Way back in 2018, I finished one of the best experiences of my life…a terminal MFA degree in Narrative Media Writing from the prestigious Henry Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. It was a long journey, and I almost quit before I even started.
For years I had tried to figure out HOW to get a terminal degree. What’s a terminal degree you ask? Well, in the world of higher education you cannot advance your career (and you may have a difficult time even getting a sustainable higher ed career started in most areas) unless you have completed a PhD… or in the arts, an MFA.
My problem was my full-time teaching job…and I needed to put my children through college. Those were legitimate excuses. But they were excuses. Besides, it was still fun to remind PhD candidates that the acronym stood for Piled higher and Deeper. But deep down inside, I desperately wanted to get that additional and terminal grad degree myself.
When UGA began offering a low-residency program and I learned my employer would assist with an interest-free loan that would be forgiven in exchange for a few years of indentured teaching, all my excuses began to crumble. Interviews were completed, applications made and voilà…I was accepted! At this point, I need to publicly offer a profound expression of gratitude to the Director of UGA’s fine MFA program, Valerie Boyd. She invested two lengthy phone conversations out of her busy schedule to help me decide. And she accomplished this by doing the most important things any good teacher can do…she guided me, she encouraged me and she affirmed me that I could complete the program with success. She also gently and humorously informed me I could not use my age as an excuse anymore…since I would not be the oldest student in the program.
Well, this was all good until the day I drove into Athens, Georgia, to begin my first residency. I had not visited Athens since I had completed my other non-terminal, graduate degree at UGA over 30 years earlier. A lot of nagging questions crept into my mindset. Suddenly I was almost overwhelmed with panic.
“What in the world are you doing here?!? Who do you think you are?! Turn the car around right now and get the hell back to Kentucky,” a defined voice spoke directly into my head. (That’s an actual, direct quote, by the way.)
Well, I somehow overcame “that voice” because I think another voice informed me that it would be more embarrassing to drop out before I even started, than to try and then falter. After all, I’d have to explain it to too many people who had trusted me with “the plan.”
The second voice gave good advice. Very good advice! The program was a game-changer. I had some fantastic mentors, incredible workshops and met some of the greatest people I have ever had a chance to hang around with in my entire life. And…it made me want to write what I was feeling and thinking every day. After that first week, I could not wait to attend every, single residency.
What I find interesting from my current perspectives, are the key, unwritten, unofficial benefits that had nothing to do with a printed, official diploma.
One of the first big benefits? I now had official permission to blow off a lot of unwanted requests by simply, and rightfully, saying, “I’m in grad school now, I don’t have time for that.” The whole experience helped me better define what was important, what really mattered in terms of my life’s “big picture”…my own metanarrative was suddenly in much better focus. It’s amazing how many stupid, time-wasting activities other people can think I need to do. I’m actually very good at determining my own time-wasting activities—aha, the first, big step to true self-actualization!
Second, the experience helped restructure and improve my overall storytelling approach, for both fiction and non-fiction. It nurtured a lot more authentic honesty by connecting me with other solid writers and mentors, like Christine Swanson and Hadjii Hand, who also wanted to tell good stories and they demanded honesty. My good friend Becca SekmetOsun Artis once famously offered some of the best storytelling advice I have ever received, (and I paraphrase), “If they tell ya’ not to go there…then that’s where ya’ gotta go.” I realized that my whole life, growing up in a sheltered, faith-based community, I’d been told…don’t go there! Suddenly, the refining and redemptive truth of a Bible verse I had heard all my life, was able to now more fully germinate and take root in the fertile soil of my narrative memories. “Verily, verily I say unto you, you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”
And most importantly, as you may have guessed, I became good friends with so many good people. My classmates were among the best of the great intangibles of the experience for me. A real sense of community seemed to almost magically develop among a very diverse cohort. We were all on a mission and…helping each other. In the midst of our culture and country being ripped apart politically, I kept thinking, this is a microcosm of how our diverse country should be working together. I loved it. And that’s why I think that even though the days were incredibly long, often going close to 10-12 hours, time just flew by with my new friends. I shall never forget these people.
Oh yeah, I did get that official diploma. Yes, it has helped me tremendously in my profession. And on the day I received it with my classmates, these quotes struck my heart, soul and mind about storytelling…and life.
“All great work is preparing yourself
for the accident waiting to happen.”
— Sidney Lumet
“Plot is physical events; story is emotional events.”
— Neil Landau
“To make a great film you need three things –
the script, the script, and the script.”
— Alfred Hitchcock
“There is no point in having sharp images
when you’ve fuzzy ideas.”
— Jean-Luc Godard
“Better is the end of a thing than its beginning…”
— King Solomon
A good story is like a good bridge that connects you
to a place you needed to go.