Six minutes from the front of the line, six days until graduation, my classmates and I wait at the University of Georgia student bookstore to buy our caps and gowns. We don’t need to do this. Our grad school doesn’t require it. But we have decided to splurge and indulge in a dash of pomp and a sprinkle of circumstance in this rare setting that encourages it.
The jokes begin. I turn to a classmate, an award-winning reporter at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and wonder how to most pretentiously celebrate our pending degrees.
“What if we change our email signatures to include our degree? What if I signed every message with ‘Matthew Pearl, MFA’?”
“Yes,” he responds, “and you should add a photo in your cap and gown with a serious, academic expression. And you should list your published works underneath.”
We envision this. Then we envision how quickly our co-workers would chuck us out of our respective newsrooms.
In the world of daily journalism, an MFA in narrative nonfiction may not seem like much. It won’t add extra digits to my paycheck. It won’t increase access on my stories. It won’t bring a new wave of followers to my Facebook page. I work in TV news, where the average script runs maybe a page. One might question the wisdom of honing the skills to write book-length projects.
But this isn’t about wisdom of the conventional type. It’s about growth, craft and passion.
I have written and spoken for years about the necessity of versatility. In today’s media industry – a landscape tattooed with the words “volatile” and “unpredictable” – storytellers of any age must avoid becoming overly rigid. I gravitate to those who take chances, develop new skills, prevent old ones from atrophy and continually adapt to the demands of the profession. I try to do the same. At age 26, I pitched a book concept to my general manager in Buffalo. (He said he’d think about it.) Three years later in Atlanta, I launched a weekly blog, “Telling the Story.” I wanted to provide a pathway for storytellers to celebrate their craft, but I also wanted to test my discipline to write a new essay every week, knowing I’d require far more to complete a book. The blog begat a podcast. Both thrive today.
I first heard of the UGA MFA track in late 2015, when a friend of mine enrolled in its inaugural class. Every time we talked, she crowed about the latest authorial advice she’d received. Around this time, I had embarked on my own book, a how-to guide for do-it-all video storytellers like myself. “The Solo Video Journalist” proved a hit among college classes and early-job reporters, exactly as I had hoped. But I knew I would want more. I wanted to write a nonfiction book that required exemplary research and reportage in a field beyond my own.
The MFA program, I felt, could provide the foundation to do that.
It could also provide a terminal degree, a must if I ever planned to teach at the university level. (I do.)
So I applied. I knew waves of work would consume nights and weekends, at a time when my wife and I had planned to start a family – but I saw too many positives. The program was low-residency, so I could still work full-time. It was low-priced – at least compared with other grad schools. It was also the only MFA offered by a journalism school, the perfect mix of my passion and profession.
The past two years have borne out my hopes. I worked one-on-one with mentors John T. Edge and Lolis Eric Elie, writers whose names seem to Kevin Bacon their way into every major documentary and anthology about food. I spent a year paired with Valerie Boyd, the program’s creator and author of the exquisite Zora Neale Hurston biography “Wrapped in Rainbows.” I savored weeklong residencies in Athens, Georgia, surrounded by a community of eclectic and enthusiastic writers.
And I wrote. I wrote about the birth of my daughter, who arrived eight months into my time in the program. These words found their way into my blog and even a magazine. I cherish those mementos of my first year of fatherhood above every other benefit.
The degree is the transaction, the three letters that won’t dare show up on my email signature but might one day offer another avenue in my career. The rest is intangible. I can’t prove I’m a better writer, because writing isn’t math. It’s a subjective science. But I know the skills I’ve gained, and I see methods to apply them, even in my one-page show-don’t-tell scripts for television.
Six days after we purchase our graduation regalia, my classmates and I Google which side of our caps to place our tassels (right first, then left). We sneer at the extra piece of fabric that hangs from each sleeve, apparently for the purpose of “fashion.”
Then we line up, walk into the auditorium, spy our families and take our places on stage. At this moment, the dash of pomp feels entirely earned.
Days later I return to work in Atlanta. I receive congratulations from around the newsroom. Several colleagues confide their intentions to return to school. To my surprise, there is an overlap between idealistic academia and caustic newsland. I decide to write this essay about my process for journalists who might consider a similar path.
To those who do, I say these few short sentences: Don’t do it blindly. Do your research. Make sure you can fit it into your life. Feel confident your investment will return rewards.
But no matter your ambition, stay open. Push forward. And keep growing in this wild, difficult, beautiful industry. ■
Matt Pearl is a solo video journalist and the chief of storytelling and development at WXIA-TV in Atlanta. His blog can be found at tellingthestoryblog.com.