Bridging the false divide

Valerie Boyd’s road to becoming an author was unusual — she was invited. Boyd had become a fan of Zora Neale Hurston’s after reading “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and considered her a “literary grandmother.” So when the seasoned journalist was contacted by an agent who asked her if she’d consider writing a book proposal for a new biography of Hurston, she felt like she had “no choice but to say yes,” although book publishing was a foreign world.

In 2003 she published “Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston,” which earned a Southern Book Award and the American Library Association’s Notable Book Award, as well as garnering a Georgia Author of the Year Award for Boyd. The Washington Post called it “definitive,” The Boston Globe “elegant and exhilarating.”

Boyd joined the UGA faculty in 2004 after nearly 20 years as a reporter and editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Now an associate professor and the Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer in Residence, she has combined her journalism expertise with lessons learned in publishing to create UGA’s new Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Narrative Media Writing degree. Based on Boyd’s proposal and five years in the making, the program began in fall.

“I had this kind of dream experience in becoming an author,” Boyd says. “But for a lot of people, that’s not going to happen. You have to catalyze it yourself, and an MFA program like ours will show you how to do that.”

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In early January — on Zora Neale Hurston’s birthday — Boyd leads a graduate seminar on how to put together a book proposal. The semester officially starts in four days, and most students haven’t returned to campus yet, but the MFA program is different. Housed in the Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, it’s a low-residency program; students visit campus once a semester for eight to 10 days of seminars and workshops before returning home and resuming their work online. There are two tracks of study: narrative nonfiction, directed by Boyd, and screenwriting, led by Nate Kohn, professor of entertainment and media studies. This program is just one way UGA is creating unique learning opportunities for nontraditional graduate students.

An MFA program based in a college of journalism is unusual; in fact, UGA’s is the only one in the United States. To find something similar, a student would have to travel to Canada for the MFA in creative nonfiction based in the School of Journalism at University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

“My idea was to bridge the false divide between journalism and literature,” Boyd says. “Journalists bring a kind of facility with research and reporting that a lot of other writers don’t have. We know how to get the facts, and we know how to research and report stories. Our MFA program is designed to show students how to use those research and reporting skills, combined with beautiful, literary storytelling, to turn our journalism into literature – what I call factual literature.”

And that, according to Grady Dean Charles Davis, is precisely what Boyd did in “Wrapped in Rainbows.”

“She’s an artist,” he says. “If you pick up her book, what you will see right away is the meticulous way she approaches the task of writing, the lavish detail, the incredible use of primary-source documents.”

“What Valerie demonstrates to the students is that you cannot write that way unless you have already researched that way.”

Joining Boyd as faculty for the program are Moni Basu, a senior enterprise reporter for CNN Digital with a 26-year background in newspaper reporting and editing, and John T. Edge (M ’86), a well-known food writer, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi, and a contributing editor at Garden & Gun.

The narrative nonfiction program’s journalism-based emphasis and strong core faculty attracted 11 students in its first year, many of whom are seasoned reporters. (Boyd expects to fill the second class with the maximum number of students, 15, in August.)

“It’s hard reporting of facts, but telling it in a literary way, so that’s what’s appealing,” says Rosalind Bentley, a student in the program and an AJC reporter for more than a decade.

Karen Thomas, also a student in the program, spent 25-plus years at daily newspapers before becoming a professor in Southern Methodist University’s journalism program. But she’d long wanted to make the transition to books and other long-form writing. Thomas didn’t need another degree — she already has a master’s from Columbia University — but after meeting Boyd at a writer’s conference, she was eager to work with her.

“It was all about Valerie,” she says.

“I find her an incredible journalist and writer and thinker.”

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MFA student Andre Gallant reads his story pitch out loud, while faculty and fellow students listen intently. The Athens-based journalist and photographer gradually weaves the tale of an immigrant who’s making a new home in Georgia.

“That was nice. That was really nice,” Chuck Reece (ABJ ’94) responds, and then follows up with advice on making the pitch even more effective.

Reece, editor and co-founder of The Bitter Southerner, is visiting class to give feedback as the students present story ideas. They’ve been honing their skills this week, and the pressure’s on to “stand and deliver,” as Edge says. If Reece likes an idea, the student may get a chance to write it for the digital publication, which provides “one great story from the South every week.”

The ideas are far-ranging, including issues of race, religion and the environment, but also veer into more personal topics. After each pitch, Reece reflects on what he’s heard and asks questions, giving students a glimpse into how he evaluates story ideas.

Boyd listens quietly, but reveals her pride at the end of the session.

“I just want to say that I was really impressed with all of your pitches. I think the ideas are extraordinarily fresh,” she tells her students. “Now that I’ve heard them, I’m going to push you to make them happen.”

Providing this kind of support is typical of Boyd, says Susan Southard, author of “Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War.” Boyd served as an associate faculty mentor from 2005-07 at Antioch University in Los Angeles, where Southard was enrolled in the creative writing MFA program.

“She’s very kind. She’s very responsive,” Southard says. “And she really holds the faith for her students, for what they’re trying to achieve, that they will get there.”

Southard was one of five visiting writers during the January residency at UGA; she and Sheri Booker (“Nine Years Under: Coming of Age in an Inner City Funeral Home”) were part of a panel discussion titled “The Road to the First Book,” which gave students a chance to hear the nitty-gritty of their experiences.

Boyd’s approach to the curriculum is decidedly pragmatic, focusing not only on improving writing skills but also making sure students understand a variety of issues: how writers get paid, how agent/writer relationships work and why writers should set aside money to pay for photo rights, for example.

“I think a lot of programs are so craft focused that they don’t focus on the practicalities of being a writer, and that’s something I wanted to do differently here,” she says.

“I don’t want you to leave the program without an understanding of how the process works,” she tells the students. “I think a lot of MFA programs don’t tell people that. It’s like they don’t believe that you’re going to get a book deal. I believe that you will get a book deal.”

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There are two things every writer needs, according to Valerie Boyd. One is community, and the other is solitude. UGA’s MFA program provides both. The students work in a community setting during the residency and then in solitude when they return to their homes and face what every writer dreads — the blank page (or screen).

But technology makes it possible for the students to continue their work and stay in touch with mentors and each other. The MFA program is just one of UGA’s growing set of online offerings — in 2010 there were seven programs, and now there are 32.

“What I think is most exciting is being able to increase access to students that normally would not be able to come to the university, and providing that option to reach out across the entire state but also regionally and nationally,” says Keith Bailey, director of online learning.

In addition to attracting students without the barrier of geography, programs like this become more and more vital as traditional career expectations change, says Suzanne Barbour, dean of the Graduate School.

“Back in my parents’ generation, you earned a degree and then you went to work. In my generation, and certainly in the generations following mine, you are learning throughout your career,” Barbour says. “The idea of going back to school has become the norm because people view themselves as lifelong learners.”

Bailey and Barbour agree that adding the low-residency component attracts more experienced students because it allows people to pursue a graduate degree without quitting their jobs, uprooting their families and moving to Athens. And those are the students who Davis wants to bring to the Grady College.

“Anyone who has taught mid-career professionals in a graduate setting knows how wonderful they are to teach because they are completely bought in,” he says. “They are prepared, they are active, they are engaged learners.”

Boyd has found that to be true of her MFA students.

“This first group sets the bar,” she says, “and they’ve set it pretty darn high.”

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On days when she’s not teaching, Boyd can be found at the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library at Emory University, reading Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker’s handwritten journals.

“I walk into the special collections library, and the door closes behind me, and it’s like, ‘Ahhhhh,'” she says. “I just feel like the sun is shining directly on me.”

Some of Walker’s papers are available to other scholars, but because of the personal nature of the journals, they are embargoed until 2027 or after her death, whichever comes later. Boyd, however, has special permission from Walker to read the journals. She’s working on a curated collection of excerpts that will be published next year as “Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker.”

Like the project with Hurston, this work has paired her with someone she considers to be a literary mentor. But this time, Boyd has access to her subject. In fact, in February she traveled to Mexico to help Walker celebrate her birthday.

“It’s like hanging out with your favorite cool aunt,” she says.

Boyd is mindful of her good fortune, describing the Walker project as “joyful work” and a “dream job.” And she wants her students — the ones currently enrolled, but also those to come in the future — to have similar opportunities.

“Every journalist I know secretly wants to write a book,” Boyd says. “This is the place where we’re saying, ‘Tell your secret. Come on. Tell us your idea. We can help you get from here to there.'”

— By Allyson Mann (from the June 2016 issue of Georgia Magazine)