There’s appeal to getting your MFA—but should you do it?
An MFA isn’t for everybody, and for some, it’s not even achievable.
That’s part of the reason why Gabriela Pereira, this week’s guest on The Resilient Writers Radio Show, founded DIY MFA and its accompanying podcast, DIY MFA Radio.
Gabriela dreamed of a MFA that was more accessible and more affordable, and then took steps to make it happen. And now she shares that with other creatives, encouraging them to take an entrepreneurial approach to not only their education, but also their professional growth.
[04:11] And somewhere along the lines, some teachers told me I had a little glimmer of creativity in me. So I thought, “gee whiz, maybe I can make a career out of this.”
[06:53] And then I got to graduation, and I was like, “wait a minute, what do you mean? I don't know what my next step is.”
[09:27] I liked it so much. I wanted to stick around. I wanted to keep doing MFA-like things for years to come.
[11:26] And so the first thing I would ask if somebody said, “I wanna get a traditional MFA,” I'd say, “well, do you have $75,000 just in the bank, ready and waiting?
[14:30] And so the first thing I would ask if somebody said, “I wanna get a traditional MFA,” I'd say, “well, do you have $75,000 just in the bank, ready and waiting?
[19:05] There are a lot of writers who are like, “well, why should I be reading?” Or, “I already know how to read, why should I be reading like a writer, isn't that just the way I read regularly?”
[22:39] And these are all things that you can manoeuvre and that are malleable, and that you can shift and change in order to achieve the effect that you want to achieve in your writing.
[25:47] If you're having a bad mental health week, and you're expecting yourself to be able to crank out a thousand words a day during that week, you're setting yourself up to fail. You're gonna be miserable.
Well, hey there, writer. Welcome to The Resilient Writers Radio Show. I'm your host, Rhonda Douglas, and this is the podcast for writers who want to create and sustain a writing life they love. Because—let's face it—the writing life has its ups and downs, and we wanna not just write, but also to be able to enjoy the process so that we'll spend more time with our butt-in-chair getting those words on the page.
This podcast is for writers who love books, and everything that goes into the making of them. For writers who wanna learn and grow in their craft, and improve their writing skills. Writers who want to finish their books, and get them out into the world so their ideal readers can enjoy them, writers who wanna spend more time in that flow state, writers who want to connect with other writers to celebrate and be in community in this crazy roller coaster ride we call “the writing life.” We are resilient writers. We're writing for the rest of our lives, and we're having a good time doing it. So welcome, writer, I'm so glad you're here. Let's jump right into today's show.
Well hey there, and welcome back to another episode of The Resilient Writers Radio Show. With me today I have Gabriela Pereira. She is an author, speaker, and entrepreneur who's trying to challenge the status quo of higher education. She is the founder and instigator of diymfa.com, and her mission is to empower writers, artists, and other creatives to take an entrepreneurial approach to their education and professional growth.
She has her MFA, she earned it from The New School, and she speaks all over the place about writing. You'll have probably seen some of her articles in places like The Writer and Writer's Digest. She's also the host of a podcast called DIY MFA Radio and highly recommend checking that out. And she's the author of the book, DIY MFA: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, Build Your Community. So, welcome Gabriela. Thanks for being here.
Thank you so much for having me. I'm so excited to be here.
So, let's just kind of talk about the MFA straight out of the gate. You did yours at The New School. How did you decide that the MFA was something you wanted to pursue, and what was your experience like with it?
So, first of all, I wanna start out by saying that DIY MFA in no way hates on the MFA system. The MFA itself, as a concept, serves a very specific group of writers very well. The problem is that it's a very small slice of the greater writerly population. What DIY MFA tries to do is to fill in that gap and to serve the folks who aren't served by the traditional model.
Why did I do the traditional MFA? I'm gonna admit, between all of us here, watching this video or listening to this podcast, I did it for all the wrong reasons. I didn't know any better. Like, I really didn't know any better at the time. And the reason I did it was because I was good at school.
I was not very good, at the time, at being entrepreneurial, building my own platform, and all of that. These are all skills that I had to learn over the course of more than a decade. But at the time, I had a job in the toy industry. It had worked really well, but then for personal reasons, I had to leave that job, which was my dream job, by the way. The one thing I wanted to do with my life since I was five years old was to be a toy designer. And I finally made it and was a toy designer for several years, and then for personal reasons, had to stop.
Because of that, I didn't know what else to do with myself. And so I thought, “hey, Gabriela, you were pretty good at writing English papers back in high school and in college, and you're pretty good at writing short stories.”
And somewhere along the lines, some teachers told me I had a little glimmer of creativity in me. So I thought, “gee whiz, maybe I can make a career out of this.” And I'll be honest, the personal reasons why I had to leave the toy industry was because the structure of my life was not compatible with my mental health. So, I have bipolar disorder, which means that I have days that are very good days, and then I have days that are very bad days, and it's not conducive to having a typical office job.
At the time, personal days were like, you know, if your child died, or your child was really sick or something. Personal days were not just like, “oh, I need a mental health day.” That was, at the time, unheard of. And so I really had to assess what kind of a career could I have that would allow me the wiggle room to be able to hole up in bed for a day or two and then get back to the real world, but not completely tank my career, not completely tank my job.
Writing seemed to be that place, that space. But I didn't know how to go about doing it. And I distinctly remember having many long conversations with my husband, and saying to him like, “I don't know where to start. I don't know how to get published. I don't know if I can get published, I don't even know what to do, but I'm good at going to school and I'm good at taking classes and getting good grades and jumping through all those school related hoops, and that, I can manage.”
So I figured, what the heck, let me try for the traditional MFA. And I'm gonna be really, very specific here, that I was specifically looking at MFAs and writing for children, which is a very small niche. There aren't that many of them in the world. One of them luckily happened to be in my backyard in New York City, at The New School. So, it was kind of like a match made in heaven that I found this school that was in my backyard essentially, and that I could easily commute to, take my classes, do all the school related things that I was okay at and good at, and I figured I would just sort of go through the steps, and at some point you graduate and then you know what your next step is.
And I kind of thought it was gonna be like medical school or law school. My husband's a lawyer, so I kind of assumed that the MFA was gonna be a lot like law school where, if you get the right internships and you get the right associateships and yada yada, you kind of go up the ladder and you kind of know what your next step is.
And then I got to graduation, and I was like, “wait a minute, what do you mean? I don't know what my next step is.” And that's where DIY MFA came from, was because I didn't know what my next step was. I was sitting at graduation and was just thinking about all of the people who I knew, writing friends I had, who wanted an MFA, but couldn't get one because of logistical reasons. They didn't live in the same city as an MFA program. They had day jobs that they couldn't just drop out of, they had family members that they had to take care of, et cetera, et cetera.
And so, I was thinking about all of these writer friends of mine, and I realised, well, what if there was a do-it-yourself alternative to that? And that's where DIY MFA came from.
And sort of the beauty of everything to come full circle, is that a lot of the same skills that I used as a toy designer, a lot of the same design skills and project management skills that I built up in the design industry, are actually skills that I still use today as the head of DIY MFA. So in a way, kind of all the dots got connected, but it took me like a decade and a half to get here.
Yeah. Wow. And your experience while you were doing the MFA, like while you're in the workshops, and doing the courses, and connecting with other writers, and connecting with the people you're studying with, professors and so on, what was that like for you? Did you enjoy it? Was it like, generative? Did you end up at the end of the MFA with a body of work?
Absolutely. I ended up with a finished manuscript that I had an agent ready and interested in. Which is not typical, I will say, like right out of the gate. Not everybody has that experience. And I remember making a very deliberate, strategic decision, that I realised DIY MFA had more potential than that one fiction manuscript.
And so I decided to pivot away from writing fiction at that point, around middle of the summer in 2010, right after I graduated, to pivot toward doing DIY MFA, even though at the time I had no idea if DIY MFA really was going to become what it is today. But I had this gut instinct that I just knew this thing had legs, and I knew this thing was gonna go much further than a single manuscript book would go.
But to go back to answer your question, my experience in the MFA was really good. This is why I say we don't hate on the MFA in DIY MFA, because I loved it. I mean, part of the other reason I created DIY MFA was because I didn't want to graduate. I liked it so much. I wanted to stick around. I wanted to keep doing MFA-like things for years to come.
And the beginnings of DIY MFA, especially before I had built up the business, and before I had built the level of expertise that I have today, a lot of the stuff that I was teaching, I was teaching more peer-to-peer. It was more like, almost like the TA of DIY MFA rather than the head instructor, or what have you. And it was very much me learning as I was teaching things, and then refining my expertise as I was teaching.
So, I did my MFA at UBC and loved it, like, it was a highlight of my life. And at the same time, I'm still paying for it. There's a piece of it that's still on the line of credit, you know? So, you know, one piece of it is… I'm always trying to parse out, who's the classic traditional MFA for, if someone says to you, “should I do the traditional MFA,” who is it for? And I feel like a big piece of it is you can manage the financing, because it doesn't always come with a scholarship. Sometimes you get lucky.
Sometimes, but not always.
Yeah. 'Cause I came out, like, 25 grand, whew, it's not small.
And in the U.S., I mean, I've done the research because I like to stay abreast of what the costs are. It's upwards of 75 to a hundred thousand dollars for two years of an MFA. Depending on the program you go to, it's easily as much as going to college, if not more, per year. It's quite a big investment. And so the first thing I would ask if somebody said, “I wanna get a traditional MFA,” I'd say, “well, do you have $75,000 just in the bank, ready and waiting? Or do you have somebody who will give you $75,000, like a rich relative, or whatever, or some grant that you could earn and receive,” or what have you. But I think having that financing is a really important piece.
The other thing that I would ask is, “what do you want the MFA for?” Because I think a lot of people go into the MFA programs wanting to teach on the side of being a writer. “I wanna be a writer, and I'm gonna teach on the side, and I need the MFA in order to teach on the side.” Well, the truth of the matter is, you can teach in a lot of places without having an MFA. None of my professors had MFAs, that I know of, and I had many professors in the MFA program.
So, even in a traditional MFA program, if you are a well-published author, you could actually be teaching and not need to have this credential. And the publication credits are actually as valuable or more valuable than having this credit of having this education, even though it is an incredibly amazing experience, and it's incredibly worthwhile and incredibly valuable, if you have the financing.
You have to ask yourself, “is it worth that amount of money and carrying that kind of debt in order to have this credential that you may not even need?” And you might be able to earn the equivalent of it just by publishing a lot of books, or publishing a lot of short stories, or, you know, just being published well.
The other thing I was gonna add, too, is that there's this phenomenon that's been happening, and it keeps getting worse with every year, which is that a lot of writers go into MFA programs wanting to teach, but there are more people graduating than there are teaching spots available.
And so you have to realise that there's gonna be this huge amount of competition, and unless you're willing to go and get a PhD, or get an education degree, you're probably gonna be at the bottom of the pack or at the back of the line, in terms of the people that would be candidates for those spots.
Yeah. I mean, when I look at who the MFA programs are hiring, they are hiring some people with MFAs, but they're often hiring, as you say, people who've published a fair amount, and award-winning, recognized writers. I mean, that to me is, they're kind of looking for the rockstar writers. It tends to be a lot of what's going on there. So, it's not a guarantee at all.
The other thing you have to realise is a lot of these positions are adjunct positions. So you're not even gonna be getting full benefits from a college or things like that, depending on how the structure is, or how the school is. And I'm not an expert by any stretch, but I know some people who have been in the teaching game in the traditional teaching environments, and a lot of these positions are much more side-gig type positions than they are full-time type positions.
So, if you're looking to graduate with an MFA and then become a full-time teacher, that may not be the best course of action. It's like you're climbing the wrong ladder for the place where you wanna get to.
A hundred percent. I wanted to ask, when you created DIY MFA, what were the pieces that you wanted to take from the traditional MFA? What are the essential things that you thought, “okay, if I'm going to create this program that helps other writers, this is what is absolutely essential”?
So, when I started DIY MFA, the way it actually began is, I decided to do a blogging challenge. I decided I was gonna blog every single day of the month for the month of September. I figured, September, back to school, et cetera. And so I was gonna blog every single day on this topic of DIY MFA.
And I figured by the end of it, I would know two things: I'd know if I had an audience, and I'd know if I had things to say. And so I figured like either my audience would be sick of DIY MFA, and they would've all abandoned me, or they'd be really into it, and more audience would've showed up. And I figured in terms of having things to say, either I'd continue to have things to say by the end of a month, or I'd run out of things to say, and then I could just pivot to whatever else.
And it turned out that both of those factors were, in fact, proven true. But my audience grew from like, a couple hundred people. I think I had like a hundred followers on my blog back when blog followers were a thing. And I went to something like, four or 500 in the course of a month, which is a pretty big jump given the fact that it started very small. And then in terms of like, having things to say, clearly I still have things to say because now, like 13 years later, I'm still still finding things to say about it.
So how did I structure it? Well, in the beginning I had no idea what I was doing. So I kind of did it by day of the week. I figured we'd have creativity Mondays and we'd have craft on Tuesdays, and we'd have workshop Wednesdays, and we'd have something else on Thursdays that I don't remember what it was, but each day of the week had like a topic attached to it. And there's seven days of the week <laugh>, so that's a lot of things that you can kind of have as part of your MFA. And I realised there were even more things that I didn't have in the 5 days of the week.
And over the course of the years, it's really distilled down to three pillars: write with focus, read with purpose, and build your community. Everything falls under one of those categories. Sometimes they fall under more than one of those categories. For example, workshopping is a community thing, but it's also a writing thing. And it's also kind of a reading thing. Workshopping falls under all three components, but if you hit all three of those things, you're essentially covering everything that an MFA has to offer.
Because MFA programs, they're gonna have courses on the craft, or they're gonna have workshops where you're mastering the craft. You're gonna have classes on literature where you're reading books and you're studying the literature the way you would've in a college literature class, and then you're gonna have the community aspect, all of those readings and those professors visiting who come and talk about their books, and agents and editors who come in and present about what the publishing industry is, and all of that stuff.
So, eventually I started taking the days of the weeks and all those other topics that I didn't know how I'd fit them, and I started putting them into the writing, reading, and community buckets, and realised that those three buckets were basically it.
Right. I love that you have reading in there. I think that it's such an essential thing for a writer to be constantly reading, especially in your own genre. I mean, you know, reading widely, but especially in your own genre that you're working on. I think that's a really important pillar. Do you get any resistance from writers when you're like, “this is really important”?
It's funny, so our flagship course, DIY MFA 101, has two modules dedicated to reading. And those are the two modules that I always tell people at the beginning, when we get to that part of the course, “you're gonna wanna skip these modules, but don't skip them,” because they're by far and the section of the course that people after the fact come back and say, “that was my favourite thing. That was the thing that was totally game changing.”
And so I think yes, we do get resistance. There are a lot of writers who are like, “well, why should I be reading?” Or, “I already know how to read, why should I be reading like a writer, isn't that just the way I read regularly?”
Turns out, no, it's not <laugh>.
It's not. I've had people tell me that I've ruined reading for them, because now they can't not read like a writer. And so learning how to flip that switch too, learning how to flip to pleasure reading versus flipping to reading like a writer, is also a skill that you have to learn.
So it's definitely something that people tend to resist a little bit at first. But I think once writers see the value of it, and once they realise, as writers, the reason we're doing this is because we love books. Like, if we didn't love to read, we wouldn't be writing because that would be a miserable existence, right? To be producing stuff that we wouldn't even want to read ourselves.
Why would we bother?
Why would we do that? So, there's definitely something about being a writer that, like, it starts from reading, it starts from that love of books. Once writers kind of get grounded back into that headspace, it sort of clicks in for them, and then they're reading all the way and it becomes their favourite.
Yes. It's so important. And I also wanted to ask, give me a sense of the kinds of craft topics that you cover in DIY MFA.
It depends on the program. I see craft in everything. I see craft as being part of the nuts and bolts of writing. But I also see craft as being part of the creative process and how you approach creativity. I also see craft as being part of how you craft your platform. There's craft in everything.
But, I think what you're really asking about is the nuts and bolts of writing craft. So, what we really talk about, like in our flagship course, we start by talking about motivation and productivity. Because if you're not getting those words on the page in the first place, what's the point? There's nothing to work with. And then we dive into character on a very deep level, and we focus both on the protagonist, but then also on supporting characters and how they fit into the picture.
From there, we move on to story structure and plot. So we look at, what does a story really look like? What are the different components of story that you need to hit?
I'm not a firm believer in the very specific, prescriptive, “you need this by this percent of the book and this by this percent,” or whatever, like, the beat sheet approach. While I love beat sheets, that's not my jam. But there are certain things that, at some point, you're gonna hit the middle of your book, something happens in the middle of your book that is pretty traditionally in the middle of every single book that you read. What happens at that point? At some point you're gonna have an inciting incident. What does that mean? What is an inciting incident? Et cetera.
So, once we talk about plot and story structure, then we move into the narration. We talk about things like voice, what exactly is voice. Voice is one of those things that's really hard to pin down, but you kind of know it when you feel it. And so you kind of know when something has a voice, but it's very hard to explain what that voice is. And the truth is, there's actually voice on multiple different levels. You have the voice of your characters, but then you have the voice of the narrator, if there's a narrator in your book, and you have the voice of the author, if the author's voice is coming into the book. And these are all things that you can manoeuvre and that are malleable, and that you can shift and change in order to achieve the effect that you want to achieve in your writing.
From there, we also talk about point of view. Point of view gets very technical. I like to use Venn diagrams. And the way I think of point of view is like, what does the character know versus what does the narrator know versus what does the reader know. And the Venn diagrams overlap in different ways depending on which point of view you're using. That's sort of how I teach point of view, is with Venn diagrams.
And then from there we go into scene-level craft stuff. So things like dialogue, description—world building is usually at this stage. Yes, there is bigger world building stuff, bigger world building concerns that affect character and that affect your plot. But the place where the world is really gonna come into play is at the scene-level, where you're actually seeing the world in action with the characters in it. And then of course, we can't leave out theme and thematic elements. So, we have a whole part where we're talking about scene-related stuff. We also talk about theme related stuff, as well. Those are kind of like the main principles that we use.
That's amazing, that's great. I wanted to go back, Gabriela, to when you said that you were looking for a career that you could do while also caring for your own mental health. So, I'm someone who's struggled with depression and a little bit of anxiety in the past. And I know a lot of writers who are struggling in some way, shape, or form, or are living a life.
I mean, we’re all living a life these days where we have to, need to, care for our emotional mental health. But some people need to do that more intentionally than others, on a consistent basis. How do you counsel writers, around living a writing life, creating a writing life you love, while also caring for your own mental and emotional health?
This was something that was told to me. It's the spoons analogy that you have, let's say, you've got five spoons, right? And like, one of those spoons might be your family, and one of those spoons might be your day job. One of those spoons, if you're dealing with something like bipolar or depression, it's gonna be one of those spoons. So, that's gonna mean that you've got fewer spoons left over to assign to other things in your life, and you're just gonna have to make choices. So, on one hand, when I heard that, the person who was saying that to me was like, “you're not gonna wanna hear this.” But I actually was very liberated by this thing because it made it very easy for me to realise that like, “oh, it's just me making intentional choices.”
If you're having a bad mental health week, and you're expecting yourself to be able to crank out a thousand words a day during that week, you're setting yourself up to fail. You're gonna be miserable. And even if you are able to crank out all those words, who knows what the quality of those words are gonna be, because your headspace is just not there. So recognizing that there are certain times where you just don't have any more spoons to give, and you just need to deal with the spoons that you're dealing with, and the writing will be there for you when you've managed the mental health stuff. Now, when you're dealing with something like bipolar, there's no cure. There's ways to manage it, but it's never gonna go away. It's always gonna be a part of who I am and what I'm contending with on a day-by-day basis. Then, it means making those choices on a day-by-day basis.
And so I have to ask myself, legitimately, right now, “do I need that extra hour of sleep? Or is this like an hour that I'm gonna spend writing?” And if I need that extra hour of sleep, I give myself that extra hour of sleep. And it's that simple, just making sure that you're carving out that time for your mental wellbeing and your health wellbeing.
I think it's funny. I think our culture used to glorify running yourself into the ground, and I think the pandemic has, in some ways, shifted that, where people are now realising running yourself into the ground is actually a bad idea. It's a bad idea and it's not functional, and it's actually detrimental. It makes things worse in the long run. So, I think that's a course correction that we need to double down on.
Yeah, absolutely. I think so often, we just don't allow ourselves enough self-compassion, enough attention to, “oh, what do I need today to be a fully functioning human being, which includes my creative life?”
And sometimes it's a nap. Sometimes the best thing you can do for your writing is a nap. It's really, really important to pay attention to that, I think.
It's funny, one of the very first things that we teach at DIY MFA is this principle: honour your reality. And honour your reality means two things. It means that your life is your reality, but your writing is also your reality. And you need to allow yourself to have room for both. And I liken it to being on a boat. I'm not a boat person, but this is what I imagine being on a boat is like. When you're on a boat, if you try to be rigid and keep everything balanced perfectly, you are gonna fall on your face because the boat is moving and you're trying to not move against what the boat is naturally doing.
But if you kind of go with the ebb and flow of the boat and you kind of rock back and forth, and you realise that sometimes you have energy and mental bandwidth to give to your writing, and sometimes that mental bandwidth has to go to your real life, and then there will be a time when the writing will take over again, and you kind of go with that ebb and flow, you're actually not perfectly balanced because you're moving, but you're gonna be in sync with the life that's around you, and so that then creates sort of a meta-type of balance.
I think it's so critical. And also it makes for a rich and rewarding life, that not fighting reality, it's much better the way you've said it, honouring your reality. So critical. Well, thanks so much for this, Gabriela. It was lovely to talk to you. So folks, you can find Gabriela at diymfa.com and the book, DIY MFA, I've seen it on Amazon. You can probably order it in your bookstore as well, I imagine.
Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me.
Thanks so much. Talk to you soon.
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