July 5, 2016

Book Review: DIY MFA: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, Build Your Community by Gabriela Pereira

I’ve been a fan of the DIY MFA podcast and website for quite a while, so when I had the chance to read the book, I jumped on it. Several reviewers have created fantastic summaries of what’s included in the book, so I’ll focus on why I think it’s an essential read for all writers.

At author readings, panels, and writing conferences, one question that almost always comes up is whether a writer needs a degree. Invariably, it seems like degrees are downplayed and denigrated. I realize that the point is to tell writers that anything is possible for anyone, but it’s frustrating that they don’t focus—like DIY MFA does—on the fact that though degrees/MFAs aren’t essential to becoming a writer, some level of mastery is.  Or at least it should be.

While there are many great writers who don’t have MFAs, there are invaluable college-level skills (not necessarily degrees) that give writers an edge in publication—learning to communicate and collaborate with others, learning to meet deadlines, learning to take feedback, honing grammar, punctuation, and style skills—all of which are part of most MFA programs. Sure, everyone knows someone who’s an exception—either having gone to college and never learned those skills or not going to college and teaching themselves—but the fact remains, for most of us, some basic college-level abilities are essential to refining our craft as authors.

That’s where I think DIY MFA is GENIUS. The philosophy of Pereira is that though MFA programs aren’t essential, “all writers may need some of what the MFA experience offers.” She then breaks down the most powerful skills from her own MFA program into manageable, concise, doable chunks for the rest of us to implement—whether we have degrees or not—to make our own writing, reading, and networking more meaningful.

The book has very specific guidelines, worksheets, ideas, and processes to make effective writing a WAY OF LIFE. An instinctive habit. She helps outline how to develop behaviors that gradually increase our abilities as both readers and writers. Pereira says right from the beginning that all things don’t work for all writers, but she provides dozens of methods for writers to try on their own, and she helps us understand the psychology behind different methods and personal roadblocks.

She talks about how if we want to be writers, we “need to discover a process so that [we] can create dozens or even hundreds of wonderful books,” instead of just one. She talks about creativity as a learnable process with logical, repeatable steps, instead of a crazy muse that comes and goes as it pleases.

One of quotes I love from DIY MFA sums up the book and the program. She says, “…talent is often irrelevant, and what matters is how serious you are about doing the work.” I think that’s true of DIY MFA, of MFA/other degree programs, and any other writing course you can find. DIY MFA helps you know how to do the work to be the kind of author you want to be. It’s another tool—a brilliant one—to help you get where you want to be as a writer. Whether you have a traditional MFA or not, I think this is one book all writers should have on their shelf.

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