In Thirty Seconds Or Less: An Interview with Hieu Huynh

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Hieu Huynh is a writer/producer with CNN’s On-Air promotion department based in Atlanta, GA. She is enrolled in NYU’s inaugural low-residency MFA program with workshops in Paris. When she’s not writing poetry, she’s eating her way around the world.

You’re currently a writer-producer at CNN. Tell me a little bit about what that work is like on a daily basis. 

Every day is different and that is exactly what I love about working at CNN. I love knowing that what I do makes an impact and that my work can be seen all over the world. Today, I may be writing about the aftermath of the government shutdown; the next day, I could be writing about a national tragedy…all in thirty seconds or less.

I work in CNN’s On-Air Promotion or creative services department, which is essentially the network’s in-house creative agency. We are in charge of promoting the channel’s primetime shows and specials by creating promos that can vary in length from ten to thirty seconds. This may not seem like a lot of time, but a lot of production and resources go into creating promos everyday. I just completed the promotion for a show launch and it took a couple months from the initial pitch to post-production. In a nutshell, every day is like creating thirty-second movie trailers, but for real events.

In my role, I have one foot in the journalistic world, and the other in the marketing/advertising world.  The day’s top stories determines what should be promoted for the day; however, it needs to be promoted in an interesting way to draw viewers in, and that is where the creativity part comes in.

Writing scripts is like writing short little haikus.  I am constantly challenged to find the balance between what to include in a script and what to leave it.  Studying writing, especially poetry (in my case) is like an extension of the writing I do for my job.

Do you like your work? Why or why not?

I love what I do. I studied both journalism and creative writing/poetry during my undergrad years at Emory. I consider myself a journalist, writer, producer, but most importantly, a creative at heart. My job allows me to have my foot in many different fields. I thrive in the breaking news environment where things can change at any moment, but I also value the creativity that I can add, whether it is writing a compelling script or picking out the most riveting shots.

How did you acquire the skill set your job requires? [i.e. did you study communications, intern somewhere?]

I got my start in news as a production assistant at a local TV station and was drawn to the Creative Services department from the start. Not only did producers write, but they also edited their own promos. Once I got my foot in the door at CNN, after working a year at the local station, I knew I wanted to continue to pursue this type of producing. But first, I had to work my way up from feeds coordinator, media coordinator, associate producer, to eventually producer.

The creative process has always fascinated me. Writing the script is the first step.  Producers are assigned a project and usually given a creative brief of a show. Armed with that information, they write the script that may or may not include sound bites, then gather the video, music, and stills they want to use for the promo. Once the script is approved, they supervise the voice over session, and then go into an edit session with an editor who puts it all together, or they edit it themselves. [Editor’s note: New knowledge! Here’s a sample of a CNN promo.]

It is very fulfilling to create something from start to finish and see it on air. I always get a kick out of going to an airport or some other large public gathering place and seeing one of my spots that I’ve produced go on air.

What made you want to pursue an MFA?

It has always been a dream of mine to pursue an MFA.  In fact, it took ten years after graduating from Emory for me to finally find the “perfect” MFA program. I knew I could never leave the stability or prestige of working full-time for such a risky venture. It just was not an option for me to leave all that I had worked for behind. I had looked at other low-residency programs, but none of them excited me. When NYU announced its new low-residency program last year, I knew I had found my program. I have always wanted to get a degree from NYU, but moving to NYC was never an option – the cost of living was a huge turn off.

After I graduated from college, I had stopped writing poetry. It was not until I applied did I start writing again. I was not confident that I would get accepted, but I got the call from the Program Director Deborah Landau and said yes with no hesitation.

You’re in the low-residency MFA from NYU’s program in Paris. What do you think is different about being a working person in residency for a couple of weeks at a time at a program like this? What impact, if any, does it have on your writing? On the relationships you build with other writers?

I think the biggest difference is that there is more at stake. There is no time to waste.  Because of the limited amount of time spent in residency, every hour must be accounted for. I don’t have the luxury of time and need to focus on getting the most out of the residency.

It is also very liberating and freeing. During the residencies, one is shedding a previous identity and taking on the identity of a “writer.” At first, it was hard for me to let go and assume the role of “poet” because I feel I have not yet earned that title. I did feel a little lost and overwhelmed in the beginning having been thrust into a foreign country among strangers, but our love of writing served as a common ground.

The residency in Paris is like a dream. For about twenty days a year, I get to be immersed in the writer’s life….in Paris. Who wouldn’t love that? The days are packed with workshops and craft talks from some of the best contemporary writers and the nights culminate with intimate readings.

In between the residencies, I correspond regularly with my instructors so that by the time a residency begins, my instructors are familiar with my progress. At times, it does feel a little isolating since I only meet twice a year with my other cohorts, but we keep in contact via email and social media like Facebook.

It is hard to build long-lasting connections because of the brief periods of contact, but I feel my cohorts and I know that we are embarking on something very special. It is a gift to be a part of such a wonderful and inspirational program.

Writing has always been a solitary act for me. I prefer writing on my own. I think it is the ideal situation for any working person. My boss is very supportive about the time off I need to take for my residencies, but it is a huge financial investment. I am grateful my company offers a tuition reimbursement program. I would only recommend a low-residency MFA if it is not going to be a financial burden.

The convenience of writing on my own schedule far outweighs the cons. I consider myself very realistic about my goals. I am not going to spend every waking moment writing. I write when it is convenient for me. I know at the end of the program, the possibility of getting a book deal is slim to none.

How do you balance your creative work with the demands of your job?

It requires a lot of discipline. For the program, students are required to send instructors four packets a semester. The packet includes a letter, writing responses to assigned books, and poems. When I am working, my focus is on my work. It is hard to make that switch from working to writing, especially after a long, hard day. I try to set up a schedule and work on the monthly packet a little at a time so that I will not feel so overwhelmed. I am usually up until one or two in the morning crashing on my packet the week before it is due.

Are there ways in which you find common intellectual ground between your day job and writing poetry?

I feel that what I am learning for my MFA can also be applied to the writing that I do for work. I know that I am developing into a stronger writer. When writing scripts, I often stop and ask myself if I am using the most effective word or if I should use a different tone. One time in workshop, one of my colleagues said that my writing style was like watching brief snippets of video. I found it amusing since my work is about creating brief images.

What do you hope will happen after you finish the degree?

My goal is to have completed a book’s worth of poems by the time I have finished with my degree. Most importantly, it is a long overdue item that I can check off of my bucket list. I will probably apply to a couple fellowships after graduation. I am definitely not going to quit my day job, but am open to possibilities. For the moment, I enjoy having the freedom to work on my degree on my own time.

What advice do you have for other working people who are thinking of pursuing an MFA? For low-res participants just starting their programs? 

My biggest advice is to make sure that one can invest the time, energy, and money. It is a huge commitment and requires one to really prioritize and manage one’s time.

My advice for low-res participants is to not be discouraged at the beginning. The isolation factor is a big obstacle to overcome, and there are times when it is going to be hard to find the motivation to write. It is important to manage one’s time wisely and find that extra hour in the day focused just for writing.

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