My three years in the MFA program at Pitt were among the best years of my life. Sure, I got some writing done, but I was thinking all the time. I’ve since returned to graduate school, but nowhere have I found students and faculty more engaged than at the University of Pittsburgh. There was encouragement coming from all sides and that can never be underestimated in contributing to a successful writer.
Mike is a doctoral candidate in the Joint PhD Program in English & Education at the University of Michigan
When I reflect on my three years in the University of Pittsburgh MFA program, I conclude that the experience not only made me a better writer, but also prepared me in unpredictable ways for my career. Through workshops with incredibly supportive classmates, and professors who were nothing short of champions, I was challenged to discover a voice I didn’t know I had. That voice has played a central role in my work, as writing is vital to thinking, to planning, to imagination, to communication, and to engagement.
Having been shaped in part by the collegial and creative, yet rigorous, environment at Pitt, I found myself able to communicate, innovate, and collaborate in ways that enabled me to build a successful communications consulting practice, and eventually to find a rewarding career in an independent school. In my current role as Assistant Head of Winchester Thurston School, I work with the faculty, with the trustees, and with the broader community, and I draw every day on the dispositions I developed during my time at Pitt. It was a wonderful time in my life, and the best educational experience I’ve had.
Maura is the assistant head for planning for the Winchester Thurston School in Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh is a lightning rod for artists. There's something about the geography, the history, the neighborhoods, the people, the pace that is conducive to making art. The confluence of the Three Rivers could be seen as objective correlative for so many elegant and important confluences, but the one that sticks most prominently in my mind is the marriage of work and community. While I can't say that I was the most prolific writer to ever call Pittsburgh home, the times when I just didn't think I had what it takes—to be a writer, to make the sacrifices necessary to dedicate my life to making art—I was supported by the community. And here I mean not just the faculty and other writers in the program, but the people of Pittsburgh. There's a sense that making art matters in Pittsburgh. And I'd like to think this is because Pittsburgh's soul has been deepened and enriched by the dignity of work and the respect that comes with it.
Dave is an assistant professor of English at Sweet Briar College, where he directs the interdisciplinary BFA program.
When I entered Pitt’s creative nonfiction program, I was in a hurry. Six years of newspaper writing had primed me to take a journalist’s focused approach to grad school. I set a deadline of two years to complete the degree and my first nonfiction book. Before my first class, I’d already nailed down a subject for my manuscript: I would shadow death investigators at the coroner’s office in Pittsburgh.
Now, seven years after graduating, it’s difficult to remember specific grad-school eureka moments. But I do recall a sense of slowing down and a growing appreciation for the breadth of the program and its professors. I spent hours in fiction workshops, soaking up Chuck Kinder’s narrative eruptions and Buddy Nordan’s elegant constructs. I deconstructed three-act structure and plot points with Carl Kurlander. I genuflected before the masters of nonfiction reportage with Bruce Dobler and Patsy Sims. But mainly I wrote, and not just my death investigator book. I fumbled with screenplays and short stories and even banged out a thin, never-published novel.
My planned two years turned into three, but I eventually finished and published my book, Deadhouse: Life in a Coroner’s Office, and landed a tenure-track job teaching journalism at West Virginia University. And I’ve continued to write. I recently finished another nonfiction book called The Last Lawyer: The Fight to Save Death Row Inmates, forthcoming in November 2009. Journalism school is very different than an MFA program, but I try to bring the same latitude to my teaching that I experienced when I roamed the genres in grad school. I show movie clips to illustrate concepts of narrative structure and discuss how the techniques of good fiction apply to all writing. My experiences at Pitt shape everything I do at WVU, and I recommend the program to any writer.
John is an assistant professor at the P.I. Reed School of Journalism at West Virginia University.
Pitt was an ideal place to find my voice, build a support system, and get my feet wet. My mentors and peers challenged me to stretch and grow. They gave me the straight dope without beating me down or coddling me. We really weren't about cutthroat competition and realized that we all had a stake in one another's success.
My last year at Pitt, I spearheaded a for-students-by-students nonfiction MFA survival guide. We gathered tips on how to land paid and volunteer gigs in academia, publishing, and freelance writing; finish our degrees with as little debt as possible; and apply for arts funding opportunities in the long haul. The resulting mammoth tome was a hit—it took a lot of the mystery out of establishing ourselves as writers and teachers. Current students continue to update and expand on the document, and it gets better every year.
Elaine is an associate editor of Pitt Med
I started the MFA in creative nonfiction program not knowing very much about the history or conventions of the genre. Through intensive readings classes, we read the CNF canon and dissected essays, articles, and book-length works through a writer's eye, like examining structure, voice, language, and reporting skills. I also enjoyed spirited discussions among students and faculty about the ethics of creative nonfiction, such as recreating scenes and quotes, time compression, etc. My classmates at Pitt were supportive, challenging, and always helpful, and the MFA public reading series helped form a solid writers' community. Also, the strict manuscript requirements and deadlines forced me to write more—and write better—than I would have in any other program. A chapter from the manuscript I wrote for workshop was later published in Marie Claire, and the entire manuscript turned into a book deal with St. Martin's Press.
Sarah is an assistant editor in features at Marie Claire magazine. She is also the author of Living Large, forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press.