home base

The DIY MFA Street Team Question of the Week (#16) asks us to post the image below to wherever we consider our online writing home base as an author. This blog is my home base because it offers my voice. Two years ago, I was facilitating an intensive summer writing institute for graduate students, and I gave a presentation on style. I discussed how style doesn’t fall from the skies and that we need patience and practice to establish our style. And I revealed that after a few decades of writing, I felt that with this blog, I’d found my style.


Remember that the DIY MFA Book is available. It’s waiting for your book shelf or digital reader…!


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.

mining resistance

Question 8 for the DIY MFA Street Team–Resistance is your compass:

This week’s prompt is all about resistance. Share an example of a time when resistance has pointed you toward a writing project that was juicy and high-stakes… and maybe even a little bit scary. Did you face that fear and overcome your resistance? What was the result of pursuing (or not pursuing) that project?

I never finished a review article of an academic piece of writing because the topic was on animal rights, and I could not stomach the research on animal butchery. I have always regretted my cowardice–and that’s how I view my inability to keep writing, as cowardice.

In an interview about her novel, Beloved, Toni Morrison claims that artists are the priests of history–they are the ones who perform cleansing rituals. Beloved writes the unspeakeable-ness of slavery. When words cannot be found, that’s precisely when writers must practice.

Another subject I avoid is my mom’s dementia. So much of her dementia involves her loss of language. And the way I work with that resistance is to shift my perspective: She has lost language, and she works language in a very new kind of poetry.

I don’t have a lot of helpful experience here, but I know that uncovering resistance is the first step. I usually don’t know I’m resisting something until someone else points out my resistance. I learned I was resisting writing about my mom’s dementia during one of my writing classes, when I asked students for ideas for blog postings.

myths about creativity

On to question of the week #7 for the DIY Street Team. Here it is, from Gabriela Pareira:

Which creative myth resonates most with you?

In chapter 6 of DIY MFA, I debunk five myths about creativity. These myths are:

• Creativity is an exclusive club, and you can’t be part of it.
• Creativity is innate–you either have it or you don’t.
• Creativity is driven by chaos, so there’s no way to control it.
• Creativity is all about getting that one “Big Idea.”
• Creativity is focusing on an idea until it’s perfect.

Gabriela asks us to choose a myth that we cleave to and then discuss how we’ve challenged that myth.

I think I’m most susceptible to the first three. But I have another: a real artist, a true creator is slightly insane. Or a lot insane. The art, the creative urges take over, and we lose ourselves. (This idea hangs out with creativity myth number three above.)

Well, duh. That’s part of the allure. The creative process allows us to be more than who we are–and just who we are. We tap into some kind of cosmic yumminess. But for some reason, I have too many models that indicate powerful art necessitates losing one’s mind. Or committing suicide.

There’s another prong to this forked-up vision of art: a great artist needs drugs or alcohol to practice art fully. I know this is not true. I write much better sober. But there’s something demoniacally Delphic about all this linking of creativity and madness, creativity and addiction.

Maybe the best piece I know about this topic–at least from the side of addiction–is James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.” If you haven’t read this piece, please. Do.

I have challenged the creativity myth about needing to be on alcohol or drugs in order to create brilliantly by being in recovery and practicing this craft. I like writing sober. A lot. I have not yet learned how to challenge the creativity myth about art and losing one’s mind. Any thoughts?

If you want to read more of Gabriela’s ideas, remember that the DIY MFA Book will be out soon!

testing best practices

Question 6 for the DIY MFA Street Team is the following: “What’s one ‘Best Practice’ that didn’t work for you?”

First of all, I love the advice that Gabriela Pereira offers, which is to follow what works for you. Gabriela recounts trying Stephen King’s advice in his memoir to write 2,000 words a day and realizing her writing practice did not thrive. As Gabriela wrote in her email about this prompt, “Over the years, the one hard-and-fast rule I’ve learned is that there are no rules when it comes to writing. There’s no such thing as a ‘best practice’ except for the one that works best for you.”

And I’ll add to Gabriela’s note that even when we find a best practice, it may not always work. Here’s my example: In Plot and Structure, James Scott Bell describes his practice called “350s.” Here’s how they work–wake up, and before you do anything, anything at all–before coffee, before getting out of bed, before petting the cat–write 350 words. That’s it. Write 350 words before you do anything in your day.

I love this practice, and it’s worked for me before. I like that I’m still in the between-world of sleeping and waking, and I often access parts of my imagination not always easy to find. I like that my internal editor-critic is still pretty much asleep. I like how righteous I feel the rest of the day–even though 350 words may not seem like much, they’re still words, finished, written. First thing. And, I like that I can return to those words later and expand, riff off of them, use them.

Today, 350s don’t work for me. I’ve got a seventeen-year-old cat with chronic kidney disease, and he’s a talker. The first thing I do in the morning is to ensure he has fresh, clean water and food. Then I get my coffee. Then I journal. Then I give Cuddles his subcutaneous fluids. By the time I’ve walked to his dishes, my conscious mind has already grabbed hold, and I’ve lost the magic of the 350s.

And here’s my other note: Practice tweakage! It may be that a classic, first-thing-in-the-morning 350 doesn’t work for me now. But I could still practice the method at different times during the day. 350s are great for those of us with over-full schedules.

Gabriela’s advice to test, practice, revise any writing practice is advice I can always apply.

Remember that the DIY MFA book comes out in June!

What is your writing kryptonite?

On the DIY MFA Facebook page, a poster accompanies this question of the week. The quote is attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Our strength grows out of our weakness.” I heard this same sentiment articulate another way: “Our weaknesses are our strengths taken to an extreme.”

So what’s my writing kryptonite? Perfectionism. Heavy revising. Too much research. Trying to get it absolutely right. Trying to do too much.

OK, that was a litany of insecurities. That was not identifying my writing kryptonite. So let me do that: perfectionism.

The DIY MFA Street Team was formed to help promote the new DIY MFA book, to be launched soon. Here’s the website: DIY MFA Book by Gabriela Pareira.

What is your writing super power?

I love this question. I love even more the quiz designed by DIY MFA, so do yourself a favor and have some fun — take the quiz!

My result is the Disruptor: You’re drawn to larger-than-life characters who rebel against the status quo. Your stories champion people who will do whatever it takes to change their societies, overcome all odds, and defeat tyranny. Whether your character makes a small but significant personal choice or starts an all-out revolution, at the core your stories are about sharing your ideals with the world.

I love having this super power, but I’m not sure how it applies to my current work. My characters are ordinary, I hope. But I hope I show how their ordinariness is also larger than life. That’s what I love about the ordinary–it contains huge beauty.

How do you honor the writing life?

Here’s the third question of the week: “Tell a story about a time when you had to honor your reality. Has there ever been a moment when writing felt completely incompatible with your real life–when it felt like there was just no way you could make the two exist together? If so, how did you get through that moment? How did you find balance between writing and life? How did you make room in your life for both things?”

In On Writing–A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King describes the time he became a high school teacher and had to quit because teaching made it impossible for him to write. That passage has always stuck with me because that’s my push-and-pull: the full-time teaching that pays the bills and also fulfills me and the non-paying writing that takes time and attention that’s so hard to give when I’m teaching.

I know it’s possible to write while being a teacher–although I have more examples of retired teachers writing–for instance, Beck McDowell, who inspired many high school English students and then published two novels after she retired (Last Bus Out and This Is Not a Drill). Great books!

Writing requires chunks of uninterrupted time and long enough stretches of time to let the ideas go where they need to. How do we create those chunks when our time and energy are taken up by work, by other stuff? I also remember Octavia Butler as an example. She worked nights at a factory (?) and wrote during the day. I’m not remembering this exactly, and I no longer have a copy of Bloodchild, Butler’s collection of short stories in which she talks about her writing life and discusses the genesis of each story–I love this collection!

On some level, I have to put writing first. What does that look like with a full-time job?

How did you become a writer?

Week three discussion question for the DIY MFA Street Team–we’re a group of writers who love the DIY MFA website and are supporting the upcoming release of Gabriela Pareira’s DIY MFA book. We’re building a community on FB by sharing blog posts on the weekly prompts.

So here goes: I am a writer because I was a voracious reader as a child, a tween, an adolescent, a young adult–OK, I’m a lifelong voracious reader. And I love stories. Becoming a writer means being able to practice the craft of storytelling.

I also like when I manage to swing my word net and catch the right combination of words and sound that fit into a poem and then open a chink into outer space. Or into my heart’s breath.

As far as I can tell, my first published piece was called “Meditation,” and it was a description of the half-hour walk down the wooded lane from our home to the bus stop, and the piece appeared in my junior-high literary publication–I hesitate to call it a literary magazine. I remember feeling proud–and moreso, I felt productive or useful or just plain good that others reading that piece understood something else or saw something differently or simply enjoyed my words.

There’s ego and arrogance in publication–unavoidable, eh? But I want to err on the side of communication and aesthetics–sharing language is one of the coolest things we do.

Three other points on the trajectory of becoming a writer: At 18, I remember sitting on my single bed and having a short story pour out of me all at once. I thought that might qualify me as a writer. At 19, I remember being in Berlin and finishing The Sun Also Rises, and then thinking, “I want to be Hemingway.” Translation: I wanted to write a novel like Hemingway. Since then, I’ve gained a diverse selection of literary models and heroes, and a PhD in comparative literature expanded my lifelong trajectory of voracious reading.  When I started graduate school, I did not respect my academic writing because I thought I would only be really proud if I published a piece of fiction. I’ve since revised that take on writing because I believe any kind of writing takes a good chunk of creativity and craft.

So here I am. A woman who has journaled for over 30 years, has a few academic articles and poems published, has been blogging since 2003, has taught writing and literature off and on for over thirty years, has done freelance editing, and is revising a middle-grade novel. I became a writer by reading a lot of books on writing, being in writing groups, and practicing.