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 now teach both undergraduate and graduate courses to very talented student writers, 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 an assistant professor (teaching) of Writing in the University of Southern California
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 associate head for external affairs 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 the director of Creative Writing at Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan.
Some time after I completed my MFA at the University of Pittsburgh, an interviewer asked me how my writing career began, and my rather lengthy response ended with a description of my time in the program. During the three years of my MFA, I said, “I felt like I was always ripping apart and reinventing my practice, as muscles rip when we exercise in order to grow.” This was largely thanks to the mentorship of Pitt’s outstanding poetry faculty, who challenged me continuously while still affirming belief in my writing. A week before graduation, I got a call from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, informing me that I had been awarded the Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellowship there for the 2014-2015 academic year. I spent a year teaching and writing at UW and then wound up staying in Madison for another year, working as the coordinator of the Diversity Internship in Public History at the Wisconsin Historical Society, teaching poetry workshops in the community, and tutoring student athletes. I was one of twelve new fellows admitted to the Cave Canem retreat in 2015, and in 2016, I was awarded the VIDA fellowship to the Home School. Later that year I returned to Pitt as a research assistant professor and Assistant Director of the new Center for African American Poetry and Poetics. My first full-length book, What’s Hanging on the Hush, will be out from Ahsahta Press in 2017, and I was recently awarded a 2017 Creative Writing Fellowship in Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts. In the time since I completed my MFA, I have been working on a new manuscript, a poetic hybrid work tentatively entitled Descent. The project began when I acquired a copy of the diary of my great-great-grandfather, a white Confederate veteran who fathered twenty children by three of his former slaves, black women who have been silenced by history. Descent is at once an investigation, a reclamation, and an insistence on making history as a creative act.
Lauren Russell, assistant director of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics, is a research assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh.
William Faulkner once said that few wish to write; most wish to have written. Pitt was where I fell in love with writing. Chuck Kinder was Director of the program, and he’d host legendary parties at his house in Squirrel Hill. It’s hard to explain how hanging out with Tobias Wolff or Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, affected me as a 23-year old writer. The program also brought Maxine Hong Kingston, ZZ Packer, and George Saunders to campus while I was there. Being around all these writers (in some cases, eating pizza with them at the scarred wooden table in the secret poker room of the Panther Hollow Inn) was intimidating, but I learned several things, chiefly that these successful people were much more well-read (and well-practiced) than I was, and I’d better get with the program. In my workshops, I also learned the responsibility that comes with being taken seriously as a writer. I was lucky to have outstanding professors who encouraged, pushed, and challenged me. Lastly, I made lifelong friends at Pitt who still make up an important literary support network, even though we’re now scattered across the country.
By the end of my three years at Pitt, I had a substantial draft of a novel completed, plus half a dozen stories. The year after graduating, I gathered up all my notes from workshop and started revising. This was around 2009, and by 2011, I had publications in journals such as Green Mountains Review, Avery, and The Kenyon Review. Literary agents were emailing me out of the blue. In 2015, the novel based on my thesis was published. It’s called Eighty Days of Sunlight (Pittsburgh gets 80 days of sunlight a year). It’s been nominated for the International Dublin Literary Award, which is sponsored by the Dublin, Ireland City Council. Other nominees include Margaret Atwood, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Salman Rushdie.
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 associate professor and Journalism Program Chair in 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 honest feedback without beating me down or coddling me. We really weren't about cutthroat competition and realized that we each 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 senior 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 a freelance writer with clips in Esquire, Wired, Bon Appetit, New York Magazine, O, Washington Post Magazine, Glamour, InStyle, Marie Claire, and others. She is the author of Awful First Dates and Living Large.