MFA in Narrative Media Writing gears up for fall residency

The ninth year of the MFA Narrative Media Writing fall residency takes place July 30 to Aug. 5 with several anticipated highlights including a public lecture by best-selling author Paul Kix, a film screening of “El Norte” with writer/director Gregory Nava, the relaunch of the Hear-Tell podcast and student readings downtown.

The low-residency MFA Narrative Media Writing program is entering its ninth year educating students in nonfiction writing and screenwriting, enabling graduates to finish their degrees with a publishable nonfiction manuscript or marketable screenplay.

Paul Kix reading — Aug. 3

Paul Kix will read from his most recent book, “You Have to be Prepared to Die Before You Can Begin to Live: Ten Weeks in Birmingham That Changed America,” on Aug. 3 at 5:30 p.m. The event, co-sponsored by The Bitter Southerner, Avid Bookshop and ATHICA, takes place at ATHICA/Athens Institute for Contemporary Arts, 675 Pulaski St, Suite 1200, Athens, and is open at no cost to the general public.

The new book by Kix is the story of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s pivotal 10-week campaign in 1963, ending segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, and shaping the course of the Civil Rights Movement. The narrative examines the lives of the four men who led the campaign—Martin Luther King, Jr., Wyatt Walker, Fred Shuttlesworth and James Bevel.

In addition to the lecture, Kix will also present a lecture, “How to Turn History into Story and Story into Memoir,” for the Narrative Nonfiction students.

Gregory Nava, Academy Award-nominated writer/director, screens film, addresses graduates

Gregory Nava, an Academy Award, Golden Globe and Emmy nominated writer/director known for movies such as “Mi Familia” and “Frida,” will screen his film, “El Norte,” Friday, Aug. 4 at 2 p.m. in the Fine Arts Building, Room 400. The screening and Q&A with Nava are free and open to the public.

Nava will also be the convocation speaker for graduating students at ceremonies Saturday, Aug. 3 at 2 p.m. in the Fine Arts Auditorium on campus.

Hear-Tell podcast relaunch

The Hear-Tell podcast, an exploration of stories by the students and alumni of the MFA Narrative Nonfiction program, returns this season after a brief hiatus.

Current MFA student Josina Guess (MFA ’23), senior writer of The Bitter Southerner, is the first of rotating hosts this season. Guess was assisted by Amy Pedulla, a current student in the program, who edited the first episode of the new season and Diana Keough (MFA ’21), who produced the episode.

“I am excited to be a part of a team of alumni, students, and faculty that want to keep talking about true stories and how we tell them,” Guess said of Hear-Tell, a podcast that began in 2020 by one of the inaugural graduates of the program, André Gallant (ABJ ’10, MFA ’17). “We hope listeners will enjoy hearing from some of the incredibly talented and interesting people that pass through our narrative nonfiction MFA program.”

The first episode of the new season, “The Art of the Micro-Memoir: Imagine Writing Hummingbirds,” features students reading micro memoirs based on the influence of Beth Ann Fennelly. Fennelly is author of six books including her most recent, “Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs.” Fennelly spoke at the spring 2023 MFA Narrative Nonfiction residency.  In addition to the student readings, Fennelly reads from her latest book and Moni Basu, director of the MFA Nonfiction track, reads  a short piece she wrote about a sentimental treasure and its connection with her best friend, Valerie Boyd.

Hear-Tell can be found on most podcast platforms, or through the Hear-Tell PodBean webpage.

Student readings — Aug. 1 & 2

MFA graduating student readings will take place at 4:30 p.m. on Aug. 1 and 4 p.m. Aug. 2 at Hendershots, 237 Prince Ave. in Athens. The event is free and open to the public.

About the Narrative Media Writing Program

The MFA Narrative Nonfiction program is a two-year, low-residency program designed to cultivate writers whose work will be published as a book or in a magazine, or through a screenplay or teleplay. The program offers two education tracks: Narrative Nonfiction Writing or Screenwriting, each giving students the opportunity to develop skills that will prepare them to be accomplished authors, editors, screenwriters or other industry professionals. Students begin each of five semesters by visiting campus for an intensive week-long residency, followed by a four-month online writing period, during which each student works one-on-one with a professional faculty mentor.

Narrative Nonfiction MFA bridges journalism and literature, with Moni Basu

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Applications for the MFA in Narrative Nonfiction program are due by April 1, 2023. Learn more and apply today

A photo of Moni Basu outside of Grady College.
Moni Basu, director of the Master in Fine Arts in Narrative Nonfiction and the Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer in Residence. (Photo: Sarah E. Freeman)

There are few things more powerful than a compelling, fact-based story. The Low-Residency Master in Fine Arts in Narrative Nonfiction program, based in Grady College, bridges the gap between journalism and literature, preparing students to not only produce impactful pieces, but also to have them published. 

The two-year, online degree program, which is flexible enough to allow students to continue on with their existing lives, prepares students with narrative journalism skills, pairs them with accomplished industry mentors, provides them with a writing community for life and gives them the tools and connections they need to have their work published. 

The program features an impressive and diverse roster of authors, literary agents and other industry professionals who work directly with students, inspiring them and supporting them while they tune their storytelling, reporting and pitching skills. 

Graduates of the program are prepared to write books for national and international publishers, as well as for prominent magazines, such as The Atlantic, Bitter Southerner, Oxford American and many others. Graduates are also qualified to teach journalism at the university level. 

In this episode, we speak with Moni Basu, an award-winning journalist and author and the director of our Master in Fine Arts in Narrative Nonfiction program.

Listen to the podcast on Anchor, or your preferred audio streaming platform, by clicking here or following the links above.

Nick Chiles authors new memoir about Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf

It seems fitting that Nick Chiles (MFA ’22), a Distinguished Writer in Residence, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and teacher of feature writing courses, spends a lot of time outside of the classroom writing.

Chiles has spent more time writing in recent years than teaching as evident by the fact that his 21st book was just published, 13 of them co-authored with celebrities. Like many of his other books his latest, “In the Blink of an Eye: An Autobiography of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf,” is an intimate perspective into a person’s life, and this book about Abdul-Rauf hit a special chord with Chiles.

“At this point in my career, I turn a lot of stuff down,” Chiles explains. “I am teaching full time and there only so many hours in the day. But this project resonated with me and I felt it was an important story to tell.”

Cover of "In the Blink of An Eye: An Autobiography of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf"
“In the Blink of an Eye: An Autobiography of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf” is the 21st book written by Chiles.

Chiles was very familiar with Abdul-Rauf before he took the call to co-author the book. Chiles grew up a sports fan of New York teams like the Yankees and the New York Knicks, and followed NBA teams including those that Abdul-Rauf played for—the Denver Nuggets, Sacramento Kings and Vancouver Grizzlies. In addition to his time as an All-American point guard, Abdul-Rauf is probably most known for his social justice stance taken in 1996 when he refused to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner” before his games because he felt the American flag was a symbol of tyranny.

“In the Blink of an Eye” is one of the first books published by Kaepernick Publishing, Colin Kaepernick’s new venture, and it draws parallels with his own experience confronting controversy over his refusal to stand during the national anthem before football games.

Chiles personally related to Abdul-Rauf the same way he related to Kaepernick.

Chiles explains: “The hypocrisy of it all…that you are not allowed to take a religious stance or political stance about this national anthem in a country where citizens are so zealously clutching their chest and saying you have to honor them when you salute the flag…they were fighting for our right to be able to have freedom of speech.”

Chiles has worked as a reporter for The Dallas Morning News, the Star-Ledger of Newark and New York Newsday, where he was on a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for a package of stories about a fatal subway crash. Through the years, Chiles has co-authored books with Jamie Foxx and Bobby Brown among others, and he spends several months shadowing and interviewing his subjects in person and over Zoom.

“I try to spend time around them to get a sense of their voice and their world view,” said Chiles of the process. “I call it ‘literary ventriloquism.’ My goal is that if you were to ask me a question about what one of my subjects thinks about global warming for example or the male/female pay gap, I would be able to answer in their voice because I knew them well enough.”

He said many of the people he co-authors books with are taken aback by how many questions are asked and how detailed he gets.

“I’m asking a million questions during the interviews. It’s usually pretty emotional for people because we are probing many topics. It’s pretty much like therapy.”

The parallel to therapy is one that Chiles appreciates since he majored in psychology as an undergraduate at Yale University. He was recruited to play baseball and was bitten by the writing bug when he wandered into the campus newspaper office. From there, he rose to the job of sports editor.

Since then, Chiles has earned an MFA in Narrative Nonfiction at UGA with the goal of teaching.

“I didn’t know what to expect of the program, but it had tremendous impact on me,” Chiles admits. “I did a lot of reading in the program, which was extremely helpful and beneficial. It really forced me to study how other people do what I do and I learned a lot.”

Although he has aspirations of working with other celebrities—Stevie Wonder, Jay-Z and Denzel Washington are on his wish list—he hopes people will be inspired by the valor and courage he writes about Abdul-Rauf in the book.

Chiles concludes: “This man had this belief and he could have just as easily bent to the NBA’s will and started standing for the national anthem, but he thought that was dishonoring who he was and he stuck to his principles.  I think there is something to be said for that. Convictions and strength of character are noteworthy and you have to stop and pause and learn those lessons.”

To learn more about “In the Blink of an Eye: An Autobiography of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf,” please visit local independent book retailer Avid Bookshop, or Amazon.

Nick Chiles talks with students in his writing class.
Chiles teaches feature writing courses at Grady College.

Moni Basu named director of MFA Narrative Nonfiction program

A quote graphic that reads "“This felt like a poetic opportunity for me. It is an honor for me to lead this amazing program and to ensure that Valerie’s legacy shines bright.”Moni Basu, an award-winning journalist and author, has been named the director of the Master in Fine Arts in Narrative Nonfiction program and the Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer in Residence at Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She will begin her new role in January 2023.

Basu has been a distinguished professor of practice at Grady College since 2015, serving as a visiting writer and mentor in the nonfiction MFA program launched by the late Valerie Boyd, who passed away in February 2022. 

“This felt like a poetic opportunity for me,” Basu said. “It is an honor for me to lead this amazing program and to ensure that Valerie’s legacy shines bright.”

Basu is leaving her role as the Michael and Linda Connelly Lecturer in Narrative Nonfiction at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, a job she began in August 2018. She was named UF’s teacher of the year in her fourth semester there.

Before that, Basu was a senior writer at CNN and a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she won numerous national awards. Basu is the author of the book “Chaplain Turner’s War,” which stemmed from a series of stories she wrote on Darren Turner, an Army chaplain who shepherded a battalion of infantrymen during a grueling deployment in Iraq. 

“We’re thrilled to have Moni join us full time,” said Jonathan Peters, head of the Department of Journalism at Grady College. “She’s a wonderful person and an award-winning teacher and writer, with bylines all over the world and deep experience covering issues related to trauma, race and identity. “Our students will be so fortunate to learn from her, and all of us in the Department of Journalism are excited for her to make her mark on the Narrative Media Writing program.”

Basu speaks during a panel at Grady College in 2018.
Basu speaks during a panel at Grady College in 2018. (Photo: Sarah Freeman)

Basu, who has also served as an editor-at-large for The Bitter Southerner and The Groundtruth Project, has a background in local journalism. Early in her career, Basu worked as editor of The Florida Flambeau and briefly at The Tallahassee Democrat, before accepting a position at AJC. 

“Moni brings continuity to the program. With her extensive experience in domestic and international reporting she also brings a new dimension to the mix,” said Jeff Springston, director of the MFA Narrative Media Writing program at Grady College. “As we seek to broaden our student base to become more international, she is the perfect person to lead that effort.”

The MFA Narrative Nonfiction program is a two-year, low-residency program designed to cultivate writers in storytelling. The program offers students an opportunity to develop skills that prepares them to be accomplished authors, editors, literary agents or other industry professionals. Students have published books and articles in national magazines. The MFA Narrative Nonfiction program is one of two tracks of study in the MFA Narrative Media Writing program. The other, in screenwriting, is directed by Nate Kohn. 

A number of leading editors, writers and instructors serve as MFA Narrative Nonfiction mentors including: Rosalind Bentley, interim director of the MFA Narrative Nonfiction program and Pulitzer prize finalist; John T. Edge, author of “The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South;” Lolis Eric Elie, filmmaker, television writer for series such as HBO’s “Treme;” Melissa Faye Greene, author of several books including the award-winning “Praying for Sheetrock;” Pat Thomas, professor emerita and former Knight Chair in Health and Medical Journalism at UGA; and Jan Winburn, editor of the Pulitzer Prize winning story, “The Umpire’s Son,” reported by Lisa Pollak.

Applications to the MFA Narrative Nonfiction program are due each year by May 1. Learn more on the program website.

Grady College partners with The Bitter Southerner

The Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication and The Bitter Southerner are joining forces to support great storytelling.

In a pairing of one of the region’s most innovative journalism platforms and the state’s flagship journalism and mass communication program, Bitter Southerner editorial staff will enroll in the college’s low-residency MFA program in Narrative Nonfiction, while undergraduate students will team with Bitter Southerner staff on podcast productions and exclusive internships. Stories from MFA students will be shared in online and print editions of The Bitter Southerner.

“We’re excited to partner with The Bitter Southerner, which has been involved with a whole host of our graduates from the beginning,” said Charles N. Davis, dean of Grady College. “This partnership places our students at the forefront of digital publishing, offering them vital experience at a site that is helping to reinvent the business model for narrative and visual journalism.”

Spring 2021 issue of The Bitter Southerner
The Bitter Southerner issued its first print publication in Spring 2021. Readers have enjoyed it on a website platform since it started in 2013.

The Bitter Southerner is a platform for regional narrative journalism that enjoys a national reputation. The website generates weekly content showcasing long-form, authentic writing and photography that brings the character of the South to life, and the publication introduced its first print magazine in the spring of this year. In 2017, the New York Times called the Bitter Southerner a “kitchen sink New Yorker,” and in 2013, Forbes magazine referred to it as a “’Vice’ of the South.”

Grady alumni Kyle Tibbs Jones (ABJ ’85) and Eric NeSmith (ABJ ’02) are partners in the publication. Jones co-founded the publication in 2013 and currently serves as its media director. NeSmith has served as the publication’s publisher for the last five years.

“This partnership is an exciting moment for us,” NeSmith said. “We have always likened our work on this publication to that of being in a laboratory. We have to constantly experiment in order to land on a successful storytelling formula in an ever-changing media landscape. The journalism school will be a great partner in this process, and we want this partnership to be as much fun for the students as it will be for us.”

According to Davis, the partnership offers many collaborative opportunities. It particularly aligns with the College’s low-residency Narrative Nonfiction program’s individualized learning approach,  and its  goal of inspiring and supporting each writer’s emerging craft and voice.

Valerie Boyd, the Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer in Residence at Grady College, directs the MFA Narrative Nonfiction program and serves as a senior consulting editor at The Bitter Southerner.

“Both The Bitter Southerner and the MFA program are committed to the power of storytelling and the power of truth-telling,” Prof. Boyd says. “The MFA program equips our students to research and write deeply reported stories, beautifully told. And those are exactly the kinds of stories The Bitter Southerner seeks out and publishes.”

The Bitter Southerner self-describes its mission as having one single aim: to uncover the American South in all its truth and complexity—and in the process to break stereotypes about the region and its people by pushing out important, difficult, uncomfortable, irreverent, witty, addictive, and always enjoyable stories that turn myths about the South inside out.

MFA Author Book Talk

Our MFA program in Narrative Media Writing attracts talented students from across the country and helps pave the way to publication of their work.

Join us in the Peyton Anderson Forum in the Journalism building on Thursday, Aug. 5 as we celebrate the book releases of current student Brandon Fleming (’22) and alumnus Martin Padgett (MFA ’18).

Books will be available for purchase. Program will begin at 4:30 p.m.

Success beyond the MFA Narrative Media Writing classroom

This is the first of a two-part series discussing a few successes earned by students, faculty and alumni of the low-residency MFA program in Narrative Media Writing. This installment illustrates a sampling of the paths taken by those in the Narrative Nonfiction track. Please view the installment about the Screenwriting track here.

The definition of “success” is subjective.

However, students in Grady’s MFA program in Narrative Media Writing program likely would agree that publishing a book or producing a script is a desired outcome of their degree.

Many students and alumni of the six-year-old program—on both the Narrative Nonfiction and the Screenwriting tracks—have found success.

Program directors Valerie Boyd (Narrative Nonfiction) and Nate Kohn (Screenwriting) note that the low-residency structure allows working professionals to succeed in the program by offering flexible schedules and no need to give up their jobs or uproot their lives while pursuing the MFA. The program is shaped around a week on campus in Athens at the beginning of each semester, followed by a distanced semester of individualized instruction by faculty and an impressive selection of industry mentors.

Following are some recent success stories from MFA students and alumni in Narrative Nonfiction.

Brandon Fleming (Current student)

On the surface, Brandon Fleming has an enviable career.

He is as an assistant debate coach at Harvard University and founder/CEO of the Harvard Diversity Project, an initiative that uses the art of debate to provide a pipeline for diverse students from Atlanta to Harvard.

The cover of Brandon Fleming’s book, “MISEDUCATED: A Memoir,” which comes out in June.

His success with Harvard’s program earned him an impressive resumé at a relatively young age, including a nod by Forbes on its 30 under 30 list and a designation by The Root as one of the top 100 most influential African-Americans in the country.

Despite such accolades, Fleming had an additional aspiration—to write a book. He enrolled in the MFA program with high hopes, but he didn’t expect his book project would morph into another kind of story—and that he would sell it to a publisher during his first year as an MFA student. “MISEDUCATED: A Memoir” will be published by Hachette Book Group in June. Fleming will graduate from the program a couple of months later, this August.

“The MFA program helped pull a book out of me that I didn’t even know existed,” Fleming said. “The program exemplifies the difference between good teachers who can identify potential and great teachers who know how to pull that potential out of you for everything it’s worth.”

“MISEDUCATED: A Memoir” is a personal narrative about Fleming’s journey from that of an at-risk, drug-dealing dropout to becoming an award-winning Harvard educator. Fleming credits the MFA program with guiding him through the entire publishing process from the inception of the book idea and the book proposal, to negotiating the book deal and signing a contract.

“In this program I learned that stories change people more than data ever will because stories are the gateway to empathy,” Fleming said. “Without this program, “MISEDUCATED: A Memoir” would not exist.”

KaToya Fleming (MFA ’18)

It did not take KaToya Fleming long after graduation to start finding golden opportunities.

A year after finishing the MFA program, Fleming was awarded the prestigious Jeff Baskin Writers Fellowship at the acclaimed Oxford American magazine. The fellowship supports a writer working on a debut book of creative nonfiction while working at the Oxford American, one of the preeminent literary magazines in the South.

KaToya Fleming talks about her new book, a bibliomemoir about Frank Yerby. (Photo: Emanuella Grinberg)

As she finished her fellowship, opportunity knocked again, this time with a job as assistant professor of publishing arts at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. Paired with her teaching responsibilities, Fleming is lead and acquiring editor at Lookout Books, a division of the creative writing program at UNC Wilmington. Fleming says the two jobs dovetail nicely: as a professor, she teaches classes like The Debut Book and Editorial Process, and as an editor, she helps fulfill the mission of Lookout, which amplifies voices of those overlooked in the publishing industry.

“Lookout’s editorial philosophy is particularly close to my heart,” Fleming said.

One reason it’s so important is that she is working on her own project, writing “Finding Frank,” her debut bibliomemoir about author Frank Yerby.

Fleming credits the MFA program with providing her a network that exposed her to an impressive roster of mentors while providing a supportive community of faculty and peers.

“I was excited to enter a program that was dedicated entirely to narrative nonfiction, but most especially one that was directed by Valerie Boyd,” Fleming said.

Boyd, the Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer in Residence and director of the Narrative Nonfiction track of the MFA program, has assembled a team of mentors—a diverse group of acclaimed, professional writers—to work one-on-one with students to draw out their stories and hone their skills.

“This program is refreshingly different than the typical MFA program,” Fleming said. “It’s a positive and supportive community where folks really look out for one another and contribute to their peers’ development throughout the program and beyond.”

Martin Padgett (MFA ‘18)

Martin Padgett was already a professional writer when he entered the MFA program in Narrative Nonfiction. He had built a career writing about transportation and automobiles, but as he neared a milestone birthday, he realized he needed to reboot and start taking writing risks to tackle the kind of stories that had always captured his attention.

“I wanted to remain a journalist, but needed to revive and polish my storytelling talent,” Padgett said. “Valerie’s program was the best fit.”

The MFA program helped Padgett to produce his first book, “A Night at the Sweet Gum Head: Drag, Drugs, Disco, and Atlanta’s Gay Revolution.” Due to be published in June, by W.W. Norton, the book tells the story of Atlanta’s LGBTQ civil rights movement in the 1970s.

Padgett, who was also selected as a 2019 Lambda Literary Fellow dedicated to working with emerging LGBTQ writers, says his book would not have happened without the MFA program.

“I had vague ideas of what I would write but it wasn’t until I sat in my first MFA sessions that I realized how high the bar would be set, and how deeply I’d need to embed myself in a compelling story that only I could tell,” Padgett said.

“Our MFA program continues to be a source of pride and joy for me.”

Padgett points out that the flexibility of the program allows for a variety of professionals to enroll.

“In our program we have professional journalists —and we also have had magistrates, firefighters, advertising executives and teachers,” Padgett said. “You don’t need to be on the pages of a daily newspaper or monthly magazine or website.”

What’s the best advice he has for someone thinking about applying to the program?

“Don’t worry about sending the perfect writing sample—send the most intriguing one, one that shows your reach, where you want to be, not where you are,” he said. “The ideas will come, and their shape will change from the moment you begin the hard work of becoming a more thoughtful, conscious, and nuanced writer.”

For more information, visit the MFA Narrative Media Writing program website

Individually tailored MFA program provides unique experience for Matt Pearl

Studying in a graduate program while working a demanding job is no small undertaking. Add the demands of becoming a first-time father, and for many students, that would be a recipe for disaster. But, not for Matt Pearl.

“That’s one of the advantages of this program, because it’s so individually tailored, you really get the experience that you want out of it,” Pearl said of the MFA in Narrative Media program, from which he graduates Aug. 3.

Instead of taking on an extensive research project that semester of his daughter’s birth, Pearl channeled his assignments into writing about his time as a new father.

“That’s a time you want to document everything you’re feeling because you know how quickly time moves. Not only was I able to develop as a writer and produce work that I am proud of, but it also gave me a memento of an incredible time in my life.” Pearl’s final project is a collection of writing about first-time fatherhood that he plans to turn into a book.

By many standards, Pearl already has a very successful career from which many would not make the time to pursue another degree.

Pearl has worked as a reporter for WXIA-TV since 2009, during which time he has won numerous awards, including six regional Emmys just this past June. He has received accolades from the National Press Photographers Association, including being named the Solo Videojournalist of the Year in 2015. He has written a guidebook called “The Solo Video Journalist,” as well as regularly posting to a blog and producing installments of his podcast, Telling the Story.

Matt Pearl during the 2016 Summer Olympics. (Photo: contributed)

So, what motivates someone like Pearl to go back to school?

“From a craft perspective in terms of print writing, I want to take on far more ambitious goals as a writer, and this program offers the perfect marriage of my goals” Pearl said.

Another benefit is a degree that would allow him to teach, something he has thought about doing in the future.

Pearl began considering the MFA at Grady College at the recommendation of a friend, Emma Lacey Bordeaux (MFA ‘17), who was in the first cohort. The fact that UGA was close to his home of Atlanta and was relatively economical were advantages, as was the fact that the MFA program was connected with a journalism college, unlike many other MFA programs around the country.

With his interest piqued, he met with the program narrative nonfiction director, Valerie Boyd.

“Valerie was very honest about the program, and I knew I would be in good hands,” Pearl said.

One of the biggest considerations in going back to school while working is the time commitment, but that has not intimidated Pearl. He admits that it is a huge work load, but managing the extra work load is preparation for the future, and he sees it as an asset and not a distraction.

“I think it’s good that there is a program that gets you working and reading and thinking critically, and forces you to do all of that in a condensed period of time,” Pearl said.

“There is never enough time, but this program gives you deadlines, while at the same time it gives you permission to experiment as a writer and take chances.” — Matt Pearl

The biggest take-away for Pearl is the way he looks at his broadcast journalism differently after taking these classes. Many of his favorite video stories that he has produced over the years were those he crafted in scenes, however he has a more nuanced way of looking at scenes now and plans them with increased intention.

Pearl also admits that he pays more attention to small details.

Pearl explains: “With video, you are letting video tell the story; you don’t have to tell what color the sky is because you see it. With writing, you need that attention to detail. It’s nice to be reminded of how detailed you can be with that attention and how essential that can be to great storytelling.”

The MFA in Narrative Media is a non-residential program, where each student spends two weeks a year on campus, and the rest of the time is spent online and via electronic contact with mentors and peers. Pearl is in the MFA track studying narrative nonfiction, while other students study screenwriting. Over the course of the narrative nonfiction program, students read an average of two books a month and write pieces to contextualize what they have read. They also write their own pieces, during which they are in regular contact with their mentors.

The commitment and dedication of the mentors is what makes the program special, according to Pearl. The narrative nonfiction program has an impressive list of mentors including James Beard Award-winning author John T. Edge, CNN’s Moni Basu and Jan Winburn, writer and filmmaker Lolis Eric Elie and professor emeritus Patricia Thomas, just to name a few.

“I don’t think any program like this works without instructors who are dedicated to it and continually push you to get better,” Pearl concluded. “In each case, the mentors challenged me, forced me to ask questions about my writing that I haven’t thought about, and offered a different perspective based on life experience, based on background, based on their own paths as a writer. These mentors have very busy, busy lives, but they carve out this time for people who have that same passion and have that same desire to use writing to make the world a better place.”

Hadjii Hand returns to Grady to mentor MFA screenwriting students

One of Henry “Hadjii” Hand’s personal missions is always trying to get better…and he is trying to encourage his students to do the same.

For Hand (ABJ ’98), returning to Grady College to mentor graduate students is a significant change compared with the undergraduate students he taught in his introductory telecommunications classes in the early-2000s.

“With undergraduates, you are just trying to teach the basics, but with graduate students, you really have the time to dive deeper and talk about how to develop better characters and make outlines really pop,” Hand said. “The one thing I have always appreciated about students, whether they are undergraduates or graduate students, is that they all bring a sincere passion to whatever reason they are here.”

Hand is one of the mentors in the screenwriting track of the Narrative Media MFA program offered at Grady College, an in-depth program with a focus on the art and nuance of writing for television, film and video.

Although he is familiar with the academic setting from his own time as a student and later as an instructor, it’s his experience as a producer that he draws from the most when working with students. He is the producer of the feature film “Somebodies,” that he admits is loosely based on his time as a student at the University of Georgia.  “Somebodies” premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival and won a Golden Thumb Award from the late film critic Roger Ebert. The film was adapted into a television series for BET, which Hand wrote, starred in and served as the executive producer. Recently, Hand has worked as the consulting producer of the television series, “Step Up,” on YouTube Premium. He is always working on writing material to get his own projects off the ground.

When Hand accepted the Henry W. Grady Mid-Career Alumni Award in Spring 2019, he emphasized the impact that Nate Kohn, his mentor and director of the MFA Screenwriting program, made on him.

In recognition of his accomplishments, Hand accepted the Henry W. Grady Mid-Career Alumni Award presented by Grady College in April 2019.

Hand said the biggest lesson he has learned working in the entertainment industry, is the realization that not every piece of art is for every person, and it is the writer’s responsibility to  have a sense of what’s important and to stay grounded.

Hand explains: “If you have some kind of mission statement for yourself, those criticisms, whether they are for you or against you, are easier to take because you can decipher what’s important and what’s not. If you are just writing stuff trying to please everyone, you are really going to get hurt.”

Hand said it his mission to share with his students the fact that writing is a never-ending process that is never mastered. He finds that audiences are always changing what they want to see.

“Once you think you have today’s style down, that may not be what audiences are into next year. It is your job to have your fundamentals in place. Storytelling never really changes but what audiences are into, and their sensibilities, do.”

“We have an incredible platform and they need to have a voice for something. They can bring about change, but they have to be responsible and be aware.” — Hadjii Hand

As an instructor in the MFA program, Hand joins the students twice a year for a week-long residency at the University of Georgia where they participate in table reads and guest lectures. When the part-time residency is over, he works one-on-one with a few students each semester as their mentor, helping them hone their projects and sharing writing advice. These teaching sessions take place via phone or email every week or two.

“I get the biggest satisfaction working with the MFA students,” Hand continued. We are here to help create some really cool projects that hopefully will help someone go out into the marketplace or help them get their degrees to help with education.”

Together, they will all be better.

John T. Edge teaches Grady College MFA students to explore narrative to better understand the world

The words “story” and “narrative” are in most responses from John T. Edge when he is asked about what students learn in Grady College’s MFA in Narrative Media Writing.

Edge watches the “TrueSouth” screening at Grady College.

It is a simple reminder of the essence and foundation of the low residency graduate program.

Edge has taught in the program since its inception. He mentors three or four students per semester to provide hyper-individualized instruction.

“I act as their first and best editor,” Edge said.

His editing knowledge stems from a vast resume including authoring many books, most recently “The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South.” He has written a column for the New York Times, and now serves as a columnist for Garden & Gun and Oxford American. He has won three James Beard Foundation Awards for his writing. He is also the host of “TrueSouth” on the SEC Network, a show that tells honest stories of the modern South.

Larry Scott of Scott’s Bar B-Q and John T. Edge pose for a photo at the screening of “TrueSouth.” The episode hosted by Edge featured Scott’s story and restaurant.

Edge says his students share common characteristics even if they have interests in different subject matters.

“A hunger for story is first and foremost, a rage to explain, a want to tell complicated, nuanced stories using narrative devices,” Edge said.

He counsels them on what to read to fuel writing and what research is required to become a better writer. He encourages students to apply the same devices found in fiction such as characters and story arc to non-fiction narratives.

“Narrative transforms our understanding of our place and the people who inhabit it,” said Edge.

Grady College MFA narrative instructors have specialized interests including food, health and biography, among others.

“The people who teach in this program have a wide range of expertise,” said Edge. “The crazy quilt we stitch together makes this thing work. That is what our students draw upon.”

Learn more about Grady College’s MFA graduate program in nonfiction narrative.