MFA as Tattoo: An Interview with Erin Fitzgerald

Erin Fitzgerald is a fiction writer who works as a content manager. 

Why did you decide to get an M.F.A.?

I always knew I wanted one — even in high school. Probably related to that, I thought of it like a tattoo. No matter what else I did with my life, it would always be there to remind me that writing was important.

When you started the degree, what were your goals? What were you leaving behind?

I started an MFA elsewhere after getting a BA at Sarah Lawrence. For uninteresting-to-others reasons, I left that program, returned to Sarah Lawrence, and finished my MFA there. My overall MFA goals were to get that tattoo, and use the time overall to see how fiction writing would end up being a part of my life. Even though I was naive in all those newly minted BA ways, at least I knew fiction writing was not likely to be my paycheck.

You graduated from your program in the mid-nineties—what are your impressions of how M.F.A. graduates fared then and now?

There are many more MFA programs now. There are also many more applicants who understand that an advanced degree in creative writing is not a law or medical degree with near-guaranteed prospects on the other end. They know that thanks to the Internet, there are many other ways to create parts of the MFA experience that appeal to them. Related, they’re more pragmatic about finances. In the end, I hope that means there are more of them who don’t give up, and who do what they genuinely love after graduation.

How long did you spend looking for work after the M.F.A.?

I never really stopped working. When I started my MFA, I was working full-time. When I finished it, I was working full-time. In the middle, I worked part-time. All of those jobs were at different places, and most were related to higher education somehow. It’s hard for me to say no to interesting opportunities, or to money doing something I like. Experiences feed my work almost as much as reading does.

What kind of work, other than writing, are you doing now?

Currently, I’m a content manager for a very small company that provides in-depth profiles of international destinations for businesspeople and their families. (Sadly no, I don’t get to travel for it.)

Do you like your work? Why or why not?

I like my work very much. I use many of the same skills I use for my fiction — research, awareness of audience, revision and refinement — but in a completely different arena. Globally mobile businesspeople and those who support them have needs that go far beyond knowing what items have to be checked in baggage. It’s been fascinating to see how world events, technology, and the global economy have affected those needs over the years.

How did you get involved with the field/ skill set that your current job requires?

Some of my previous experience was in corporate relocation, which is closely related. I got into THAT as a sales proposal writer. It’s been a while since I was a proposal writer, but I still refer to that experience often. Proposal writing can be really intense and demanding, but it can also lead to lots of interesting places.

What about your M.F.A. experience do you think was well-suited to the corporate world and business writing?

The workshop model, when it works, goes a long way toward building a thick skin and developing diplomacy in collaboration. Thanks to my MFA experience, I knew how to give and take comments about writing very professionally. I knew how to weigh input to create better work overall. I knew how to push past any lack of confidence I had, to get the work done. Those are skills that are difficult for even experienced professionals to master. I think that foundation made a huge difference in my corporate writing career, especially early on.

What about it had trouble fitting, if anything?

Sarah Lawrence’s program has a lot of regular and excellent faculty contact built into it. The corporate world, meanwhile, has work environments that range from near entrepreneurship to micromanagement. That took a little adjustment…as did only being able to wear my plaid flannel shirts on weekends!

Did you have the opportunity to work in academia after the M.F.A.? How did you respond to that opportunity?

I’ve taught creative and business writing at a local university in the last few years. I really enjoyed it, and I hope my schedule will allow me to do it again sometime. Academia is very different from the 9 to 5 life. The schedule of intensities, the complementary skills, the cultures. I’ve seen other writers gently suggest that one life is harder or more prestigious than the other. I honestly believe the best choice depends on the writer, not public perception.

Are you writing? Publishing?

Like most MFAs I know, I stopped writing creatively for a little while after I got the degree. I started again when I grew fond of stories and games where the fantastic mixed with the everyday. Since then I’ve published a fair amount of flash fiction — something I didn’t write in grad school, by the way. Lately I’ve been working on a longer project. I also help out with the Wigleaf 50, and edit the online litmag The Northville Review.

Do you ever have any regrets about getting an MFA?

Only that I did it immediately after my BA. But I absolutely had my reasons then, so I don’t beat myself up about it. I’m sure staying in touch with a cohort is much easier now, though. That would’ve been great.

Do you have any other words of advice for recent or soon-to-be graduates of MFA programs? For writers just entering those programs?

When I was in grad school, the prevailing thinking was that grad students waited tables and got tenure track professorships or publishing jobs upon graduation. Had I done any of those things, the results would have been completely disastrous. Realize your path may not be one that’s familiar to your professors or colleagues, but that doesn’t mean it will be any less rewarding. Don’t worry about what you are supposed to be doing. Do what allows you to get your writing done.

2 thoughts on “MFA as Tattoo: An Interview with Erin Fitzgerald

  1. Slightly off topic, but the only time I ever thought I might want to get into publishing was when I read Erin’s as-yet-unpublished collection of short stories. She’s a genius.

  2. Pingback: Rad Website Alert | Adam Reger

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