Post-MFA: Nothing (and Everything) Changes

January 4, 2017 § 19 Comments

raebwBy 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.

§ 19 Responses to Post-MFA: Nothing (and Everything) Changes

  • Penny Guisinger says:

    Oh, I love this so much! Rae, I was also a development director when I earned my MFA. I can’t tell you how much I identify with every word of this. I left that job, ultimately, but now make a living as a consultant — primarily writing grants and other communications for nonprofits. I have a solid literary career as well, but it certainly doesn’t (and probably never will) pay the bills. When people ask what I do for work, I say, “I’m a writer.” And those are such gratifying moments. Making change with good writing is personal mission work. Good for you and THANK YOU for saying exactly this.

    • Thank you so much for those words, Penny! You are basically living my dream! I love both areas of work and have always thought about transitioning to consulting in the future. I also may turn “Making change with good writing” into my personal mantra for the year, if you don’t mind…

  • Jan Priddy says:

    Thank you.I continue to grow and develop as a person and a writer post-MFA. It is not my career path, but my humanity that was best served.

  • bmaryk8 says:

    I love this too, and I’m a huge advocate of the non-traditional writing-related job. I work in content development. It isn’t creative writing, and that’s okay – it helps fund the hours I spend writing poetry, and it’s satisfying in a different way. Articulating business value isn’t something just anyone can do well, but my degree has prepared me for it, and my works helps my clients.

  • TJ says:

    Thanks for sharing this Rae–I went to work today (in communications) with a bit of a smile 🙂 Nice to shift perspective to see that my creative writing does enhance the writing I do in my bill-paying job…and sometimes vice versa. Onward with the writing!

  • Your essay spoke to me, Rae. I share your belief in the power of language – especially well-written language – to impact the world. Good writing like yours, in service to people and causes in need, is more important now than ever. I also resonate with your reflection on how the MFA helped you tell richer, more interesting stories and how the network of writers it offered bolsters you – those are the big payoffs from my MFA program as well. Thank you and the best to you with your words and work – they’re enriching.

  • Love love love this! Thanks for adding to this conversation. I’m on the marketing side of my nonprofit’s marketing and development team, but we are wholly interdependent, and it’s wonderful to do meaningful work and to be valued for my skill set! Cheers to you, your career, and your writing life. –Paige

  • lgood67334 says:

    Like this alternate POV very much!

  • Mischa Eliot says:

    I completely agree with your choice! If staying in the job you have, doing something you truly enjoy, fulfills you as a person, then there’s no need to change it. If you were in a soul-sucking job that left you feeling bereft at the end of every day, dreading the evening would go so fast that you feel as though you never left? Then I would be someone who begged you to throw yourself into your writing every free moment you found or finding a job that would fulfill you.

    • And i would thank you for begging me! I’m lucky – I’ve had more than my share of the soul-suckers, but I’ve finally hit a stride. And i definitely credit the degree with helping me get there – working towards the MFA while working really forced me to decide what’s important.

  • jnelson30second says:

    Thanks for writing about the benefits of writing in your day job. It was uplifting to know that others are earning a living in a job that benefits from knowledge received through an MFA.

  • Stacy E. Holden says:

    I appreciated this both as a writer–I am an historian trying to break into creative non-fiction–and as an historian who so enjoys working with students who do not necessarily want to be professors of history, just like me! Let me speak to the latter: some of my best students had or are having wonderful careers in non-profits, as officers in Special Forces. In one instance, one of “my” students worked briefly as a football player in the NFL. I love that the passion for history and the skills that they learn as students in my classes on the Middle East and North Africa infuses the work that they do outside of academia both in terms of their cultural understandings of the world and also enhances the analytical skills needed to succeed in their given profession, those that any scholar of history must develop. Your post makes me both inspired to continue my circuitous route to non-historical writing and also to make clear once again to students that they should not fear following that long held passion for history. A degree in history–at any level–will work, because they make the decisions on how to use it!

  • […] So writes Paige Sullivan in a post on the Brevity blog. That exact conversation continues with a post from Rae […]

  • […] writing is an invaluable skill that you want to further hone and develop? Or what if it’s like Rae Pagliarulo says in her terrific follow-up article to Sullivan’s, where you have no intention of shucking off your non-writer job, but you know […]

  • Joanne says:

    Loved this alternative view–and it resonated with me (and reinforced my intention to keep my creative writing as important as the work I do to pay the bills). I’m not in development but wholly appreciate how important storytelling skills would be in that position. I’m on the writing/editing side for nonprofit monthly publications…bringing news and professional development info to association members. Being able to do that is fulfilling in its own way, and largely due to being able to use my writing skills in that position. (Though I must admit, writing for a living sometimes can drain the energy from writing for my life!)

  • Reblogged this on the drazic diaries and commented:
    This is an interesting post by Dinty W. Moore, discussing creative writing degrees and how things change after them.

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