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DIY-MFA. Part 3 - Developing Your Critical Eye.

Image: Focus on developing your critical eye. (Source: Favauthors)

So, building on my DIY-MFA Parts 1 and 2, you should have complied your list of books (or other media) and be ready to progress. What comes next?


Image: At the start, your goals may seem distant and sometimes the first step can seem daunting. (Source: Svegeniy)

As mentioned in the last blog, you need to progressively read the assembled list (or in my case, pile of books), but in a fashion that might be new to you. The objective is to read the works in a way that deepens your understanding of the literary techniques, themes, and the nuances of the creator. To assist you in this process there are a few steps that can set you on this path.


1.                Set Clear Goals.

Before you begin each work, clarify what you want to learn from each text. Are you focusing on narrative structure, character development, thematic exploration, or the use of language and style? This should be informed by recounting the reason why you decided on this particular work in the first instance.

 Your study should include things beyond the work in your hands. Think about when and how the work was written. You’ll need to do some additional research on this aspect. For example, drawing on two works from my list, compare the style of Tim Winton who claims he “has never worked a real job in his life” and that from Behrouz Boochani, who wrote his first work while in Immigration Detention (Australia’s Illegal Prison for refugees) on a smuggled mobile phone.

Image: When you have a clear picture of what you want to achieve and you're more likely to achieve it. (Source Focalpoint)

2.                Actively Engage with the Text.

I struggle with this. Highlight and annotate as you go. Remember the works you’ve compiled are your textbooks. They are working books, not pristine works of art (even if they are) that you want to display on your shelves to impress your friends. Use highlighters, annotations, etc. (or their digital equivalents if on an e-book) to mark important passages, literary techniques, unique stylistic features, and significant themes. Write marginal notes to summarize points, ask questions, or jot down how the work made you feel.

I hope it goes without saying that you will need to come up with an alternative if you’re using a library book. Hint: I use my phone to take a phot oof the relevant text. You can them compile the photos on a few pages to record what you’ve selected.

Image: In a good book the characters should leap off the page. (Source: Ditbauer wasp)

3.                Look for Patterns.

Pay attention to recurring themes, symbols, motifs, or stylistic elements. How do these patterns contribute to the overall message or effect of the work? How does the author bring new language to the work. Does the writer use cliches? Does the writer use traditional punctuation. A friend of mine coined the phrase ‘naked punctuation’ to describe Winton’s practice of not using quotation marks to delineate spoken text. When Winton was asked the reason for this, he advised that it was because he believed that what he claimed was excessive punctuation was a distraction to the reader. For a new writer I think it is vital that you know what the rules are before you decide to break them.

Some writers use the length of sentences and words to signal the pace of the text, others particularly poets, even exploit the ‘white space’ around the text to apply a pattern.

Image: Look more deeply at the writer's intent, not just what they are writing. (Source: David Cloud)


4.                Organize Your Insights.

No one but you needs to read your notes. As this is a DIY-MFA you don’t have to submit anything to any lecturer or examiner at all. It is still an excellent practice however, that will put you in good stead later on if you organise yourself. One way to organise this part of your study is to break your notes into sections such as:

  • Thematic Notes: Organize your notes around central themes or issues the text addresses. Is the author trying to convey a certain theme or highlight particular issues?

  • Character Analysis: Note how characters are developed and what they represent within the story. Consider their motivations, transformations, and the role they play in advancing the narrative or themes. Jot down a character profile for each person in the text. Ask yourself if you are ‘imprinting’ characteristics or features of the character by inference rather than what the author has explicit described. Ask why you might have a certain character in this way. Are you drawing on real people (single or multiple) form your own reality? Has the author created believable characters, characters with multiple ‘layers’ or stuck to stereotypes.

  • Narrative Techniques and Structure: Document the narrative perspective, structure of the plot, pacing, and how these elements influence the reader's understanding or emotional engagement with the text.

  • Setting: Draw a timeline or a map if it adds to your understanding.

  • Literary Devices and Language: Note the use of metaphors, similes, imagery, tone, and other linguistic techniques. How do these choices impact the narrative or thematic expression? Are they unique? Do they convey the tone of the work? Are they congruent with the time and the character?

  • Cultural and Historical Context: Reflect on how the text engages with its cultural, historical, or social context. How does it reflect, critique, or challenge its environment? If the work is from years ago, is it still relevant today?

Image: Remove the 'shades' of preconceived ideas to interrogate what lays between the words. (Source: Google Images)

5. Practice, Experiment and Imitate

I’ve found it valuable to use notes and impressions of writers works that I admire, as a springboard for writing exercises. Try imitating a narrative technique, exploring a theme, or developing a character inspired by your readings. Of course, you won’t be able to submit these exercises for publication (at best they are fan fiction), but they are a great exercise to learn, by putting your head in the mind of the writer. This practice deepens your understanding and helps articulate your insights on literary works. I’ve done this with Christos Tsiolkas, Colm Toibin and Harumi Murakami and it is great fun.


Source: The distinctive genius, Harumi Murakami, looking cool. (Source: HM's website)

Finally, Engage with the Writing Community. I have been absolutely overjoyed at how welcoming the writing community has been. In a ‘real’ MFA you’d have the benefit of a classroom of people and lecturers that are members of the community that you want to join. In the DIY-MFA you’ve got to be more proactive. There is huge benefit from sharing your insights and analyses with peers, mentors, or through literary forums. Engaging in discussions can provide new perspectives and deepen your understanding.

Image: Dreams can be found between the pages of a book. (Source Google images).

The next blog will focus on how you can engage with peers from the comfort of the DIY-MFA.

DIY-MFA Part 4. Engaging with Your Community.

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