my new go-to writing book

(My review of Gabriela Pareira’s DIY MFA: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, Build Your Community. Full disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy in exchange for a fair and honest review. But I’ve already bought the book and am awaiting its delivery, so I can mark it up to my heart’s content. update–just got the book!)

blog author reading DIY MFA book

Hot off the press!

Like most writers, I have my go-to writing books: William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, James Scott Bell’s On Plot and Structure, Raymond Obstfeld’s Fiction First Aid and the Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes, and others. As a twenty-first-century writer, I also have my online go-to favorites, especially Gabriela Pareira’s website, DIY MFA, which has been providing writers with and without MFAs rich information through resources, podcasts, and courses on the craft. Now, those of us who have used this invaluable resource can find DIY MFA’s wisdom in Pareira’s book published by Writer’s Digest.

After presenting the DIY MFA mind-set, best expressed in the  Mindfulness Manifesto (a five-point declaration every writer can live by), the DIY MFA Book follows Pareira’s three-pronged approach: write with focus, read with purpose, and build your community. In her own studies for an MFA, Pareira realized that an MFA program provides writers opportunities to practice their craft, study their craft through the works of great writers, and get feedback on their writing from peers and instructors. All three areas, Pareira argues, can be achieved without an MFA program—hence, the do-it-yourself DIY half of DIY MFA.

And while many writing books tackle one portion of the challenge (characters, plot, scenes), the DIY MFA Book addresses the entire process of writing, from generating ideas to maintaining social media. The DIY MFA Book is designed for the twenty-first century writer—it acknowledges the immense changes in the publishing world and uses entrepreneurial language so that writers can thrive in this new world. But Pareira’s book does not jettison classic writerly practices, and instead combines traditional wisdom with necessary contemporary guidelines.

There’s a lot to commend about this book, but I’ll focus on three things I especially admire: Pareira’s honesty about her own practice, her application of her entire work and creative experience (as a toy designer and jazz violinist, for instance), and her fierce advocacy for all writers.

From the start of the DIY MFA Book, Pareira insists that each writer must find what works. She discusses her own mistake in following Stephen King’s advice in his memoir on writing to keep to a daily output of 2,000 words. This strict word count impeded rather than supported Pareira’s writing. In other instances, she is just as honest about what works for her and what doesn’t, and she’s adamant about her readers being as honest about what works or doesn’t work for them. One of Pareira’s central practices is iteration, by which she means a method of testing new practices and assessing how well those practices work and then revising. She is also unapologetic about her own voice, which she describes as a cross between Jane Austen’s language and the “squees” of a young-adult ultra-fan of The Hunger Games.

Pareira’s use of entrepreneurial language results in part from her experience as a toy designer, and she uses some of the creative practices she learned from that industry, such as a mood board used to brainstorm ideas about product design. Pareira repurposes the mood board as a kind of collage writers can construct to capture the mood of their work. Pareira also gleans wisdom from her younger years playing classical violin and quotes her violin teacher: “Practice doesn’t make things perfect, it makes things permanent.” So how do we avoid repeating ineffective habits? Pareira suggests applying a trip wire, or a measure by which we can assess a writing practice. Does writing at five in the morning work? Try it for ten days and see. The ten-day mark is the trip wire.

Pareira started the DIY MFA website because she wanted all writers to have access to the resources of an MFA program, or as she writes, “to offer an alternative for writers who do not fit the strict literary mold of the traditional MFA system.” And on every page of the DIY MFA Book, writers know that Gabriela has our back. She wants us to succeed. She wants us to find a writing practice that works. Although Pareira’s book leans toward fiction, the non-fiction writer will find plenty of rich resources. The DIY MFA Book is built to help us develop sustainable, long-term, individualized, effective writing practices.

I’m looking forward to accessing all the ancillary materials and worksheets on the DIY MFA website, and when I get my hard copy of the DIY MFA Book, it will be a while before I set it on the shelf next to my other go-to writing books—that’s because I’ll be busy using the book as I hone my writing practice.



jumpstarting creativity

Question 9 for the DIY MFA Book Street Team is about feeding creativity. Gabriela Pareira discusses the need to have ideas at hand that allow you to spark your writing. Pareira has a really cool thing she calls the ORACLE, and it contains all kinds of tiny muses. I’m planning on building one of these because I’ve learned recently that like any muscle, our creativity muscle needs practice to stay healthy.

I lived in northern Alabama for eleven years and was part of the same writing group for all those years. We met bi-weekly and always started out our writing with a short prompt–then we read what we had written, if we felt like it. And then we wrote for a longer time, usually 40 minutes to an hour. When I moved, I lost my writing group and did not start with another one for about two years. When I started writing with that group, I found that writing impromptu was much more difficult. Ideas creaked out of my brain, as if it hadn’t been oiled, and my internal editor and critic screeched at me.

One prompt my group in Alabama used came from a book on developing writing community (Writing Together: How to Transform Your Writing in a Writing Group by Dawn Denham Haines, Susan Newcomer, and Jacqueline Raphael), and it’s a hard copy version of Pareira’s Writer Igniter, a random prompt generator on the DIY MFA website. The prompt is called “The Four Elements–Stories in a Shoebox” and directs writers to write down four elements on slips of paper that are then placed in the appropriate envelopes labeled Situation, Place, Object, and Character. Writers then draw one slip from each envelope and attempt to include all four items in her writing.

So one way I feed my creativity is by having kick-ass prompts, and Writer Igniter is a quick way to get those prompts. Natalie Goldberg’s prompts in Writing Down the Bones are ones I always return to. Two one-word prompts of hers always work: “green” and “stars.”

Another way I jumpstart creativity is to do something completely different from writing, like math. Working with numbers and shapes shakes up my brain, and I return to writing refreshed. Go to Khan Academy  and pick graphing or computer animation–whatever draws you. Try it for a bit. Your word-y brain will thank you.

I like doing something much more visual, like drawing or fingerpainting or making a collage. Going to a gallery helps me see things differently. Shaking up creativity through different modes–playing my flute–this is a tactic that helps me immensely. Taking a walk and keeping my eyes open–any kind of attentiveness–these things also spark.

Writing with a group–nirvana.