by Tammy Burke
Welcome! It is so exciting having you as one of our presenters for this year’s “Write Stuff” conference. It’s always intriguing meeting someone like you who thinks “outside the box” and what a fascinating concept creating the DIY MBA for other writers is.
I suppose the first question I’d like to ask is if you can tell us a little bit about DIY MFA. In your words what exactly is it? What was its inspiration? Where do you see it going or evolving? Greatest joys…greatest challenges?
Gabriela Pereira: DIY MFA is the do-it-yourself alternative to a traditional MFA in writing. This was an idea that came to me as I was sitting in graduation to receive my own MFA in Writing. I was reflecting on the amazing experience I had had in the MFA program, but I knew many other writers were not so fortunate and couldn’t get an MFA, despite being very serious about their writing. How could I help these writers get some of the benefits of an MFA if they couldn’t go to school, I wondered. This idea stuck with me and I ended up writing a post on my small personal writing blog about a do-it-yourself concept for an MFA. The response was HUGE. People started coming out of the woodwork left and right and leaving comments. This told me that I was definitely onto something with the idea so after testing the idea some more, I put that personal blog on hiatus and started blogging full time at DIYMFA.com. The rest, as they say, is history.
Do you have a favorite technique you share with serious writers?
Gabriela Pereira: I’m a big fan of setting limits in our writing. It sounds counter-intuitive, but when you set limits or add constraints, you actually become more creative. Having endless possibilities in front of us is a great way to kill our own creativity because to keep options open we end up never committing to one direction. The minute we close a door on one possibility, we’re committing to walking through another door, instead of standing at the threshold wondering which way to go.
Whenever a writer is stuck in that endless-option limbo, I recommend doing a quick creativity reboot, using one of the tools at the DIY MFA site. It’s called the Writer Igniter and it’s like a slot machine for writers. When you hit the “shuffle” button, it gives you a character, situation, prop and setting to help you start your story. This app was inspired by those flip books for kids where you mix and match the heads, bodies and feet of different animals to make different combinations. I reworked the concept for writing and the Writer Igniter is now on of my go-to tools whenever I’m stuck on an idea.
The reason it works is that the prompt is specific enough to force writers to pick a direction and run with it. At the same time, the prompts are open-ended too, so they allow for endless different stories that can grow out of the same combination. Just don’t get caught in the trap of hitting “shuffle” over and over until you get a prompt you like. I allow my students only one do-over and then they have to write.
I love the idea of the Oracle (Outrageous, Ridiculous And Crazy Literary Exercises) as your writer’s toolbox. The name and idea just seems whimsical and non-intimidating. It seems like adding that element of fun while learning or working is a natural strength for you. Can you tell us a bit about the Oracle? How you came up with it? Maybe an example of how it’s helped you.
Gabriela Pereira: Once upon a time, before I was full-time running DIY MFA, I taught writing courses throughout New York City. For those courses, I needed to have writing prompts, ideas and other treasures at the ready to help get my students excited and writing. Since my background is actually in design—I was a toy designer in a past life (yes, it was awesome, no it was nothing like the movie Big)—I love using unconventional tools to inspire people. I found this old wooden chest in my parents’ house and started storing all my creativity tools in it. The name ORACLE is tongue-in-cheek, of course, because the exercises are hardly the nectar and ambrosia of the gods, but just silly activities that I’ve collected over time.
I see the term instigator used to describe you…would you mind telling us a little bit how you got that moniker?
Gabriela Pereira: Ah, yes… my title. I made it up. Personally, I find titles kind of ridiculous. Like when a tiny start-up consists of the CEO, CFO, CTO and everyone is a c-level executive… who exactly do these so-called chiefs manage? It’s all rather silly. With DIY MFA I thought I’d poke fun at the whole title thing, because honestly, the people who matter know that I’m the head trouble-maker in charge. And since the whole point of DIY MFA is to turn the traditional MFA system on its head, “Instigator” sounded like a good fit.
I have to admit I am curious …one of the workshops you designed “Smell this Story, Eat this Poem” was selected by 826 National to be included in a lesson plan anthology “Don’t Forget to Write.” Could you tell us a little bit about it and how did you come up with such a cool name?
Gabriela Pereira: “Smell this Story, Eat this Poem” was one of my favorite workshops to teach. It’s a five-week course with each week focusing on one of the five senses and using it as a springboard to write poems or short pieces of flash fiction. Originally this workshop was called “Writing Through the Senses” and I used it to teach adults, but when I got the chance to teach it at 826NYC (a wonderful writing organization in Brooklyn) the program suggested changing the name to make it more fun for kids. Teaching this workshop at 826 was a blast and perhaps among the most rewarding experiences I’ve had as a writing teacher.
I’m a firm believer that writing teachers MUST take writers seriously and challenge them to their highest ability, whether they are in first grade or in a graduate MFA seminar, whether they are 6 or 86 years old. This is the philosophy that I embrace with my own students. That elementary school kids were able to discuss the sophisticated poems from this workshop syllabus and create their own stories and poetry to boot is testament to how well this philosophy works. When the class concluded, the folks at 826 National selected it to include in their lesson plan anthology. This was a huge honor for me because it was real validation of my teaching techniques and philosophy, but after the amazing five weeks working with the students in the class, the publication was really just the icing on the cake.
Speaking of workshops, could you give us a little teaser on what you’ll be covering in the two workshops “Creating a Stronger Outline for a Stronger Story” and “The Seven Steps to Stronger Middle Grade and YA Novels” which you will be teaching at the conference?
Gabriela Pereira: The outline workshop is all about creative approaches to outlining and ways to use planning techniques and tools so that you can make your story the best it can be. I myself am not a huge fan of outlines—at least not the traditional techniques we’re taught in grade school. Instead, I’m a much bigger fan of visual techniques that help me get a handle on my story at a glance. In this workshop I’ll also share my “secret sauce” outline formula and explain how in writing 3+2=1. And at the end, I’ll discuss what to do with an outline once you have one.
The Seven Steps workshop is among my favorites to teach because I get to geek out over Middle Grade and YA. As a writer in the MFA program I wrote primarily MG, with some YA woven in for a change of pace, so my first true love in literature was writing for young people. The Seven Steps workshop walks writers through the step-by-step process you need o get a story out of a rut and back up and running. While this workshop uses examples from children’s books, really any writer who needs to give a story a fresh start will benefit from this session
As someone who writes Middle Grade and YA what would you say is most important to impact the young reader? Do you think it’s different than with adult genres?
Gabriela Pereira: I think it’s a fallacy that writing for kids and adults is somehow different. Sure, there may be a few limitations in terms of content (you wouldn’t want an explicit scene in a middle grade novel) but the core elements of story are always the same. Stories always boil down to character and plot. If you have an amazing character that readers want to root for, and if the plot and story make sense and build up the right way, that’s all that really matters. The fundamentals of story are universal, no matter who the reader is, or what genre you may write.
Also, I’d like to add that young readers are much less willing to put up with writerly BS than an adult would be. While an adult reader might stick with a story through the boring parts because they feel they “should” finish it, kids are WAY too smart for that and they won’t put up with this sort of nonsense. This means, if you can write for kids and teens, you can probably write for anybody. That’s why I believe writing children’s books is among the noblest arts, and I think most writers should try their hand at it at some point in their lives because they will be better writers for it.
And last question… anything new on the horizon for you?
Gabriela Pereira: Yes! I just signed a few months ago with Writer’s Digest Books to turn DIY MFA into a full-length book. I can’t tell you how excited I am about this. Now I’m deep in the throes of writing the manuscript. All fun things.
Gabriela Pereira is the Creative Director and Instigator of DIY MFA, the do-it-yourself alternative to a Masters degree in writing. She creates tools and techniques to help writers get the benefits of an MFA program without going to school. Gabriela earned her MFA from The New School and has taught both online and at national and international conferences. When she’s not teaching or working on DIY MFA, she enjoys writing middle grade and teen fiction, with a few “short stories for grown-ups” thrown in for good measure. To learn more about Gabriela and DIY MFA, visit DIYMFA.com.
Tammy Burke, GLVWG member, 2011 conference chair and past president, has published over 400 articles in daily newspapers, newsletters and regional magazines. As a journalist and also with helping with the GLVWG “Write Stuff” conference she has interviewed a wide-range of literary agents, publishers, authors, state and local government officials, business and community leaders, everyday folk and celebrities. Currently, she is in the revision stage for her first YA fantasy adventure book, Uriah’s Window, the first in an intended series. When not writing, she works in the social service field, fancies herself a student of the fantastic and mundane, and is a fencing marshal in the Society of Creative Anachronism (SCA).