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.