I’ve always wanted a Master of Fine Arts in creative fiction writing ever since I knew it existed. When it was time for me to apply to colleges, I picked those that had post-graduate creative writing programs. I wanted to be an English major and a master at the craft of writing fiction.
Well… I became an English major with a creative writing emphasis in fiction and a minor in Japanese, and I got accepted to two MFA programs, but…
I couldn’t afford either of them. I’d graduated college debt-free, and I didn’t want to go into debt for something that I could a) get for free at plenty of other schools, and b) was not necessary to write well. Many writers – especially those that write primarily in the genres that I like – don’t have MFAs and write just fine.
But I still wanted to improve my writing in any way that I could. So, I started looking for alternatives, and DIY MFA by Gabriela Perreira, “the do-it-yourself alternative to a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing,” popped up.
And I read it. And I liked it. But I had some problems with it.
Perreira knows her stuff. She tells you how to read story passages so that you get the full effect of how story and language work together to make an engaging experience. Her breakdown of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gillman is excellent and makes me reminisce about the days I was in both my English and writing classes. She gives you easy-to-remember acronyms not just for the technical aspects of writing, but the more personal aspects of how to transform yourself into a writing machine by analyzing what is working for you and what isn’t. She arms you with the techniques to build a reading list of the kind of work you want to emulate. And lastly, she supplies you with many tips on how to market your work and get yourself out there at conferences, online, and everywhere in between.
So, in a way, DIY MFA is not just a do-it-yourself on how to write better. It’s a DIY on how to transform your writing lifestyle. That is something that most writing self-help books don’t get into, which makes DIY MFA particularly unique, valuable, and helpful to so many writers who want to step up their game.
But the DIY MFA mindset, as Perreira herself says, is “not entirely for everyone,” and I most certainly agree. She favors using archetypes heavily when writing stories, and I don’t. I use a contact form on my blog, despite Perreira saying that I shouldn’t. I don’t intend to apply everything in DIY MFA to heart. And that’s okay. Perreira acknowledges that by encouraging her readers to do what they feel is best for them:
Don’t blindly follow someone else’s best practice. You need to test different approaches and only adopt the ones that give you the results you want. Remember, another writer’s best practice might be your personal nightmare. The only best practice is the one that works for you.
This passage essentially becomes a disclaimer for DIY MFA. Lord knows how many writers I have met in my time at college who have far more different writing strategies and practices than I do. What might work for them might not work for me, and that’s okay. I accept that DIY MFA might not work for me, too.
But what really bothers me about DIY MFA is that even though there is this disclaimer, I felt like it still acted, at times, that there were personal preferences of the author that were treated as absolutes or just downright moments of insensitivity.
For example, DIY MFA advises that you get rid of the instances of words like “Um” and “Well” in your dialogue because they “slow” down your dialogue. Erm… really? I mean, yes. Human beings say “Um” a lot while they’re talking. Humans beings don’t have the luxury of being edited like a character on a page. But what if you have a character that says “Well” at the beginning of most of their lies, or has another distinguishing tick of dialogue about them? I don’t believe”Um” and “Well” are words that the writer should be afraid of. I’m certainly not afraid of them. They even help me write more comedic scenes between my characters, because “Um” can be used as a pause to keep them from saying something that gets them in trouble.
So, yeah. Not quite an absolute for me, even though it’s listed under a list of “Nine Dont’s.”
My other example deals with how DIY MFA talks about a writer’s mindset. It claims that “[t]he only reason writers don’t write is because they just don’t want it badly enough.” (Emphasis not mine.) Now, it goes on to explain that if your friend had tickets to a concert that you were dying to see, you’d drop everything and go to that concert, no matter your physical health, and that you would do the same thing for your writing, i.e. you’d write if you wanted it badly enough.
I get the point being made there, but really? Is that truly “[t]he only reason writers don’t write”? I don’t think so. There are many writers out there who are probably bed-ridden, dealing with mental illness, and are not writing because they’re simply trying to get better. There are many writers out there who want to write, but are caught in the throes of a plot tangle. I understand that this particular sentence is driven at the “lazier” writers who don’t want to put in the effort to write, and that there’s a comedic edge to this, but I think that could have been worded better.
And perhaps other things could have been worded better, but shoulda/woulda/coulda. My main point is that if I wanted to read about how Gabriela Perreira herself made her own DIY MFA program for herself and decided to share it with the world, I would have wanted the part that she made the program for herself emphasized. I would have been fine diving straight in, too, and just being presented with the information.
But overall, good stuff. Recommended it for the writer wanting to whip themselves into shape, but also advise that it should be taken with a grain of salt.