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.

Reaching goals through the MFA program in Screenwriting

This is the second of a two-part series highlighting 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 Screenwriting track. Read about successes in the Narrative Nonfiction program here.


Success as a screenwriter often comes in the form of a produced movie or television show, or in teaching the next generation how to find their voices and write their own screenplays.

The MFA program in Narrative Media Program, developed by directors Valerie Boyd (Narrative Nonfiction) and Nate Kohn (Screenwriting), affords writers the opportunity to learn in a low-residency format. Students have flexible schedules so they can study without having to give up their jobs or uproot their lives while pursuing a degree. The program features a week on campus in Athens at the beginning of each semester, followed by a distanced semester of individualized instruction by an impressive faculty of industry mentors.

Following are some recent success stories from MFA alumni and faculty in the Screenwriting track.

 Wendy Eley Jackson (MFA ’19)

When Wendy Eley Jackson graduated from the MFA screenwriting program, her accomplishment was a goal deferred but one that was worth the wait.

Jackson had dreamed for several years about earning her MFA but waited for her two children to finish their undergraduate degrees first.

“When UGA created this program, I seized the opportunity to improve my storytelling skills and become a better writer,” Jackson said. “Producing has always come easy for me but I wanted to be a masterful writer as well. UGA gave me that.”

The one-on-one contact with MFA faculty and mentors and the small class size are the qualities Jackson appreciated the most about the program.

Wendy Eley Jackson during an MFA scriptwriting roundtable in 2019. (Sarah E. Freeman)

“The people make the program so special,” Jackson said. “The close proximity to major writers, producers and agents made this the perfect program for me.”

Jackson is the founder and CEO of Auburn Avenue Films, a production company specializing in projects that are diverse and encourage positive change.  Most recently, she was executive producer for “Welcome to Pine Lake,” the highest rated documentary in CBS All Access history.

She also teaches classes in crew production, screenwriting and writing for television at the University of California Santa Barbara.

Jackson credits the MFA screenwriting program for honing her writing skills, focusing on building story and developing character.

“As a filmmaker, I understood structure and the basics, but my mentors helped me elevate my understanding and execution for creating impactful stories,” Jackson said. “It’s a master class, not a basic class.”

 John Strauss (MFA ’20; Screenwriting Mentor)

With Los Angeles as his home base, John Strauss has spent nearly 30 years as a screenwriter and producer involved in such popular hits as “There’s Something About Mary,” “Santa Clause II” and the Peabody Award-winning series, “David Makes Man.” He also teaches part-time at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. The idea of commuting regularly to the semi-annual residencies in Athens from L.A. was initially daunting, but the trips proved to be something he really looked forward to – writing retreats that inspired new creative work on his part.

John Strauss pursued an MFA in screenwriting so he could teach more. (Photo: submitted)

“The flexibility of the program and the fact that you don’t have to move to earn your degree makes it a great setup for someone pursuing a career who can’t just quit their job,” Strauss said.

Strauss now serves as a faculty mentor in the program he graduated from, allowing him to remain an important part of UGA’s growing community of writers while giving back to the program where he earned his MFA.

“I loved the pre-COVID ritual of coming to Athens,” Strauss said. “Athens has such a great energy and being around fellow students and the guest lecturers that they bring in…it was frankly fun and fulfilling.”

Strauss pursued his MFA because he discovered how much he enjoyed teaching and he needed a terminal degree to continue. Despite his years in the industry, Strauss knows there are always things to learn.

“I really believe that one can never stop learning. I am not saying that to be pithy, but between various mentors and guests and fellow students, I learned all kinds of things for a really fresh approach. And I continue to learn as a teacher.”

The past year has been busy for Strauss despite COVID. He is working on a new pilot on Hulu with Viola Davis’s production company, and he has another project with Warner Brothers and Harpo adapting a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney.

For someone who has found success in the industry, Strauss appreciates the value of the UGA MFA program.

“My advice is that if you want access to an A-level instruction program with mentors who are working in the business and you still want to continue your job, this is a perfect program to enroll in,” Strauss concludes. “It is absolutely commensurate with any film program I can think of in terms of mentors and their resumes.”

Christine Swanson (Screenwriting Mentor)

Despite her successful career as a filmmaker and storyteller, it is Christine Swanson’s job mentoring students in the MFA Screenwriting track that keeps her mind fresh and open to new ideas.

Award-winning filmmaker Christine Swanson in a discussion, “Diversity, Harassment and Bullying in the Media Industries: A Writer’s Responsibilities” on Jan. 10, 2018. (Photo: Sarah E. Freeman)

“Mentoring keeps me on my toes and aware of my own limitations and forces me to figure out what those holes are and fill them,” Swanson said. “It’s about personal advancement and growth.”

When she is not mentoring, Swanson is writing, directing and producing. Swanson’s latest project, “The Clark Sisters: The First Ladies of Gospel,” aired on Lifetime and earned the 2020 Best TV Movie award from the African American Film Critics Association. The movie was nominated for a Critics Choice Award for Best Movie Made for Television. Other credits include “Love Under New Management: The Miki Howard Story” for TV One and episodes of the television shows “Chicago PD” and “FBI.”

A big attraction of the MFA program is that doesn’t require a lot of time in a different city to complete the degree.

“Students have one-on-one access with professors and mentors throughout the year,” Swanson said.  “As faculty, we are given ample opportunity to interact with our students, and students are able to build their networks and always be in the position to seek mentorship and advice from any of us.”

She advises that students interested in the program should have some knowledge of the screenwriting process.

“Students hit the ground running,” she said. “You are not going to be babysat. You need to be motivated. You need to go in knowing what you want from professors and the program to be successful.”

This motivation is key, according to Swanson, because although storytelling talent is innate, foundational knowledge is necessary to become a successful professional writer.

“I try to teach students sound screenplay structure and then push them to find their own voices within the structure and to come up with something unique and viable,” Swanson said. “Some writers are more naturally talented than others, but I also say ‘hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.’”

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

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.

MFA in Narrative Media Writing

More information about the MFA Narrative Media Writing Program, including the screenwriting program and narrative nonfiction program, can be found by visiting mfa.uga.edu. Applications for the next MFA class are due May 1, 2019 (special alumni extension).

By Lori Johnston (BA ’95, MFA ’17)

I waited for the Grady College’s Master of Fine Arts in Narrative Media Writing program, and it was worth it.

I was enjoying a successful journalism career covering crime, celebrities, politics, business, and home design and architecture. I published freelance stories with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, HGTV.com, American City Business Journals, Wall Street Journal and many others, following full-time work as a reporter for The Associated Press and an editor for magazines and websites.

Lori Johnston (second from left) joins other MFA graduates Max Blau (MFA ’18), KaToya Fleming (MFA ’18) and Mark Shavin (ABJ ’79, MFA ’18) in a panel discussion about preparing for the last semester of the narrative nonfiction program.

As I approached my career midpoint, about 20 years after I earned my bachelor’s degree from Grady in 1995, I desired to move to the next level in my writing and deepen my ability to tell true stories. As with other times in my life, Grady played a key role in my career goals.

When I heard that Grady was launching an MFA program that was the first of its kind in a journalism school and directed by Valerie Boyd, associate professor and Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer in Residence, I decided almost immediately that I would be part of the first cohort, the class of 2017.

The program appealed to me for its low-residency format. I didn’t have to shut down or take a break from my freelance writing. Each semester, I was paired with one of the faculty mentors, who are accomplished writers. They embraced the experience I bought to the program. They challenged me by providing rigorous feedback throughout the semester. I relished the monthly one-on-one discussions with my mentor and monthly meetings, sometimes virtually, sometimes in person, with peers to discuss books and our writing projects.

The two-year program was a huge investment in my future. It required me to carve out time — early mornings, nights and weekends — for reading, researching, reporting and writing. At the start of every semester, I immersed myself in the MFA residency in Athens — an invigorating, yet intense week of on-campus lectures, seminars, panel discussions and readings by faculty mentors and visiting writers, agents and editors. Our days and nights were filled with intimate and sometimes relentless discussions about the craft of writing with published authors and classmates, who ranged from their 20s to 60s.

The professional and personal relationships I formed exceeded my expectations. My peers from across the country challenged my thinking and gave me confidence to find my voice as a writer.

The MFA program gave me a way to “steal time,” as faculty mentor John T. Edge told us, from our busy lives. For me, that was the life of mother, wife, journalist, entrepreneur, mentor and friend. I finished with three long-form narrative stories and a burgeoning book proposal, all focused on the intersection of faith, race and culture. Since earning my degree, my pieces on faith have been published in The Washington Post.

Hadjii Hand (seated on left in hand), an instructor in the screenwriting program, discusses a scene with current student Wendy Eley Jackson.

The program broadened my writing abilities, honed my leadership skills and gave me the academic qualifications, with a terminal degree, to pursue teaching full time on the collegiate level.

Recently, I joined fellow MFA graduates to read our work during a night of factual, creative storytelling in Athens. When I looked around the room, I saw the same array of ages, including several Grady undergraduate students. One of them told me the next day, “It was like art.”

Hearing that was worth the wait.

Johnston is a part-time journalism instructor at Grady College and co-owner of Fast Copy News Service.

 

First book signals new beginnings for recent MFA graduate

It’s all about good timing for André Gallant (ABJ ‘10, MFA 17).

Gallant had been waiting for several years for the MFA program in narrative writing to start, so it was a mere coincidence—and good timing—when he received a contract to write his first book within a few weeks of the first class.

Three years later, Gallant has his MFA degree in hand and is about to see his first book, “A High Low Tide: The Revival of a Southern Oyster” published.

“I just knew there was going to be a story there,” Gallant said of the story of his new book.

In addition to his role as a newly-published author, Gallant juggles his freelance writing for publications including Atlanta Magazine, Garden and Gun and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, with part-time teaching responsibilities in the Department of Journalism at Grady College.

“A High Low Tide” is a book that he had been developing since around 2012. Gallant’s interest was piqued when he was a journalist for the Athens Banner-Herald and received a press release from the University of Georgia. The release covered the efforts being made by researchers and  shellfisherman to revive the oyster industry along coastal Georgia. The state had been a top-producer of oysters in the early 20th Century, but that title had waned over the years due to economic and environmental shifts. Gallant started looking into the topic and writing about it more and more until he was encouraged to consider writing a book.

“A High Low Tide” details the process of aquaculture and the other programs that have been implemented to cultivate that industry and chronicles one champion of the efforts, Justin Manley. In addition to writing the text, Gallant also took all the pictures in the book.

Although the book may have become a reality even without the MFA, Gallant credits his education through the program with giving him more definition in creating a narrative arc, characters, structure and plot.

“The MFA helped me understand how to make the leap from journalist to non-fiction storyteller,” Gallant said. “There is no leap in ethics, there is no change in the core of what we do as journalists, but the presentation is different and what influences we use to tell the story are different.”

The MFA program is something that Gallant had been tracking since he earned his undergraduate degree. He had kept up with one of his professors and mentors, Valerie Boyd, who kept him posted about this new program she was developing.

Once he was enrolled the program, it brought even more clarity to what he wanted to be doing with his life. “Learning that term ‘narrative non-fiction’ was big for me,” Gallant said, “because I was able to label what I wanted to do—as a journalist, as a writer, as a human.”

Gallant also credits the program with giving him a degree to teach, a profession that runs in the family and one he has been doing part-time since he graduated.

“I am so proud to be teaching at Grady,” Gallant said. “It’s huge for me.”

It is the group of like-minded friends that formed from the class that helped him get through the second draft of the book and the program.

“To have the community that was built from that was amazing,” Gallant said. “Just to have these people you can call, or Facebook or email, who are just as obsessed with that work and to feed off of each another’s energy was really just invaluable.”

Would he ever think about writing fiction? Gallant admits that being a novelist was a childhood dream, but now that he has non-fiction writing in his blood, he dismisses the thought.

“Truth is stranger,” he concludes. “Non-fiction…that’s where it’s at.”

“A High Low Tide: The Revival of a Southern Oyster,” is set to be released on September 15. It is published by the University of Georgia Press.

 

Interview with MFA screenwriting student Pete Stone

In the fall of 2015, Grady College welcomed its first cohort of MFA students embarking on one of two learning tracts: narrative nonfiction or screenwriting. This low-residency program, the first of its kind originating in a journalism school, attracts professionals who don’t want to put their careers on hold and move to a college town for two years. Instead, this program invites students to campus once a semester for just over a week of intensive workshops and seminars, then tasks them to work on their projects through online contact with assigned mentors.

Pete Stone, an English teacher and video production company owner from Chester, S.C., is a student in the inaugural screenwriting class. The Clemson University graduate shared his thoughts with us about the program.

Grady College: What attracted you to the UGA MFA in Screenwriting program?

Pete Stone: During my high school years, I created a broadcasting show for the community and went on to be production manager of the Clemson cable network in college. After graduation, I was accepted to Florida State’s Master of Fine Arts program in Screenwriting. However, I am from a long line of small town family physicians, and the societal expectation that I should take over that role intensified when my grandfather passed away during my first year of film school. In short, I forcefully convinced myself that the best way I could give back must be through medicine.

I regretfully left FSU after one year of study. I prepared to apply to medical school, got in, and got started. Things went well for the first two years. The academics were challenging and boring as could be, but I got through it because I could still arrange my schedule to make time for creative projects on the side. During this time, I finished two screenplays, made a movie that got picked up by ETV/PBS about impoverished kids sailing down the rivers on a raft to see the ocean for the first time, and organized a small film festival in my hometown with dancer/actress Debbie Allen. However, after passing the USMLE board exam, I started the clinical rotations. These rotations required working in clinics for twelve to fifteen hours a day for six to seven days a week, plus finding time to still study for the each written exam. I was miserable and hated it once I lost my freedom to still do creative projects.

A poet from my hometown, Vivian Ayers, who I became friends with over the years through sharing my writing, incidentally gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever received.  She said, “We help the world most when we do what we do best.” Her mantra is “Be True, Be Beautiful, Be Free!” I reflected on this and decided that rather than waste six more years of my life, I could help the world much more being “true, beautiful, and free.” So I left medical school and turned to teaching English at a critical needs school in South Carolina. As a teacher, I don’t worry so much about grammar as I do helping teach students to express themselves and follow their bliss in a way that gives back. I LOVE my job, and I also love that I have time to work on writing and producing things creatively which I believe can in turn help others just as much as a physician does.

Learning first hand how physicians train, I wanted an opportunity to apply that same medical school-like rigor to movie making, which I naturally want to invest my time in, and earn my MFA in the process.  With my current debt and needing to pay for a program in cash instead of more student loans, I knew I needed to find a program that allowed me to work while attending.  I also knew that I didn’t want to waste my time and money on a program that even when I finished, I would be only slightly better off than had I continued to simply teach myself with the available online resources.

GC: What have you most enjoyed about the residency portion of each semester?

PS: The quality of the working professionals we have access to during the residencies is outstanding. The ratio of student to instructor is low so the personal attention we receive at the residencies from the caliber of working artists is phenomenal.  While writers do need time to transcend into another world and discover the story, writing for film and especially television is very much a collaborative effort that depends on interpersonal communication skills as much as the craft of stringing words together. The residencies give students a chance to be involved in an intimate, collaborative environment that has helped frame the context of each semester in a way that would not be possible from simply interacting only online or just with writing notes alone.

GC: How does the low-residency program suit your needs?

PS: The low residency suits my needs so well, that I often feel like they designed the program specifically for me. The low-residency UGA MFA program is perfect for getting a professional education from an outstanding program based at a well-respected university, from working professionals in the industry that still affords me the ability to work so I can pay my way through the process. Also, although I cannot at this time move to LA, Georgia is currently taking off for film and television production. Therefore, the low residency MFA creates networking opportunities with working professionals and other students who can help with establishing career connections in addition to teaching the craft.  Lastly, the fact I will earn an MFA is just icing on the cake from all the other amazing benefits. In part, this UGA MFA satisfies my educational, artistic, financial, and professional needs all in one, which is exactly what I was looking for in an MFA program.

GC: How is this format of working with a faculty mentor going? What do you most enjoy about that system?

PS: Christine Swanson is my mentor, and she is wonderful.  She is so full of positive encouragement while still being completely realistic and honest about how or where my writing needs improvement. She is excellent at identifying and listening to what my personal goals are and adapting her feedback so it is tailored to my needs.  During the residencies she exhausts herself by teaching us with great clarity the standards of the craft as well as an insiders’ guide to the business. Christine is also available whenever we need to speak over the phone.  I always try to respect her time and only call her when I have my work as good as I can polish it.  Her kindness, encouragement, and professional knowledge and network are all invaluable.

GC: Describe what type of long-term project you are working on through the program and how you chose it.

PS: I am working on two long-term projects.  The first is adapting a short film I directed that was picked up by SC ETV into a feature length screenplay.  The short is about kids from upstate South Carolina who having never seen the ocean, build a glorified raft and free themselves on the rivers in route to the Atlantic.  I am now working with Christine to expand the narrative with depth. The movie is about freedom from systems, and fits in well with my writing style of wandering in the woods to enter another world where I can record the adventures my mind discovers.

The other project I am working on is a TV show called The Wedding Coaches, it is essentially about football coaches and commentators who lose their jobs and turn to the wedding business for employment.

GC: Is there anything else that you’d like to share?

PS: The UGA MFA program has created a supportive, positive, and collaborative atmosphere amongst mentors and other students rather than a competitive or negative environment.  This is important as to succeed in this profession one needs self discipline and also to be very open to receiving constructive feedback and ideas on how to improve one’s work. In short, it is essential to come into the program with clear ideas of what your goals are but also with a complete open mind to receive constructive criticism feedback and ideas that mentors and other classmates have to offer.  One of my favorite quotations is “the only difference between a dream and a goal is a deadline.”  This program essentially provides the support and opportunity to transform personal and professional dreams into reachable goals.