I’m back in J-school. And I’m back to being unsure of myself.

I arrived on the University of Georgia campus with a steadily growing to-do list.

Pick up paper towels. Run to Target. Try to go to bed early. Check my work e-mail in case of an emergency.

I had just driven 90 minutes from midtown Atlanta to downtown Athens. I work full-time as a TV reporter but this past August began a 2 ½-year MFA program in narrative nonfiction at UGA’s Grady School of Journalism. Each semester kicks off with a mandatory weeklong residency on-campus; this past Sunday, we all converged on campus from across the country. The program directors threw us a welcome dinner, and on the walk back, I asked a classmate about his plans for the night. He said he would head to the hotel bar and hang out as late as anyone wanted.

Not me. I planned to make my Target run and retreat to my room for a hopeful eight hours of sleep.

My classmate shook off that idea. He heralded the week as a chance for us hungry writers to revel together in our ambitions, to encourage and inspire each other. He closed with a line that would flatter any hopeful Hemingway: “This is like Paris in the Twenties!”

I needed to hear that … because my first semester felt like Times Square at rush hour.

I wrote when I began the program that I expected a heavy challenge. Semester 1 brought it. I read two books a month, wrote narrative responses to each, and constructed four long-form essays between 2,000 and 5,000 words. I received detailed line edits and one-on-one mentorship. I purchased several craft books that shredded my storytelling approach and offered a new one. I analyzed other writers and experimented with style, topic, and voice. I did all of this while maintaining my usual output at work and preparing for our first child at home.

The hardest part wasn’t the workload. It was the dive into discomfort. In my day job I can lean on nearly 15 years of experience. In this arena my foundations felt fragile. I struggled to know which advice to accept and which styles made sense as I move forward. I incorporated techniques while attempting massive writing packets, which is like learning the basics of baking while producing a seven-layer cake.

The semester flew. My writing strengthened. But I emerged afterward wondering if I had truly made the most of the past four months.

Then I remembered: in many ways, this is exactly what I desired.

I wanted to feel uncomfortable. I wanted to push myself. I wanted to take on a form of journalism in which I possessed little experience. I wanted to grow.

And I did. I realized the value of writing in “scenes”, which applies to my broadcast work as much as my writing. I developed an extra eye for brevity, which matters even when writing thousands of words. I appreciated the research required for a ten-page packet instead of a 90-second story,  and I learned to operate without the crutch – and limitations – of video.

In a paragraph, that seems like progress. Over a semester, it feels sluggish.

I still want to grow. And I want to savor my remaining semesters. When my classmate referred to “Paris in the Twenties”, he reminded me of a lesson I often espouse to others: think big, and don’t get so caught up in the daily grind that you lose sight of the overall arc.

I need to come up for air. I need to slow down on the to-do lists. But mostly I need to appreciate this moment – and the uncertainty that comes with it – and absorb as much as I can.

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The Solo Video Journalist is available for purchase. You can find it on AmazonBarnes & Noble, and the publisher’s web site.

Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com. You can also follow Matt on Facebook and Twitter.

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