088: How to Be a Learning Superhero (and Navigate the Great MFA Debate)
Hey there Word Nerds! This is our last solo show before the Storytelling Superpower Summit in June. We just rolled out the Storytelling Superpower Quiz and we’ll be having a series of podcasts in June that dig deeper into the storytelling superpower archetypes. We’re focusing on figuring out what type of character really drives you so that you can dive in and get the most out of the story you decide to tell, both for your readers and for you as a writer.
Today I want to talk with you about how to learn a creative skill. And this ties in nicely with the Great MFA Debate that is going on now, and that goes on every year. Usually in the spring, because that’s when people are deciding whether to enroll into programs they’ve been accepted into, a debate crops up on the internet about the pros and cons of getting a traditional MFA. Recently an article appeared in the Atlantic where a couple of researchers used computer analysis of texts to come to the conclusion that there was no distinct difference between the writing of those with formal MFA training and those without.
I wanted to weigh in on this debate for two reasons. One, because it kinda goes with my territory as the instigator of DIYMFA and two because I feel like people in this debate often miss the mark and end up arguing about things that don’t actually help you evaluate whether or not getting an MFA is actually right FOR YOU. So let’s take a look at the benefits and the costs of getting a traditional MFA.
- It gives you time to write.Truthfully, committing to an MFA means you really don’t have any more excuses not to put in the time and create the content you are required to for the course.
- It is one path toward publication.An MFA can help you make connections in the publishing and writing world that you might not otherwise have the opportunity to pursue.
- It helps you become a better writer.An MFA makes you practice, and practicing your craft will help you improve in the long run.
These are all good points, I’ve taken advantage of a traditional MFA myself, and each of these things rings true for me. But what happens when you become too dependent of assignments and external motivators? You might find that you’re unable to write without those external motivations.
- Financially, an MFA program can be prohibitive.There are many literal costs to consider, and while a lot of programs have funding for participants, most do not have total funding or funding for all their participants equally.
- Opportunity costsThese include having to give up a day job, moving to be closer to your program, and travelling (even for low residency programs).
- The Genre ProblemIf you write “genre fiction” (i.e. sci-fi, fantasy, YA, or anything other than what is considered “literary” fiction) finding an MFA program that specializes in your area is EXTREMELY difficult. You may have to put aside the writing that you really love in order to obtain this education, and that can set you back as far as time spent on the work of your heart, and can also make you feel like an outsider in your own program.
- What if you don’t get in anywhere?
Is DIYMFA the “anti-MFA”?
I get asked this a lot, especially around this debate. And the answer is emphatically no. As I said before, I have an MFA and I don’t regret the decision to get one. MFA serves a particular group of writers very well. What DIYMFA exists for is those who don’t fit into a traditional MFA. Whether it’s because you can’t afford to take time off from your job or your life, or because you can’t get accepted into the program you want to join, DIYMFA exists for you.
So what does it mean to be a DIYMFA Word Nerd?
If you’re part of this community, It means that you’re committed not just to becoming a better writer, but to becoming a better learner. Applying the DIYMFA concepts to your writing is awesome, but applying them to your LIFE? That’s solid gold.
“In a time of drastic change, the learners inherit the future.” Eric Hoffer
The publishing world is RIGHT NOW in a time of drastic change. We are in the thick of it. Every creative niche is. This age of sharing ideas and the internet has turned all creative industries on their head. Learning how to learn better means we can adapt, we can roll with the punches and embrace new ideas more quickly.
So how dothe principles of DIYMFA help you learn?
Write with focus.
This isn’t’ just about putting words on the page. This is about creative output. This principle encourages you to create a body of work. Try different skills, master them. Take a project from beginning to end whether it’s a short story or a photo series.
Read with purpose.
Be strategic about the information you consume. Balance your reading list to focus on what you’re interested in and also what, in your field, has stood the test of time. Dig in and think about why the pieces of each work were created the way they were.
Build your community
Connect with others in your niche and exchange ideas. When people exchange ideas, it’s multiplicative, not additive. When two people each have an idea and they exchange those ideas, then each person will come up with a totally different combination of those ideas. From two ideas you get four. Now imagine how many ideas you’d get from ten people sharing.
A few caveats about community:
- WorkshopsI find that workshops, while they are useful in an educational environment, can also be reactive. Instead of giving a writer the chance to get things right before they receive critique, they expect you to get it wrong first. Feedback can be a useful tool, but not before you’re ready. Build your skills first, practice, and create something stronger than you otherwise would. Then when you get critique you’ll be ready for it.
- Creative distractionFinding creative friends can be a blessing. Finally people who understand you! But it can also be a curse. You can spend so much time talking about the process that you forget to actually do the creative work in the first place. Don’t forget, you can’t exchange creative ideas if you haven’t spent time developing them first.
Develop your learning superpower
The MFA debate a perennial conversation. But I think we should all put aside our differences of opinion and just write! If an MFA is right for you, if it helps you to be the best writer you can be, then awesome! Go do it! If you can’t or don’t want to get into an MFA program, there are worthy alternatives. You can do the same things yourself and do them just as well.
Above all, let’s focus on learning. That’s what will make us adaptable as writers, as creators, as human beings.
- Article in the Atlantic
- Storytelling Superpower Summit
- DIYMFA book!
- Storytelling Superpower quiz
For more info and show notes: DIYMFA.com/088