Today’s guest is a very special lady, Gabriela Pereira, founder of DIY MFA, a project designed to help you build a self-tailored MFA experience. The main components of DIY MFA are a blog and Writer Fuel, a weekly email newsletter compiling interesting links and advice. I’m always excited to see Writer Fuel in my inbox and I’ve learned quite a bit from DIY MFA. I’m even more excited to have her here and I hope you’ll all enjoy this interview as much as I’ve enjoyed working with Gabriela.
1) What inspired you to create DIY MFA?
DIY MFA started when I was graduating from an MFA program. I was sitting in graduation thinking about how great the MFA had been and how sad I was to leave, and then it hit me: “I could have done this all on my own.” Sure, not everyone can go the self-schooling route, bit I’ve always been a bit of a book nerd and I love to teach, so I’ve often taught myself things just for fun. Some people need the structure of school, but I’m not one of them. I started DIY MFA because I bet that there might be other people out there like me.
2) When did you first realize you wanted to pursue writing as more than a hobby?
Truthfully, writing has never been a “hobby” for me. When I decided I was going to write, that was that and I became a writer. It happened in first grade, when I realized that there was a finite number of books in the school library, and was afraid that if I read them all, I would have nothing left to read and I’d be bored forever. (Truth be told, the school had a very small library.) Then it occurred to me that if I wrote my own stories, it would be just like reading a book someone else wrote, only I could choose how the story ended. I started writing, and have been doing it obsessively ever since.
3) What were some of the biggest factors in your decision to participate in an actual MFA program?
I love teaching and I decided to do an MFA because I wanted to teach people how to write. If you had told me at the time that my post-MFA life would be all about DIY MFA, I would have been shocked. My grand plan at the time was to get an MFA and look for teaching jobs, maybe at a community college or a continuing education program. This goes to show that you never know where things might lead and it’s important to be flexible.
When DIY MFA lodged itself in my brain and would not let go, I had to accept that my teaching would take a different form. The irony, of course, is that while DIY MFA is all about being an alternative to the traditional MFA, I’m probably the one person in the world whose job actually requires an MFA. After all, I wouldn’t have been able to create DIY MFA if I hadn’t gotten an MFA myself, and the degree lends credibility to the program because it means I’ve seen what works from the inside and I can improve the things that don’t work. It also adds weight when I caution people against a traditional MFA because I’ve been there, I got the degree and had a great experience, but I still don’t recommend it.
Funny how things turn out.
4) What do you think is the most important thing you learned through your MFA program?
The most important thing I learned is that the MFA is not the end all and be all of your writing education. In our last semester, while most of my classmates were stressing about the thesis and trying to hammer out entire drafts, I chose to look beyond graduation day and start planning for what I would do after I handed in my thesis. I probably spent as much time applying for teaching gigs and creating sample syllabi as I did writing my thesis.
The result? As far as the thesis was concerned, I handed in the bare minimum to get the diploma. As far as my career was concerned, I left school with one teaching opportunity already lined up and three or four more in the works. Not to mention that DIY MFA had already started nagging at me and I was in the planning stages of that too.
Am I glad I did the MFA? Of course! Without, there would be no DIY MFA. If I could do it over, would I choose the MFA route? Again, of course! It was the MFA that gave me the skills and credibility to create DIY MFA. But would I recommend an MFA to anybody else? Absolutely not.
Actually, I take that back. The traditional MFA can be a good choice for writers who plan to write only “literary” work, who can spare two years of their lives just for writing and happen to be independently wealthy. For everybody else, my previous answer still stands.
5) How did you take DIY MFA from a basic idea to a functioning program?
I talked already about how the idea for DIY MFA came to be, but putting it into action has been a whole other challenge. At the time I got that original glimmer of an idea, I had a personal blog so I decided to test the concept by posting for one month about nothing except DIY MFA. I created a schedule where each day of the week was a different topic and planned out what I would write in each post.
One important step was that I took note of my Google Analytics numbers so that I could get a snapshot of the “before” picture, and I could then compare with the numbers “after.” I saw something like a 400% increase in hits and blog followers after that month-long DIY MFA “extrabloganza.” This made me realize that there was, in fact, an audience for this project, that it wasn’t just me off in my little bubble writing DIY MFA articles. There were actually people out there who wanted to read them.
After doing a second month-long test, I signed up for a class called Build Your Author Platform with Dan Blank (wegrowmedia.com). It was in this class that I learned to build the DIY MFA brand and put ideas into action. I built a website using WordPress, got a designer to make a custom theme and set up a newsletter using Mail Chimp. This mailing list has been the cornerstone of DIY MFA because it allows me to connect with readers directly through email.
My mantra throughout the process has been: try anything at least once. I’m constantly trying different approaches or testing new concepts so that DIY MFA can evolve and improve. Building a project like this is all about using day-to-day steps to make gradual progress toward a big goal. Not unlike writing a book, actually.
6) You give away Jumper Cables, an eBook for writers, when people sign up for your newsletter. What went into creating Jumper Cables?
I wanted to create a summary of what DIY MFA is all about, and Jumper Cables seemed like the way to go. It took several drafts of editing the content before I felt comfortable moving to the design stage and I had several different people Beta read the draft for me before I started messing with design.
Once I had a draft I liked, I plugged it into Adobe InDesign and created a layout. I have a background in design so for me it was a no-brainer to do the layout in Adobe InDesign, but I’ve seen people do fabulous layouts using PowerPoint too. The key for a product like this is to save it as a PDF, so that readers can open it on a wide range of devices. You can view PDFs on Macs or PCs, tablets or smartphones, and when someone opens the file, they can’t mess with the content, lending it a certain permanence that a word-processor document does not have.
After that, I just set up Mail Chimp so that when people sign up for the newsletter, they get a link to download Jumper Cables in the confirmation email. The whole process took a couple of weeks, working practically round the clock.
7) What marketing strategies have you used to spread the word about DIY MFA and which have you found most effective?
Hands down, the most valuable marketing asset for DIY MFA has been the people who believe in it. Yes, I’ve done all the things we’ve been told writers should do: write columns, do guest posts, host guest articles on our site etc. But in the end, the best source of publicity has always been the people.
I recently wrote in a Writer Fuel newsletter that DIY MFA is a rather polarizing idea: people either love, and then they’re committed for life, or they don’t get it and just move on. The people who believe in DIY MFA are the ones who share it, tweet it and tell their friends about it. The ones who don’t get it, just move on to other things. And that’s great because it means that the people who engage with DIY MFA are really committed to it.
I’ve have a lot of people email me and tell me that DIY MFA has changed how they write forever. And I’ve even had a few people scream at me (for reasons I’m still not sure I understand). But I have yet to find someone who’s lukewarm on the subject.
It all comes down to the people. People are my most effective marketing strategy.
8) Which aspect of DIY MFA do you find most challenging to maintain and how do you make it easier for yourself?
The most challenging part of DIY MFA is setting boundaries between work and life. I am completely engulfed by this project so sometimes it’s hard to separate home-time with work-time. Like sometimes its way to easy to check email on my phone when I’m on the go, or take a quick peek at twitter from my iPad (which lives on the bedside table) at 3am. I’ve had to set rules. I use an egg timer and while that sound is ticking I’m only allowed to work on one task. I also light a candle when I’m working and as long as the candle is lit, I can’t do email or social media.
When I used to work in an office, it was easy to separate work from home because as soon as I left the office, I’d leave all the work-related baggage there. But working at home is tough because there’s no clear separation. The burden is on me to set those boundaries. It’s hard to keep myself from wanting to work all the time so occasionally you will see an email time-stamped from the wee hours of morning, but I’m getting better at setting limits and keeping a balance.
9) What one piece of advice would you give to an aspiring writer trying to create something similar?
Whatever you want to create, make sure you love it. You heart has to be all in. In entrepreneurship there’s no room for doing things half-way. This doesn’t mean you should be reckless and throw caution to the wind. I myself tested DIY MFA twice before decided to take that big step and set up a website all its own. You can still be cautious and strategic about how you put your plans in motion, but your heart has to be in it for the long haul. You and your idea have to be made for each other. Like soul mates.
I knew DIY MFA was “the one” as soon as I started writing content. The articles and blog posts practically wrote themselves. Whenever people ask me about it, I get excited and almost blush, like I’m talking about someone I have a huge crush on. The idea has to make you giddy. If you’re not giddy, that’s OK. It just means you haven’t found the right idea. Yet.
10) What are you working on that fans of DIY MFA can look forward to?
DIY MFA is going through a massive re-branding and website overhaul. We’re launching a really cool new freebie to replace Jumper Cables to give away when people sign up for the mailing list. (Don’t worry, if you sign up before we release it, you’ll still get the freebie because I always send cool new stuff the mailing list first.) We also have this awesome web app in the works that I’m really excited about. If you’ve ever had trouble coming up with a story idea, fret no longer. This app will make sure you have an endless font of story ideas.
Author Bio: Gabriela Pereira is the founder of DIY MFA: Tools and Techniques for the Serious Writer. She has an MFA from The New School with a concentration in Writing for Children and when she’s not creating materials for DIY MFA she loves writing middle grade and teen fiction. She works as a freelance writing teacher and has led workshops throughout New York City. For more on DIY MFA, visit DIYMFA.com.