DIY MFA Part 6: When Ideas are Cheap

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Photo by Pimthida entitled ‘idea’ (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic), link through photo

Welcome to another discussion of DIY MFA material; this week we’re talking about one of my favorite quotes from Gabriela Pereira’s book:

One of the biggest mistakes writers make is to hoard their ideas. They come up with an amazing idea, but instead of getting it down on paper, they hover over it like Gollum with his ring, hissing, “My precioussss.” But ideas alone are not all that special…great ideas are worthless. They’re vapor. They’re air. They mean nothing until you put them into action.

Followed by another great quote:

We’re not born with amazing ideas, so we must train ourselves to generate them on demand…Creativity is a process with logical, repeatable steps.

Once again, Pereira hits a young, naive writer (that’s me, guys) in the face with such an obvious, oddly invisible truth – good ideas are generated by everyone and they’re not once-in-a-lifetime-struck-by-lightning events. Of course creativity is not purely driven by luck or chaos or “artistic insanity” or genetics. Of course it’s something you can develop like any other skill with practice and determination; of course it’s something average people (instead of just drunken, bitter hermits) can develop. The more I read of Pereira’s work, the more I seem to understand that the message is very similar to most other self-help or how-to books: work hard, practice often, don’t give up. 

Part of me wonders if this is just the mantra of the successful, the only ones allowed to write these books, because it happened to work for them, or if there is a kernel of truth in it. Given Pereira’s seven or eight year journey to this book, I feel like there might actually be a kernel of truth; you can see the evidence of her hard work in the blog posts and her word nerd community.

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Photo by Daniele Marlenek entitled ‘Idea’ (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic), link through photo

So how do we come up with all these worthless great ideas? Pereira is the queen of acronyms; her idea generation acronym is IDEA. Inspiration, Development, Evaluation, Action. Inspiration is really all I’ve ever thought of as part of the creative process – how can I inspire great ideas within myself? Being a scientist, I typically go on crazy research dives to get my inspiration fix (hence all the science poems…). Pereira gives several tips in her book for idea generation on demand, but again insists that idea generation is a muscle to be developed; it is something that is earned by consistent attention and practice.

I want to finish up this post talking about Evaluation – the step before Action (where you actually sit down and DO the writing). In our new perspective, ideas are cheap – but the time to flesh them out fully is expensive (I’m talking novels, not poems). So how do you decide if an idea is worth pursuing so that you don’t split your attention between 13 different ideas and never fully bring one to completion?

Pereira suggests that you begin by writing a short story – a standalone piece from your major work. You can get to know your characters, their motivations, their world all from the comfort of a five pages instead of 250. Give this short story to a few readers – you can even send it off to journals for publication and develop a ‘fan base’ for the story – and apply the feedback you receive to your project.

And, just as important, is to consider if the idea is marketable. Look at other recent works in your genre; you don’t need to try to imitate the market, but looking at what’s fresh will help you get a sense for how your work jives with current readers. All in all, Pereira says that “This is your goal: having someone read your book. Don’t lose sight of that”.

Do you have any tips for generating ideas on demand? How do you decide if an idea is worth pursuing? Let me know in the comments below!

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DIY MFA Part 5: Handling Rejection

The dreaded rejection, the abhorrent failure. I’ve been doing it a lot lately, which means that it’s a good thing we’re up to the ‘Fail Better’ section of the DIY MFA curriculum. The whole acronym Pereira has for FAILing better is really helpful, but today I’m just going to focus on the ‘F’.

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Photo by Karyn Christner entitled ‘f’ (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic), link through photo

Failing has always been hard for me; at the risk of sounding appallingly obnoxious, I’ve been good enough at enough things in life that I was able to avoid failing for a long, long while and still be very busy. I skirted things that were important to me – auditions for musicals or a capella, sending out my writing to journals, etc – because I could just as easily do things where I was less likely to fail (writing for the school newspaper, running a sorority, stage managing). I even avoided taking poetry workshop for two years because didn’t want to face the facts that I was probably a terrible poet… so I took nonfiction three times instead (I had never even tried nonfiction before and thus didn’t have to care if I was terrible).

This issue (avoiding failure by choosing not to try for things that mattered to me) came to my attention right as my senior year of college began. I’d promised myself before coming to college that I would audition for an a capella group – every year, I had backed out last minute. Now, this cool September weekend, was the last chance to audition. With almost no practice or warm up time (coming straight from a hands-on outdoor volunteering gig) and with a ‘devil-may-care’ attitude, I went in and botched the audition. I told myself it didn’t matter, because I hadn’t really tried anyway and I was a senior so they never would’ve wanted me and I hadn’t had time to prepare (*ahem* four years) and…

I soon realized that I was a failure at failing and it needed to end if I was going to really live my life. So this summer I’ve really been pushing myself to fail, mostly with my writing, by sending out work whenever possible just to get used to the feeling of failure. Failure when you think a poem is beautiful. When you think your work is a perfect fit for the magazine. When you know your book has true potential (but you’re actually just not ready). Picking up that shattered heart and moving forward can’t be something I’m afraid of doing, or I’ll never achieve my real dreams.

It turns out I’m in the midst of the ‘F’ section of Pereira’s ‘FAIL better’ – Face your Fears. I am very, very afraid of my work never being good enough to be publishable. This is a reality I wouldn’t have to face if I didn’t ever try to submit my work. But that is just failing to take action, to take hold of reality and to progress. So I’ve faced (am still facing, will face for years) my fear instead.

I take a bit of solace in Pereira’s honest and encouraging story because unlike the ‘author bios’ at the back of so many books*, she instead tells us her journey was hard and several years long but that if you persist, against all odds, you may succeed. Succeed in crafting something beautiful and meaningful, even if only to a handful of readers and yourself. Succeed, but in your own sweet time and likely after learning to fail better again and again.

*(reading: So and So was Miss Universe, published her first bestseller at twelve, went on to start a Forbes 500 company at 29 and now is a sushi chef, writing five books a year that are translated into thirty languages while managing seven sets of quintuplets and earning four PhDs, what are you doing with your life, you worthless POS?)

So far, I’ve had a micro-chapbook and a novel manuscript rejected from publishers and at least eight magazines reject my poetry (and the list is growing and growing). I cling to the rejections that have lines like “we hope you’ll continue sending us work” as though it means something other than a form letter; maybe I was so close and they just need something a bit different. Anything to see me through letting it go to feeling determined to try again.

I’ve come up with an idea to try and manage this hurt called the ‘Try Again’ list, where I put all the information of the places that have rejected me – the editor, the name of the press, the work that was sent back. The goal of this list is to try all these places again; at least one more time. To go back for more hurt. And if work is ever accepted on the second or third or fourth try, I will change the color of the name of the magazine in the list. I will show myself that the failure was just one step on a journey to success and that, because I persisted in the face of objective failure, I succeeded.

Do you have any tips for dealing with rejection or even celebrating it? Share them with me in the comments below!

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DIY MFA Part 4: Goal Oriented

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Just keep writing, just keep writing…

I thought it was time for another DIY MFA post where I talk about the book’s content (there’s been so much science + writing going on in my life recently that I’ve struggled to find time to fit in regular posts!) and I thought I’d share what I love most about this book – it starts off strong with organization and goals! If you’re a writer who likes structure, this book is so for you.

Chapters 2 + 3 are all about how to organize your writing goals (you know, the kind of thing that’s necessary to really make progress on your work). Now, DIY MFA recognizes three writing goal categories: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, and Build your Community and asks you to balance those goals in whatever way works for your writing life at the time. The DIY MFA starter kit (sign up at the bottom of the patge) also comes with some really great goal-planning worksheets to go along with the book. After using them for two months, I can safely say that I recommend them.

Like a lot of things in the DIY MFA book, the idea of organization and setting goals isn’t revolutionary and yet, somehow, the way they change your view on writing is. Reading this book I had one ah-ha moment after another. Of course I shouldn’t be writing ‘when the whim strikes me’ or ‘whatever I feel like at the moment’; of course I need a plan!

Of course, the most difficult of the plan for me is sticking to it. I’ve downloaded the ‘goal sheets’ and filled them out. I’ve decided my little steps to my big goals – and then I get wildly off track. I seem to have some mischief in me that suggests I write about anything other than what I have as my goal (a really high-level kind of procrastination where you still get things done, just not the right things). Trying to work on a book? Here’s a great line for a poem. And so on.

Perhaps this is why Pereira suggests we revisit our goals every few weeks; because our circumstances and our interests change. I wonder if this revisiting is helpful or hurtful for someone like me – it gives me an easy out to switch projects but, at the same time it means I’m moving forward on many different things, piece by piece.

Do any of you suffer from goal-switching syndrome? Do you have any tips/tricks for getting yourself to focus? Share them with me here, in the comments!

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DIY MFA Part 3: MFA Mythology

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Zeus may or may not be so big on the MFA Mythology… photo from flickr/Internet Archive Book Images (link in photo)

In Chapter Two, “Customize Your Learning”, Pereira goes over some myths of the MFA – that you need one to teach writing, that an MFA is a shortcut to getting published (who believes that??), and that the program will force you to make writing a priority.

I don’t know that I’m convinced an MFA or PhD in writing wouldn’t help if you were looking to be a professor (though I agree with Pereira that many professors find they don’t have the time to keep writing a priority). Pereira says that it’s publishing professionals and successful authors who are being selected for teaching positions and this may be true – but there are many publishing professionals and many successful authors that will compete for the same pool of jobs. Wouldn’t it be best to be the most qualified of them all, with teaching and workshop experience, by having an MFA to boast of?

As for the third myth, I was surprised by Pereira’s take on it – that if you can only make time for writing by putting your life completely on hold then your writing career is going to be very short. A DIY MFA is all about that struggle of finding balance between work, life, and writing; it’s all about taking away those external motivators like deadlines and workshops (that I mentioned were hurting my productivity in The Perpetual Writer’s Block) and forcing you to build up your own pacing abilities and internal motivators. This takes time, but I do imagine that Pereira is right on this one – even if I go to earn an MFA after my “DIY MFA” training is long over, having the skill of internal motivation will mean a lot to having a successful career.

Periera will soon be addressing the three main tenants of the MFA in great detail: write with focus, read with purpose, and build a community. I’m interested to see how she proposes you build a writing community – the traditional MFA seems to be a lot better suited to that than the DIY model.

I will admit to wanting to attend an MFA program at some point – when I have the time, the money, and have shown myself I have the grit to make the most of it (which, as a very young and insecure writer, right now I don’t). For the moment, Pereira has convinced me that the DIY MFA method will teach me a lot of valuable techniques, particularly skills to develop my focus and internal motivation.

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First Book Launch

On August 12th, I traveled into NYC to attend the DIY MFA Book Launch as part of the 2016 Writer’s Digest Conference. Having never attended a book launch, I was surprisingly unsure of what to expect – what my etiquette should be as an attendee and what would even happen AT the launch. Here’s what I learned last Friday.

13895485_1366391106708939_4282586230696847159_nWhat happens at a book launch: Arriving at the launch, there’s a large stack of freshly printed DIY MFA books sitting ready to go for people to purchase. A table is set up for signings, a podium with a microphone stares down several rows of chairs already filling with writers and readers alike.

The author is introduced by an agent, the publisher, someone in connection with their book. After some applause, the author introduces their work, talks about their journey to writing and producing the work, and thanks influential people in their life. Generally, they do this without falling into the Bill Clinton trap of recounting every detail of your life in real time. And then, the author reads, in this case only for twenty minutes or so.

After the author reads, some people in the audience may be allowed to ask questions before the author is whisked away to the table to begin signing books (see below for my copy!!) and meeting fans and giving out a little bit of free swag (buttons, stickers, those kinds of things). All in all, it was a pretty low-key and fun event!

Things I learned as an attendee:13932799_1366412393373477_2450192984722850908_n

  1. People are friendly – I’m very introverted, and for the first half hour, I just tried to stay out of everyone’s way. I was clearly young for the crowd of the conference, and also one of the only people not officially attending WDC 16. However, in line for the signing I ended up having a nice chat with Joel Knopf and I had several other nice conversations with authors as I was leaving. It turns out everyone just wants to talk about writing at writing conferences (big surprise) and how much they love the author of the book launch (surprise #2). I’m really looking forward to attending more conferences now!
  2. Don’t be afraid of the author – I mean, it could just be Gabriela Pereira’s the only nice author out there, but probably not. I was really nervous getting my book signed but it turns out she was just as nervous meeting all her readers and giving the reading (she even apologized that her hands were shaking when trying to sign the book)! Authors are people who just want others to like their books and like them too. It helped for me to come up with what I wanted to say the day before (particularly which compliment I was actually going to say out of the 6,000 I have stored up).
  3. Business cards are effective blister block in a pinch – When walking through the hot city in tall boots and ankle socks, one might get blisters. Luckily, the thick card stock of a business card is flexible enough to bend around your heel and, given the heat, was also willing to stay in place when tucked into the sock. Business cards also work for trading information with people you might be interested in getting to know better… hey, to each their own.

Things of note for a host:

  1. Sound could easily be a problem – people are loud and don’t necessarily stop talking just because the author has gotten up to speak. Try to pick a venue where the acoustics work in your favor and where you will definitely have access to a sound system of some kind – otherwise you might as well give up hope of being heard over the crowd.
  2. Practice that reading – Nothing seems to be more nerve-wracking than reading words aloud in front of other people. Practice, practice, practice! Practice so that you don’t speed through it, stumble over your words, or mumble. The more you practice, the less likely you are to make mistakes, and the more likely you are to be loud and slow enough. You’ll develop a good cadence and tone for the section you’re reading and you’ll get cozy with it so that, even when you make that one mistake on reading day, it’s easy to pick up where you left off.
  3. Take care when choosing the venue – obviously, having your book about craft launch in the middle of a writer’s conference is genius. For the rest of us, important considerations could be: accessibility (is it close to any major transportation routes like subways or trains?), availability (are there any other big events going on for your readers that weekend?), and even time of day depending on the season (the city boils people alive in the summer so an evening, where it’s beginning to cool, might better entice readers out of their air-conditioned homes and to your launch)

Have any of you ever been to a book launch – or hosted one? What are your words of advice for newbie attendees and hosts?

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DIY MFA: Iteration Update – Running

13925069_1366323253382391_39197811937142014_nSo my first iteration didn’t work out perfectly which, actually, was expected. If you recall, in my post from August 1 I said:

“For my first two weeks, Aug 1 to Aug 14, I will be travelling between my former home and new home, so I’ve decided to test the input of light exercise over factors I think are actually more important to my writing (like place, writing time, and music/noise) which I cannot control given my extended travel. Each day before writing, I will stretch and take a ten minute run (hey, it’s hot out okay?) to see if that unsettles or invigorates me.”

Yeah, not only was I travelling between my former home and new home, we’re also experiencing a heat wave and I traveled to NYC, too. The times that I did actually run, I found that my ability to focus on writing was unusually high afterwards. But that likely had something to do with the fact that I was already feeling pretty motivated that day since, you know, I worked up the energy to go running and all (correlation not causation, anyone?). Unfortunately, most days the running didn’t happen and so the writing never got started either. Bummer.

For the next two weeks, however, I will be home and better able to get into a routine. I’ll be trying something new from Aug 15 to Aug 30, this time the input of ‘time of day’. Each day at 3:30 p.m. I’m going to try writing for an hour with no distractions. I picked this for two reasons – it’s a really easy goal to keep track of (set an alarm – you can’t procrastinate!) and also on an email suggestion from a blog follower who said “I just had a chance to read this [DIY MFA post] and wanted to offer a couple of things that work for me when I’m “frozen.”… I’ve determined that writing comes easiest during a certain time period, for me that’s from mid-morning through early afternoon. So if I can, I start writing these during this period.”

Thanks, John, for the advice! I’m hopefully going to try this iteration at a couple different times of day throughout the next few months to see what works best as grad school begins and the like. Many writers have discussed the importance of time of day to their writing routine; Ernst Hemingway said “When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there.”

Do any of you write better at certain times of day – or find writing is impossible too early in the morning or late at night?

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DIY MFA Part 2: My Big Kid Pants Don’t Fit… Yet

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Excuse me, Provost? Yes, I think there must be some mistake. I thought I ordered ‘Big Kid Pants’ for graduation but all I got was this shapeless gown and a funny hat with a tassel.

When I was a young girl, I despised writing… book reports (hah, gotcha). In fourth grade when my mother discovered I had neglected to write over twenty, one-page reports for a book we were reading in class, first she sat me down and made me write them. With her. All night. And second, every day on the way to school, she made me say ‘I love writing book reports. I love writing book reports.’ fifty times over in the car.

Fascinatingly, eight years later I became an English major who elected to take extra lit classes.

If anything in life were to show me the simple power of the pen, that moment was it. With words you can rewrite your world. You make the world what you tell yourself it can be.

In the DIY MFA mindfulness manifesto, we are given several principles to digest that make good sense to me: your resistance to a project could mean it will be a breakthrough project, writer’s block doesn’t exist, don’t compound your failure with feelings of guilt, and one writer’s best practice may not (likely will not) be yours. These all seem like good tools to have in a mental toolbox for motivating oneself to write, to write the way you do best, and to write without guilt.

But I struggled with some of Pereira’s phrasing – particularly “Sometimes you desperately want to write but you just… can’t…when you sit down to write, you freeze.” Pereira states that the solution to this bewildering resistance is to ‘put on your big-kid pants and write’. You and what words, Pereira? Seriously, though – how?

 I know this feeling of freezing, having written about that anxiety in my post on The Perpetual Writer’s Block. Unfortunately ‘just writing’ when frozen is as alien a notion to me as asking a drowning man to put on his big-kid pants and just breathe.

Trust me, if that was an option, I would.

Hopefully, Pereira expounds on this foundational principle later in the book – on how to get your big-kid pants on and break the ice, so to speak. However, I sense this is the attitude of a senior writer speaking almost condescendingly to a novice, forgetting the distinct helplessness of those fledgling moments. I believe it is the practice, practice, practice that Pereira rightly espouses later in the orientation section that teaches one how to break the ice (or avoid it altogether), not any momentary mental gymnastics. Just like my mantra on book reports took eight years to turn me into an English major, so too does learning to break the writing freeze take considerable time and effort.

Writing daily is like repeating the mantra ‘I can write at will’ in your head and the more you do it, the less likely you are to get frozen. Unfortunately, the point when you may be most frozen – as a novice – is when you have the least support, community, etc to help you ‘put on your big kid pants’ and move forward. Younger writers must be given real strategy, not condescending metaphor, to train themselves to get past these frozen moments. This may be especially important for young hopefuls coming out of academia where external motivators were a sole source of motivation and, without pressing deadlines, these post-education writers are forced to suddenly develop sufficient internal motivation overnight.

Are you a senior writer who still struggles with the feeling of being frozen – a junior writer who has uncovered tactics for pushing on past the ice? Share your tips with me below – I’d love to hear them. Until then, I’ll just practice, practice, practice!

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DIY MFA Part 1: Orientation

For those of you paying close attention, you may have noted I’m intending to go to graduate school in Biology in the fall and not to earn my MFA. And yet, here I sit, managing a blog and website more dedicated to my love of the craft of writing than to my personal scientific pursuits. Since I would hate to miss out on any opportunity for schooling, I decided to pick up the DIY MFA, a new book by Gabriela Pereira that teaches its readers to write with focus, read with purpose, and build a community (what Pereira asserts are the three main principles of an MFA program).

Pereira’s book calls for her readers to do some surprising work that, at its surface, isn’t writing; many books, such as Making a Literary Life by Carolyn See, teach us that there is more to being a good writer than writing itself. I’d like to follow my journal engaging with her material and doing my own DIY MFA as a bi-weekly segment on this blog for… well, however long a DIY MFA lasts. Hopefully, for other writers working on developing their writing, reading, and community outside the MFA this experiment of mine will be useful.

And I do call it an experiment since Pereira’s first piece of advice (when distilled) is for writers to use the scientific method to develop good writing habits. She develops the acronym VITAL: choose input and output Variables, collect Information, set a Trip wire, evaluate and Analyze, and Learn and decide what’s next.

For my first two weeks, Aug 1 to Aug 14, I will be travelling between my former home and new home, so I’ve decided to test the input of light exercise over factors I think are actually more important to my writing (like place, writing time, and music/noise) which I cannot control given my extended travel. Each day before writing, I will stretch and take a ten minute run (hey, it’s hot out okay?) to see if that unsettles or invigorates me.

I’ll be using Pereira’s writing tracker to note my quantitative writing progress and qualitative experience over the two weeks, as well as which type of project I’m working on (as my needs for CNF, poetry, and genre fiction seem to be very different). My ‘tripwire’ (something that reminds me to evaluate my progress) will be this blog post; I will evaluate my previous twelve days of writing through the newest post and then learn and decide what my next variable will be as I write.

So far as I know, my best writing happens at midnight in Dennys at Geneseo with coffee, sad music, pancakes, and a looming deadline.

Throughout the two weeks, I will also be updating you with my thoughts on various parts of DIY MFA and how I think they fit into the reality of being a ‘young hopeful’ writer.

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