Community.”
The DIY MFA Mindfulness Manifesto:
- Writer’s block does not exist.
- Resistance is your compass.
- Do not compound failure with guilt.
- There is no such thing as a “best practice.”
- Iterate, iterate, iterate.
Writer’s Block Does Not Exist
Writer’s block is a scapegoat.
If we’re not writing, it’s not because we’re “blocked” or we’ve lost our creative mojo. The problem is inside of us—but that’s actually a good thing.
We tell ourselves that it’s okay that we’re not writing because we’ve got a busy day job, or our kid came down with the flu, or we’ve run out of good ideas.
The only reason writers don’t write is because they just don’t want it badly enough.
Resistance Is Your Compass
Sometimes you desperately want to write but you just … can’t.
you freeze. This isn’t writer’s block; it’s resistance.
It doesn’t matter why you’re not writing, just that you’re not writing.
Understand that resistance is not the enemy. It is your compass and can guide you precisely where you need to go with your writing.
Resistance always points to the juiciest material and most interesting ideas.
A high-stakes project that excites or challenges you is often more difficult to write than a throwaway project.
It’s only when the subject is meaningful and significant that resistance rears its ugly head.
The next time you feel resistance to a project, I challenge you to dig into it instead of running away. You might just uncover writer’s gold.
Do Not Compound Failure with Guilt
At some point you will probably fail to meet one of your goals. This is inevitable, and you must accept failure as part of your creative process.
But when you fail, you must not compound it by layering it with guilt.
Guilt is a feeling that we pile on top of failure.
There Is No Such Thing as a “Best Practice”
When I first started writing seriously, I decided to follow in the footsteps of other writers by studying their processes.
Stephen King’s On Writing, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and many others.
In his memoir, On Writing, Stephen King reveals his secret formula to being a writer: produce 2,000 words per day, and read upwards of eighty books per year.
Before trying the Stephen King method, I would have been thrilled with a few hundred words per day. Now that amount felt like a letdown.
Writing 2,000 words per day might work for Stephen King, but my process is not nearly as linear and I can best sum it up as “feast or famine.”
The lesson learned is this: Don’t blindly follow someone else’s best practice. You need to test different approaches and only adopt the ones that give you the results you want. Remember, another writer’s best practice might be your personal nightmare. The only best practice is the one that works for you.
Iterate, Iterate, Iterate
each technique, each tool—will be useless if you don’t make adjustments to fit your life and writing style.
you try different techniques at random, you don’t track the outcomes, and then you make decisions based on a gut feeling.
In a lean start-up environment, developers create a minimal viable product (MVP) and then test and tweak it in cycles to produce the best version possible. As a writer, you can operate in the same way, testing and improving your process over time to become more productive and better at your craft. The key is to build that meta-component into your writing so that you don’t just scrutinize the words you put on the page but also take time to step back and examine your process overall.
Iteration is a critical component of the writing process, which is why I like to use the acronym VITAL to remember its five essential steps.
- V = Choose your input and your output variables.
- I = Collect information.
- T = Set a trip wire.
- A = Evaluate and analyze.
- L = Learn from the results and decide what’s next.
Choose Your Input and Your Output Variables
Input variables can include the following:
- writing at home versus in some other environment
- music versus silence versus ambient noise
- a writing ritual (lighting a candle or meditation)
- props and paraphernalia (like a special notebook or pen)
The output is what you measure afterwards: time or word count.
This step is the fun part.
you might have written 4,000 words in one sitting, or for five hours straight, it’s meaningless if you hated every minute. Remember: This is a marathon, not a sprint. Your goal is to develop a sustainable process, not one that you’ll abandon after a few weeks.
There’s no such thing as a “good writing day” or a “bad writing day.” You’re writing. That’s what matters. Collect the data and move on.
You will need to track approximately twelve writing sessions, or data points; this number will give you enough information to evaluate your results and look for patterns.
- How it felt
Set a Trip Wire
“Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes things permanent.”
This is why you need a trip wire, in writing and in life, so you don’t practice bad habits into permanence.
It tells you to double-check something. It says: “Hey, Writer! Pay attention.”
Ex: According to legend, the band Van Halen required every venue to supply a bowl of M&M’s with all the brown candies removed.
if the venue had made a mistake with the M&M’s, they very well may have overlooked more significant details.
I encourage writers to set a deadline for the data collection stage.
Set a trip wire that signals you to stop collecting data, and move on to the next step when you reach it.
Evaluate and Analyze
Now it’s time to analyze what worked and what didn’t.
we’re focusing on effectiveness.
What’s working? What’s not working? What has been effective for my writing? What can I improve?
Focus on looking at overall trends and finding a general pattern.
Learn from the Results and Decide What’s Next
The entire iteration process culminates in this step. This is where you make a decision about what to do next based on the information you have collected thus far.
If something works, great. Keep doing it. If something doesn’t work, stop and pivot.
What if some aspect of your writing process isn’t working for you? This is where the pivot comes in.
Pivot is a lean entrepreneurship term for making a small tweak to a product or process instead of overhauling it.
try tweaking the input variable and noting how it affects your writing process.
Chapter 2 - Customize Your Learning
Degrees are important in some fields, but writing is not one of them.
Most writers want an MFA for one of three reasons: They want to teach writing, they want to get published, or they want to make room in their life for writing. It turns out these reasons for doing an MFA are actually based on myths.
Myth 1: You Need an MFA to Teach Writing
While in the past an MFA may have served as a steppingstone to becoming a professor, it’s not the case anymore.
the MFA has little impact on a writer’s ability to teach writing. Being a successful author or publishing professional is much more important.
Myth 2: The MFA Is a Shortcut to Getting Published
No agent will sign you and no editor will publish your book based on a credential alone. You have to write something beautiful.
many writers perfect their craft and produce great books without ever getting a degree.
Ultimately getting published is a matter of putting your backside in the chair and writing the best book possible. For that, you don’t need an MFA.
Myth 3: An MFA Program Will Force You to Make Writing a Priority
If you can find time to write only by putting your life on hold and plunging into a graduate program, then your writing career isn’t going to last very long.
Only a small percentage of writers can support themselves and their loved ones through writing alone. This means you must find a balance between your writing and the rest of your life.
The danger with MFA programs is that they train you to write in isolation but don’t always teach you how to fit writing into your real life.
Genre Writing in MFA Programs
MFA programs focus solely on literary fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. only a tiny slice of the wide and diverse world of writing.
This means that if you want to write genre fiction, commercial nonfiction, or children’s books, you likely will not learn much about them in your MFA courses.
How DIY MFA Works
The Master in Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing is nothing more than a lot of writing, reading, and building community.
Write with Focus
with your eye on the endgame. Many writers start by writing whatever pops into their heads.
it’s important to explore new projects and take risks at different points in your career.
Eventually, though, you have to commit to a project and finish it.
you just need to finish and polish a manuscript.
choose a project and see it through from beginning to end. When you write with focus, you write with a goal in mind.
Read with Purpose
reading with a writer’s eye.
many of us become writers so we can create the very books we love to read.
Reading for pleasure is wonderful, Reading with purpose is different: It is reading in a way that serves our writing.
it’s about learning how the author pulls story. how an author crafts a story so we can emulate those techniques in our own work.
Build Your Community
you will also learn ways to find and connect with your readers.
If you drop one of the slices altogether, it will kill your momentum in that area, and as you’ll learn later in this book, it’s much easier to ramp up if you’re already in motion than it is to start your motor from a standstill. Avoid letting your momentum drop to zero in any of these three crucial areas.
Chapter 3 - Set Goals and Start Strong
think of your writing career as a road trip and your goals as the map. You may know where you’re going, but there are many possible routes to get you there.
you may end up wandering aimlessly and without purpose. To determine the best route, figure out where you are right now, and where you want to go.
Where Are You Now?
like a big red dot on your road map with the words “YOU ARE HERE” in capital letters. Until you know your starting point, you can’t figure out the best route to your destination.
- How long have you been writing regularly?
- How much do you write each week?
- Is your schedule structured or sporadic?
- Are you focusing on one project or experimenting with various ideas?
- Do you read regularly? How many books per year?
- What are your three favorite topics or genres?
- What are the last five books you’ve read?
- Do you have writer friends or colleagues?
- Do you have a critique group where you can exchange feedback?
- Have you gone to any events or conferences?
- Do you read any writing blogs, magazines, or websites?
- Do you connect with writers on social media? If so, where?
- What is the biggest “win” you’ve experienced in your writing, reading, or community building this past year?
- If you could improve one thing in your writing life, what would that be?
Think of this as your writing emergency kit.
books of all kinds.
The Elements of Style is essential for any writer’s home library.
You’re not just writing for intellectual exercise. You must have a vision for where you want to be, a goal or destination you want to reach.
Using just a few words jot down the writing goal you want to pursue. Go ahead, dream big.
One Mile at a Time
clocking the miles.
Does “being a writer” mean you’ve published something? Or that you write every day?
break a project into smaller increments.
logging your progress.
Hit the Road
keep a record of everything that happens along the way. Some writers keep a detailed journal, while others just log the essential data.
The “Top Priority” section is where I write down the big vision that drives me. I limit myself to no more than three big goals.
You must keep your big vision front and center so that you can set milestones and action steps with integrity. This keeps you from spinning your wheels on activities that aren’t furthering your most important goals.
In the Action Steps section of the goal sheet, list the incremental next steps that will help you reach one of those top-priority goals.
Doing so will also help you build a sense of mastery—that “Yes! I did it!” feeling is vital to staying motivated.
First, at some point while reading this book, you might find yourself thinking, This technique could work for other writers, but it could never work for me. All writers feel this way from time to time.
Remember that resistance is your compass, and it points precisely at what you need to do. Shift your mind-set from “This will never work” to “How can I make this work for me?”
The second pitfall is trying to follow all the advice in this book to the letter.
There is an ebb and flow to the creative process, and you must pick and choose what works for you. This is why iteration is so crucial.
Write with Focus
Chapter 4 - Motivate Yourself
productivity has nothing to do with time and everything to do with choices.
No matter how much you study the craft of writing, none of that knowledge will matter if you don’t put words on the page.
I love my creative work, and because of that I protect it with my life.
You’re either going to be serious about it or you shouldn’t do it at all.
I’ve learned that talent is often irrelevant, and what matters is how serious you are about doing the work.
Effective Writing Habits
create new habits on purpose.
- H = Honor Your Reality
- A = Add Constraints
- B = Block Time and Batch Tasks
- I = Iterate
- T = Ten Percent Rule
- S = Set the Mood
Honor Your Reality
the individual challenges you face. Your day job, your family, and your health are all essential parts of your reality. Ignore these factors at your peril.
Your writing life and your real life can coexist.
It is not permission to be lazy. You know the difference between honoring reality and making excuses.
Real writers don’t write only when it’s easy—they find ways to fit writing into their full and busy lives.
through word count and time.
Set a trip wire when you write so that you don’t work past the point of fatigue. Keep in mind that writing a book is a marathon, not a sprint. You need to pace yourself and build stamina. Start at a level that’s just challenging enough to keep you motivated but not so strenuous that you give up or wear yourself out.
When you hit your word count or time goal, stop. That’s right: You have permission to stop writing when you’re done for the day.
In fact, stopping midthought or midsentence is a great way to dive back into your story the next time you sit down to write, because that incomplete sentence will snap your mind to attention and help you return to your writing zone faster than if you had to rev up your motor from a cold stop.
Writing is a lot like Newton’s first law of motion: “Objects in motion tend to stay in motion. Objects at rest tend to stay at rest.”
To keep your momentum, you must write something every day. It doesn’t need to be a masterpiece.
you just need to keep your hand in the game.
Block Time and Batch Tasks
Blocking time means that you do specific activities during specific blocks in your schedule. This means no multitasking. Believe it or not, multitasking is harmful to your productivity.
batch similar tasks into the same block of time. When checking your e-mail, instead of responding to each message as it comes in, write all your replies in the same block of time.
Try different techniques, and experiment with your process until you create a writing habit that works.
How long should you make one of your time blocks?
Which tasks should you batch together?
You must put those concepts into action.
Brainstorming is all well and good, but those ideas are nothing but vapor until you put them on the page. And iterate.
The Ten Percent Rule
The Ten Percent Rule helps you set a goal that’s just challenging enough to keep you motivated but not so difficult that you set yourself up for failure.
Choose a goal that feels comfortable, and then add 10 percent.
If you plan to write for thirty minutes, set the clock for thirty-three.
If you’re shooting for 500 words, try for 550.
Every time you reach an attainable goal, you will feel confident that you can reach the next goal. Each small win further boosts your confidence.
Set the Mood
While most motivation comes from within, you can also create an environment to help you get in your writing zone.
Choose something that will signal to your brain “Okay, it’s time to write now.”
If you are serious about writing—which I know you are—then your goal shouldn’t be just to write one great book. You need to discover a process so that you can create dozens or even hundreds of wonderful books.
While you might have a specific project in mind right now, remember that the process is far more important. By improving not just what you write but how you write it, you will hone that process and learn to produce great writing again and again.