Post-MFA: Nothing (and Everything) Changes
January 4, 2017 § 19 Comments
By Rae Pagliarulo
I’m so heartened to join the conversation with Paige Sullivan about what she so deftly calls “life on the other side of the dash.” Not only because much of my life exists there, but because I want those who are nearing the completion of their own MFAs to realize that there are so many paths that writing can involve, and even enrich – and none of them have “writer” in the title.
I’ve spent the last six years learning about nonprofit development – the bag of tricks one needs to separate folks from their wallets in support of a service-based organization. The truth is, this career path combines my love of words with my need to improve the world around me, in however small a way. Let’s be clear – I’m not saving lives or rewriting history, but for each dollar I raise from individuals, corporations, and foundations, more people can access our services, and maybe a few of them will have better luck out there in the world. And being a good writer is a huge, integral part of that work.
I started my MFA and my current job within months of each other, and many people I spoke to had the same reaction – That’s a hell of a way to work your way through school. But I wasn’t working my way through, I was continuing a career that I had committed to, at least for the time being. Work wasn’t my conduit to an education – and to be fair, the reverse isn’t true either. Getting my MFA was an emotional insurance policy – a way to remember that while my work was important, it wasn’t everything and didn’t hold the key to my identity. My business card said “Development Officer,” but my heart said – writer.
The conversation got complicated when I graduated. The question on everyone’s lips was, What’s next? For much of my cohort, it was time to write CV’s, email program directors, and try to break into the adjuncting world. It was tough to see the marked look of deflation on people’s faces when I told them, I’m going to keep working at my job and see what comes next. There was this underlying assumption that upon receiving the MFA, everything would shift – my job, my professional identity, my reason for waking up in the morning. So how could I explain that even though no material aspect of my life was changing, my heart would never be the same?
I tried to preach the gospel of the non-traditional writing job to my colleagues, to varied levels of success. But it’s something I believe in wholeheartedly. In order to excel at anything – marketing, fundraising, program development, administrative support, customer service – one must be able to manipulate language in so many ways. The ability to tell a story, to create a narrative arc, to sketch a profile of someone influential, to explain why a single monetary donation will make a difference – these tasks require all the skills that an MFA provides.
So for me, it might look like nothing changed at all. I’m still here, working in the same place, doing the same things. But thanks to my degree, I am doing those things better. I am telling richer, more interesting stories in grant proposals and direct appeals. I am the go-to editor on staff, responsible for proofing almost any communication that goes out the door. I am more valuable to my team, and more attractive to any employer I might one day work for. I am supported and held accountable to keep up with my personal writing, thanks for the amazing network of people I met over the last three years. I am armed with the skills and qualifications that might one day turn my random smattering of publications into a creative nonfiction workshop, residency, or maybe even a book proposal. And best of all, I am comforted and fulfilled knowing that no matter what I am doing on the outside, inside I will always be a writer first.
Rae Pagliarulo received her MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College. Her poems and essays have been featured in Full Grown People, Ghost Town, bedfellows, New South, The Manifest-Station, Hippocampus, Quail Bell, and Philadelphia Stories. By day, she works in resource development at a nonprofit, and by night, serves on the editorial staff of Literary Mama. Rae is also the 2014 winner of the Sandy Crimmins National Poetry Prize and a Pushcart Prize nominee. She lives in Port Richmond with her cat and yes, they can both help you find the best pierogies in the city.