Gabriela Pereira is the mastermind behind one of my favourite writing blogs, DIY MFA. I’ve been following the blog–which is all about creating your own personalized writing education–for a number of years now and even interviewed Gabriela in 2012. Over the years Gabriela has expanded DIY MFA to teach a variety of writing courses. She even ran an online writing conference last year which was both fun and educational.
Now Gabriela is gearing up to release DIY MFA the book and I am really excited to be hosting her for a second interview to discuss all the progress she’s made.
Please give Gabriela a warm welcome!
1) Can you tell me a bit about when you first thought up DIY MFA? Was it an AHA moment or a process?
The idea for DIY MFA came to me as I was sitting in the graduation ceremony for my own traditional MFA degree. As the student speaker gave her commencement talk (complete with clichés like “spread your wings and fly”) I reflected back on the two wonderful years I had spent in the writing program. It was a phenomenal experience but I felt a wave of deep sadness when I thought about the writers who weren’t able to go back to school for an MFA, but really wanted to improve their craft. I started pondering: “how can I translate what I learned in the MFA into something that can be done outside of a formal graduate program?” That question grabbed hold of me and would not let go until I finally launched the first nugget of DIY MFA the following fall. From there, DIY MFA grew from a tiny blog experiment to a full-fledged business, to my full-time job, and now into a book.
DIY MFA has also become my passion, my obsession, my life’s mission. My goal is to enrich the educational experience of writers and creative people. While I used to think I would end up as a writer who taught classes on the side, I am now very much an educator, who also happens to be a writer. The teaching component is front and center, and writing is just a means for communicating concepts.
2) How did your experience with the DIY MFA blog shape the classes you created?
Blogging has been fundamental in the development and growth of DIY MFA. When I first decided to test the idea, I did that by challenging myself to blog about the DIY MFA concept everyday for one month. It was kind of like a personal NaNoWriMo, but for blogging and I limited myself just to that one topic. I figured, if I could find something to say on this topic every single day for a month, then maybe there was something to the idea. This personal DIY MFA “challenge” happened in September 2010, only a few short months after I graduated from the traditional MFA program.
At the time I had a teeny-tiny personal blog with something like twelve followers (one of whom was my mother!) so when I announced the project I figured I’d get at most a comment or two in response. To my surprise, people started coming out of the woodwork, sharing my posts and engaging with the material I shared. By the end of September, my audience had grown from 12 blog followers to several hundred!
But the blog has had a deeper impact on the DIY MFA concept than just audience-building. I’m a firm believer in iteration, and over the years I have used the website and newsletter as my testing ground for just about every piece of curriculum I create. Whenever I have an idea for a course, I weave bits and pieces of it into blog articles or newsletters, then gauge the response. If you dig back into the DIY MFA archives, you’ll see nuggets of ideas that I’ve spun out into conference talks, magazine articles, even entire sections of a course.
3) What is your favourite thing about running DIY MFA classes?
Just one thing? There are so many, but probably the thing I love most is the community in the flagship course: DIY MFA 101. When I first launched the class, I knew I’d be iterating on it and improving the material, so I decided to give the first wave of students unlimited continued access with the option to retake the course as many times and they wanted, free of charge. While some colleagues said I was insane for doing this, it turned out to be one of the best business decisions I’ve made, and I have continued doing it to this day.
What ended up happening is that we now have a core group of returning students who take the course again and again, helping to welcome new students into the community and set the tone overall. It has created a close-knit, supportive space where people really trust each other and feel that they have a tribe, a place where they belong. I’ve become incredibly protective of this community, and they’ve become protective of each other as well. This is so amazing to see. This year I’m taking some big steps in expanding the DIY MFA curriculum so one of the big questions I’ve had to think about is how to expand that community aspect while still having it feel safe and nurturing. Let’s just say, I’m doing a LOT of beta-testing behind-the-scenes to see how things play out before we implement any major changes.
4) How did you apply what you learned from running the DIY MFA classes to writing the actual book?
All those motivation and productivity techniques I teach in DIY MFA classes really came in handy while writing the book. Mantras like “honor your reality,” “resistance is your compass,” and “don’t compound failure with guilt” not only made it into the book—quite literally—in that I actually wrote about them, but they also helped me get those words on the page in the first place. I used the same DIY MFA techniques I talk about in the book to write the book. It was a bizarrely “meta” experience, but also fun because I was able to see the tools in action and confirm that they did indeed work.
Remember, too, that I had been blogging about DIY MFA and building courses around it for the past five years before I even attempted writing the book. By the time I sat down to hammer out those chapters, the ideas were so well-formed in my brain that the writing side of it was straightforward, almost like taking dictation. I knew what I needed to say, so it was just a matter of applying my bottom to the chair and clocking in the words.
5) You’re also a fiction writer. What is the biggest difference between your fiction writing and writing DIY MFA?
Writing fiction is a zillion times harder. Seriously. It takes a lot more trial and error for me to wrap my head around a character than it does for me to grapple with and finesse a concept for DIY MFA.
You see, I’m a categorical thinker, not a linear thinker. I’m good at distilling ideas from nebulous concepts into straight-forward nuts and bolts instructions. I love acronyms, formulas, and anything that can fall into categories. For me, it’s easy to take a big topic like “supporting characters” and break it down into the five most basic elements or archetypes.
Storytelling, on the other hand, is sequential, and therefore much more challenging for me. There’s a cause-an-effect aspect where one event or motivation leads to the next, and the perfectionist in me finds it very difficult to trust that the story is going somewhere even if I don’t have a clear idea of where that might be. When I do write fiction, I’ll write by the seat of my pants for a short while, but once I have a good sense of the protagonist and her struggle, I’ll put together a detailed outline and stick pretty close to it for the rest of drafting process. I’ve learned over time that I work best when surrounded by structure and order, so I try to make the messy process of writing fiction as organized as possible, especially because for me the fiction is much harder than nonfiction.
6) What are you reading right now?
At any given moment, I’m usually juggling about 8-10 books. I have a category on my Kindle titled “Nightstand” which is where I keep all the books I’m currently reading. Most of the books on that list are ones I need to read as I prepare for podcast interviews, but I try to weave in some “pleasure reading” every so often as well.
Right now, the book I’m reading that’s not podcast-related is John C. Maxwell’s The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership because leadership is a topic that has been pressing on my mind a lot lately. I never really thought of myself as a “leader” growing up; I was always more of a loner, doing my own thing and not really caring if anyone else followed along or not.
Recently, it dawned on me that my role at DIY MFA is, in fact, one of leadership. I know, I know, you would think that as the founder of the company I’d have an inkling that I was its leader, but I think I’ve always been a bit in denial about that. I’ve realized, though that if I want DIY MFA to grow into its full potential, I have to stop burying my head in the sand and admit that I am actually a leader. This means doing whatever it takes to educate myself and improve my leadership skills.
What I’m loving about Maxwell’s book is that he breaks down the concept of leadership into manageable nuggets and elements so it’s not this big, overwhelming topic, but instead just a series of actionable steps and techniques. He also digs into the different facets of leadership and the strengths and weaknesses that go with each one. I’ve realized from reading this book that it is, in fact, possible to be a leader, even if my personality is much more that of a loner.
7) What are you working on now that writers should look out for?
There is so much fun stuff happening over at DIY MFA right now!
First, the DIY MFA book comes out in June/July so my team and I are gearing up for some really fun pre-book celebrations. We recently launched our Storytelling Superpower quiz (DIYMFA.com/STSP) and in June we’ll be doing a week-long Storytelling Superpower Summit, where I’ll dig into the different storytelling archetypes, and how to apply the concepts to your writing. Think of it as a FREE online master class, led by yours truly.
Writer’s Digest just announced the details for the DIY MFA book launch event, to take place during their annual conference in August, 2016. Go to DIYMFA.com/WDC16 to learn more.
In addition to all this exciting book stuff, I have a few articles slated to come out in the June and July/August issues of Writer’s Digest Magazine (so check newsstands for those!) and I’m also beta-testing some courses behind-the-scenes right now and those will be rolling out later this year and in early 2017.
Gabriela Pereira is the Instigator of DIY MFA, the do-it-yourself alternative to a Masters degree in writing. She earned an MFA from The New School and has helped hundreds of writers get the MFA experience without going to school. She teaches writing at conferences, workshops, and online courses and also hosts the podcast DIY MFA Radio.
When she’s not teaching or developing new courses, Gabriela enjoys writing middle grade and teen fiction, with a few “short stories for grown-ups” thrown in for good measure. Her book about DIY MFA will be out in July 2016 from Writer’s Digest Books.
Does DIY MFA sound awesome to you? Has anything Gabriela said inspired you? Let us know in the comments section below!