It’s a question that gets asked a lot in writing circles, and the answers vary depending on who you ask. I know writers who doubt their decision both ways—whether they decided to get an MFA or not. Articles and whole books have been written about whether MFAs are good for writers, and literature as a whole.
MFA stands for “Master of Fine Arts”. It’s the pinnacle degree in creative writing (there’s no PhD). There are lots of reasons to get one, and lots of reasons to abstain.
So, if you’re an “aspiring writer” what’s the right answer for you?
Today I want to welcome Gabriela Pereira, Instigator of DIY MFA—a program that empowers writers to take command of their own writing education. Gabriela has an MFA from The New School (My alma mater! I did the undergrad writing program.), and now she guides other writers to read, write, and build their communities.
Why did you think you needed an MFA to be a writer? What convinced you to go for it?
I’ll be honest, I used to be very susceptible to peer pressure and I thought that the only way I would feel like a writer was if I got an MFA. I thought I needed someone else’s permission or “seal of approval” to be a writer, but what I really needed was to give myself permission.
This was ten years ago and I had just left my dream job in the toy industry because that career path was incompatible with my mental health. My decision to get an MFA was not a glamorous one. In terms of traditional jobs, I was unemployable, and I desperately needed to find a career where I wouldn’t have to work in an office setting or on a structured schedule.
I realized that writing was my best bet at such a career, and getting an MFA would help me get up running faster than if I just tried to figure things out for myself.
When did you have your DIY MFA light bulb moment? What made you realize there was another way to learn this stuff?
I still remember that exact moment. It was spring of 2010 and I was sitting in graduation. I was sitting in a rickety pew in a West Village church while the commencement speaker spouted platitudes like “spread your wings and fly.” As the light streamed through the stained glass, I desperately wanted the skies to part and the literary gods to whisper from on high: You are now a writer.
But that totally didn’t happen.
Instead, this crazy idea popped into my head. What if I could have done all of this on my own. What if you could DIY your MFA? That night I went home and did what any self-respecting writer would do in that situation: I sat down and wrote about it.
Now at the time I had a teeny-tiny personal blog with a grand total of twelve followers (one of whom was my mother), so when I wrote a post about DIY-ing your MFA, I expected it to evaporate into the ether. Imagine my surprise when I woke up the next morning to find dozens of comments on that post, not to mention a ton of emails about DIY MFA flooding my inbox.
I realized I had touched a nerve, but at that point I wasn’t sure yet what a DIY MFA would even look like. To figure this out, I set a challenge for myself where I would blog about this topic—and nothing else!—for the entire month of September.
My goal was to determine two things: (1) Did I have enough to say on this subject, and (2) Did I have an audience? If by the end of that month I had run out of things to say or I had scared away all twelve of my followers, then that would be a good indication that DIY MFA was not to be. But instead, by the end of that month, I realized I had so much to say I kept right on blogging into October. Plus, my twelve followers hadn’t run away, and instead had multiplied to over 400.
I realized DIY MFA was here to stay, and the rest (as they say) is history.
Writers often see MFAs as a gateway to success. How should writers define success for themselves, and why is that important?
In writing—as with many creative careers—it can be hard for us to stand up for ourselves. We call ourselves “aspiring” writers, as though we’re not allowed to step fully into that role. Like most writers, I bought into this idea and this is why I felt I needed an MFA. Having a shiny piece of paper would be irrefutable proof that this work I was doing was “real work” and not just me goofing around and talking to the imaginary characters in my head.
The problem with traditional MFA programs, however, is that they offer a one-size-fits-most solution that’s not always the best solution for every writer. Don’t get me wrong, MFA programs can be a great choice in some circumstances. Writers who want to focus on literary fiction or short form work (like stories, essays, and poetry) will find themselves much more at home in a traditional MFA than someone who wants to write genre fiction. I chose my MFA program because it was specific to Writing for Children—the area I wanted to focus on—but these specialized programs are rare.
In terms of defining success, I think the big issue is that your education needs empower you to choose what works for you, not what works for “most people.” One time in the MFA program, a friend of mine admitted she didn’t actually want to get published, she wanted to teach. I still remember the collective gasp that rippled through the classroom when she said that. It was as though she had uttered blasphemy. Some of the other students were taken aback, as though choosing to become a professor would be squandering her education. That’s because in this particular program, publishing was seen as the Holy Grail, and teaching was something you did “on the side.”
Fast-forward eight years later, my friend has a doctorate and is a professor at a college. She set out to do something, and she achieved it; she defined her own success and went after it. To me, that’s pretty darn successful.
Does a writer need any degree in writing or English, at the undergraduate or graduate level?
In a word, no. To be a writer, all you have to do is string words together into compelling and coherent sentences. You don’t need any degree to do that. Of course, a little schooling won’t hurt, but often it’s more useful to focus on an area other than English and literature, so you broaden your horizons.
Reading helps, of course, which is why at DIY MFA we put a lot of emphasis on this idea of reading with purpose. When you read broadly, across different genres and in different subjects, you take in the “rules” of writing almost as though by osmosis. I remember when I took my first writing class and I started learning about different types of point of view and elements of story structure, it was like I already knew those things because I had been reading examples of them for years. Learning to write isn’t so much the mastery of a new skill as it is putting labels and definitions to concepts you already know.
You don’t need a degree to do that. All you need is a library card.
What’s the biggest myth about MFA programs?
I think the biggest myth about MFA programs is the same myth about any sort of writing course, workshop, or conference: Do this thing and you’ll get published. No MFA is ever guaranteed to get you published, but what they can do is make you a better writer. And one of the wonderful side effects of being a better writer is that your odds of getting published will improve.
As with any educational investment, what you get out of an MFA program depends on what you put into it. I know several writers who attended MFA programs and got a lot out of that experience. I also know many writers who forged their own path and got great results. I think the biggest myth is that the MFA is the end-all-and-be-all, but what really matters is the effort you put in.
Gabriela Pereira is an author, speaker, and entrepreneur who wants to challenge the status quo of higher education. As the founder and instigator of DIYMFA.com, her mission is to empower writers, artists and other creatives to take an entrepreneurial approach to their education and professional growth.
Gabriela earned her MFA in writing from The New School and speaks at college campuses and national conferences. She is also the host of DIY MFA Radio, a popular podcast where she interviews bestselling authors and book industry professionals and author of the book DIY MFA: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, Build Your Community.