Thursday, June 21, 2012

3 To MFA or Not To MFA by Gabriela Pereira

Guest Post By Gabriela Pereira

A few weeks back, Marissa started the journey she is sharing with us toward her MFA by talking about various MFA programs that focus specifically on Writing for Children and Teens. This past week we heard about the virtual summer writing camp run by Kate Messner, which sounds amazing. Even though I learned about it too late to participate officially, I plan to follow the posts for inspiration. All this discussion got me thinking about something that periodically presses on my mind:can creative writing be taught, and if so, how do we teach it?

Some writers believe that creative writing degrees are moot because the writing process can’t be taught. It's a talent and you've either got it or you don't. (Notice how his belief only benefits the "havers" of the talent and not the "have-nots.") Others believe that writing can be taught, but only by writers who have already been published, because only they know how to write something of publication quality.

This mindset brings with it a whole other set of problems. First, it assumes that all writers aspire to be published, which is not necessarily true. It also assumes that to be a great teacher you must also be a great writer, and that is often also not the case. Sure, to be a writing teacher you do have to know something about writing, but knowing how to write well does not always imply that one will be well-published. Some of my best writing teachers were excellent writers, though not necessarily NYT Bestsellers or award-winners.

For example, my favorite writing teacher had not published her first novel until after I had taken two or three classes with her, yet she taught me more about writing than many other more prominent novelists. In fact, it was by watching her navigate the publishing process and following her through it that I learned a lot about the business of writing.

Conversely, the most brilliant writer who has ever taught me was also my worst teacher. Sure, he had a whole slew of fancy titles and awards after his name but he was such a terrible teacher that I left his course discouraged and didn't write one word of fiction for--I'm a little embarrassed to admit this--seven years.

Clearly writing talent does not necessarily indicate a talent for teaching. Nor does it mean you must go to an MFA program to receive excellent (or the opposite of excellent) instruction. Neither of the above teachers taught at the program where I got my MFA.

Maybe it isn't possible to teach someone how to write, but a good teacher can help writers learn it for themselves. There are four basic components to a well-rounded writing education.

1) The BEST way to learn how to write is to do it. Write like it's your job. No. Write like it's your obsession.
If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I'd type a little faster.
~Isaac Asimov
When it comes to writing, try anything at least once. Not a fan of 2nd person? Try it once. Hate writing poetry? Give it at least one shot. Don't worry about what your writing will turn into, just get the words down on the page. Everything else, you can figure out later when you reach the editing stage. One of the best parts of an MFA program is that it forces writers to focus and dedicate time to their writing, but you don't need an external motivator like deadlines and a thesis to learn how to write. Most writers are already internally motivated so they can set their own deadlines and push themselves to write without the structure of school.

2) The second best way for a writer to learn the craft is to read. Read books that are similar to what you want to write. Read books that are completely different. Read good books, read bad ones (if you can stomach it). Even if you have to put a book down because you just can't get through it, you'll learn something from that book. What was it that kept you from wanting to read on? What would you have done differently? A good MFA program will have literature study built into it, either through a course or a required reading list, but you don't need school to make you read. All you really need is a library card.

3) Get feedback on your work-in-progress, but make sure it's from trusted colleagues. One of the most valuable--but at times also the most dangerous--aspects of the MFA system is the workshop. Best-case-scenario, you bring a messy piece of writing and your colleagues help you build it up and make it stronger. Worst-case, you bring your fragile brain-child to class and it's torn to shreds. Don't get me wrong. Writers can learn both from sharing their work with others and giving feedback to their colleagues. The trouble happens when trust turns to competition and constructive feedback turns to cut-downs.

This is why I have found it far more valuable to create my own group of trusted colleagues. It's taken years to find that balance of writers who I know will be honest with me but who also have my best interest at heart. Most of these colleagues are not fellow students from my MFA program, but writers who I've met through other channels. While an MFA program might help you find some trusted colleagues, it's not the only way.

4) You can learn a lot by engaging with the writing community. The online writing community is one of the most giving and generous group of people I know. There are hundreds (maybe thousands) of writer blogs that share insight into the writing process. Dozens of agent and editor websites and blogs give writers an inside look at the publishing industry. And let's not forget those countless other online resources, from agent search engines to free workshops and conferences. With a few clicks, a writer can learn a great deal about publishing and writing, all from the comfort of his or her own computer.

If in-person interaction is more your speed, there are also hundreds of writing conferences and retreats where you can study the craft, learn about publishing and connect with other writers. Some events are huge, with thousands of writers, while others limit attendance to a few dozen, giving you lots of one-on-one contact with the teachers and presenters. To find a conference, a good place to start is by checking out a writing association website and seeing if they have a national conference or a local chapter near you. This link gives a good list of writing associations, organizations and guilds.

The beauty of writing education is that you can do it yourself. While a writing class or MFA program might provide structure, most writers can create this combination of reading, writing, workshop and community all on their own. This is one of the main ideas behind DIY MFA, a project that has been dear to my heart for the past few years. The idea is to help writers get that MFA experience without actually doing an MFA. And let's face it, if you're a writer, chances are you like figuring most things out for yourself anyway. DIY MFA is just here to help.

Gabriella Pereira

Gabriela Pereira is the founder of DIY MFA, the Do-It-Yourself MFA in Creative Writing. She has an MFA from The New School with a concentration in Writing for Children and when she’s not writing for DIY MFA she loves writing middle grade and teen fiction. She works as a freelance writing teacher, leading workshops throughout New York City. Her fiction has appeared in literary magazines and one of her lesson plans was selected for the anthology "Don't Forget to Write," published by 826 National.

Connect with her at DIY MFA:

Twitter: @DIYMFA
Facebook: /DIYMFA


  1. Hi Gabi! Fun seeing you here today. I'd LOVE to get an MFA in children's literature. To intentionally and intensively study is deeply appealing.

  2. To MFA or not to MFA...that's a tough question ;-) in part because the answer depends on so many factors:
    - Can you afford it financially?
    - Can/will you commit the time and effort required to it?
    - Can the instructors really teach? (That's a hard one to get reliable answers to.)
    - Does the program have a focus area, and if so, is it relevant to what you want to write? For example, if the program has a literary fiction focus and you want to write, say, romance or YA, will the instructors look down their noses at you or will they help you hone YOUR craft?

    These questions are just "for starters." There are many more. Every potential student will have to figure things out for themselves.

  3. Great post, Gabi! I agree whole-heartedly with you. I definitely believe an MFA is not a pre-requisite to honing your craft and that if you can put together your own form of study, you can grow tremendously. Most of what I learned, I picked up through conferences, frequent blog visits, and surrounding myself with other writers. Oh, did I mention reading a LOT? I love your concept of DIY. It can be done :)

    Having JUST started my MFA program, I can honestly say the program I'm in has been wonderful thus far. It's awesome to be surrounded by like-minded people who are interested and invested in the same facet. I'm learning a lot while reaffirming much of what I have picked up over the years through a do-it-yourself approach. Will it be worth the money, time, and hard work? I think it all depends on what you hope to get out of it. For me, I just want to grow as a writer and improve. As Ross said above, you have to weigh the financial implications of that question, too. I will admit that I think it's still too early in my experience to know what the long-range benefits will be. But I am LOVING the complete daily immersion into the world of children's literature.


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