Friday, August 15, 2008

Chris Arnold, MFA Blog Contributor


Chris Arnold is a second-year fiction student in the MFA program at Purdue University. He is also assistant director of the program, following in the footsteps of Daryll Lynne Evans, herself a prolific contributor to the MFA Blog.

Prior to graduate school, Chris studied journalism at the University of Oregon and taught high school English in South Texas. He was an honorable mention in the 2007 Atlantic Monthly Student Fiction Contest, and winner of the 2008 Playboy College Fiction Contest. His writing can be found in The Northwest Review, Pacific Review, Slice Magazine, and elsewhere.

Chris would be glad to answer questions about the application process, working for a literary magazine, time management, teaching, or anything else that might come up.

21 comments:

sandra said...

i have a question. Is there a difference between a personal essay and a personal statement? It seems to me that a statement is written more like a letter and an essay is well, an essay.

Raysen said...

Hi Chris, a few questions about Purdue.

1. How come we don't hear much about Purdue's MFA program?

2. Is Purdue more of a literature theory-heavy program or a writer workshop-heavy program? I'm wondering about this because Purdue's application requires a critical essay.

3. How did you get the job of assistant program director as a second year student?

Thanks,
Raysen

Christopher Arnold said...

Raysen,

I think that in years past, Purdue's program was considered under the radar largely because the school has such an outstanding reputation in science, engineering, and technology that its excellence in the humanities goes somewhat unnoticed. In recent years, though, thanks to the efforts of Tom, Seth, and others, prospective students are turning their attention more to smaller programs with excellent funding. Here at Purdue, every student here receives equal, generous funding, and our faculty are eager to work with us, not just in class, but in their offices, over coffee, or even at their homes. Also, three year programs are becoming more popular, because a third year to focus entirely on the thesis is such a fantastic opportunity.

Our students have also drawn plenty of attention to the program in recent years. Third year Mehdi Okasi, editor in chief the Sycamore Review, is forthcoming in the 2009 Best New American Voices anthology, and many other students are winning national prizes in both poetry and fiction.

To answer your second question, our program is heavily craft oriented, as opposed to theory. Students have the opportunity to take literature and theory classes with Phd students in the English Department, but the majority of our time is spent in workshop, and attending readings. Last year our visitors included Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Chabon, Adam Zagajewski, and Peter Ho Davies, among others, which gives students a chance to speak with practicing writers and talk about craft and the writing life.

To answer your last question, here at Purdue we have several two year appointments available to MFAs. These include the assistant director, editor and chief and managing editor of Sycamore Review, visiting writers series coordinator, and others. The assistant director position came open my year, and I was happy to get the job.

If you or any others have questions about Purdue, feel free to contact me via the blog or directly at email.arnold@gmail.com.

Hope this helps,

Chris

Raysen said...

Chris,

Thanks for the feedback!

Any chance you guys can just admit me this Fall so that I don't have to apply to 20 different schools? (I'm not kidding.)

Do you have stats on how many applications you received last year vs. how many were accepted? (Fiction only) Also, how deep is the waitlist?

Thanks again.

Christopher Arnold said...

Raysen,

Purdue accepts only 4 students in each genre every year, but at the same time, because of its size, it doesn't receive the same amount of applications as a larger program.

At the same time, the odds of getting in aren't what they used to be even two or three years ago. The number of applications has been rising steadily, but the faculty are committed a small and equally funded program, resulting in an increasingly competitive pool.

As far as the wait list, the faculty in both genres have tended to attract their top candidates from the pool.

Christopher Arnold said...

Sandra,

To answer your question about personal essays versus personal statements,I'm inclined to believe that a personal essay might be more narrowly focused on a particular theme than a personal statement, which I interpret more as an overview of your personal, creative, and intellectual goals.

If the personal essay is based on as specific prompt, such as "Write a personal essay about a creative challenge that you have faced in the last year," then I would adhere as closely as you can to that prompt. If it simply asks for you to "include a personal essay," then I would guess it would be synonymous with a "personal statement."

I know that this topic is addressed at length on this blog every year, and so I might recommend searching the blog for last year's forum on this?

Rachel said...

Hi Chris,

The more I learn about Purdue, the better it sounds. Can you tell me anything about life in West Lafayette, Indiana?

Thanks!
Rachel

Nancy said...

Hi Chris,

While researching MFA programs, I came across one which requires a 500 word autobiography. My reaction was one raised eyebrow and a deep breath.
Can you offer any advice on this? Perhaps how to view the question because right now it seems rather daunting.
I'm not sure if it should be something all encompassing or if I should concentrate on one aspect that makes me me (if that is even possible...).

Thanks for your time. I greatly appreciate it.

-Nancy

Christopher Arnold said...

Rachel,

About 150,000 people live in the Greater Lafayette area, with Purdue and its 40,000 students the pride and center of the community.

Life for Purdue's MFA students is typical of life in many small-town programs--a generally quiet locale amenable to getting a lot of writing done. There aren't the sort of distractions that you would find in a larger city. Socially speaking, this can have its drawbacks, as the night life is geared toward our thousands of Big 10 undergraduates.
Fortunately, the University does its best to bring in performers, speakers, and other events throughout the year.

For some students, myself included, this situation is ideal. I came to a small program in a small town for the sense of community. Other students find themselves homesick for the city. Fortunately, we're about 120 miles away from Chicago, and so especially during the fall, spring, and summer, it's easy to roll up to Chicago for music, sports, shopping, arts, and all the buzz of a larger city. Indianapolis is also about an hour away.

Hope this helps. If you'd like another perspective--say from a poet or someone who hails from a major metropolitan area--email me at email.arnold@gmail.com and I'll put you in touch with another current student.

Christopher Arnold said...

Nancy,

Writing an all encompassing biography in 500 words is going to be frustrating and next-to-impossible. I might recommend focusing on particular aspects of your life's history that have formed who you are as an artist--perhaps particular thematic concerns, or certain geographies that have shaped your world view.

Perhaps some other MFA who has successfully applied to a program that asks for a biography can offer some better feedback?

Scrappy said...

Chris,

I have a teaching question. I applied this past year to a handful of programs and was admitted to half of the schools I applied to--but none of which I really wanted. I've been doing a lot of soul searching and I decided to drop the idea of an MFA in favor of working a regular corporate job (which I've never done) and climb up the ladder in that world but every now and then the artsy/counterculture part of me wants to go back to that. I know you need publications to legitimately qualify to teach, of which I have zero, so my question is, how realistic is it for anyone to go into an MFA program with the hopes of teaching afterwards at the professor level? And what does it take in order to achieve that? Thanks!

Christopher Arnold said...

Scrappy,

It sounds like you've put a lot of thought into whether or not an MFA is right for you at this juncture in your life. I just want to reassure you that dropping the idea of an MFA is by no means synonymous with dropping the writing life. There are hundreds of writers and writing communities thriving outside of the university system, just as they are hundreds of people in MFA programs doing very little writing. That said, maybe you'll be ready to join an MFA program later on. I would argue that it's probably better to go a little later than to go too early.

Concerning teaching: Most people will tell you the same thing--even with the incredible explosion of MFA programs over the past decade or so, it's still incredibly, incredibly difficult to land a tenure-track position teaching creative writing.

Check out this article from Association of Writers & Writing Programs for a breakdown of the numbers in 2005-2006:

http://www.awpwriter.org/careers/hahnscott01.htm

If you are committed to aiming for one of these jobs, then aside from publishing widely and prominently, your best bet is to accumulate as much university level teaching experience as possible. To this end, you would probably be best served by a program that offers plenty of chances to teach, especially to teach creative writing.

Scrappy said...

Chris,

Thank you for the information. Unfortunately all of this information seems to be very disheartening. I don't think I'm ready for the MFA.

Christopher Arnold said...

Scrappy,

I know that the realities of the academic job market can be daunting, but I think it's important to remember that the an MFA experience offers far more than a teaching credential.

On top of time to devote to your craft, a great program will also immerse you in a community of writers that could be lifelong friends, readers, and supporters of your artistic efforts.

While few MFA graduates leave their programs with tenure track jobs lined up, I'd be willing to bet that many MFA graduates would agree that the years spent in their programs were some of the most satisfying times of their lives.

Joining an MFA program is a big decision, and it sounds like you have a lot to consider. Don't hesitate to reach out to students at the programs that you are interested in. There is no substitute for speaking with faculty and students at each school. Good luck!

elisabeth said...

Christoper,
This is an annoying procedural question. The Purdue site states that letters of recommendation should be submitted through the online app, but offers a downloadable PDF of the recommendation form, with an English Department address to mail to. Is it okay for my recommenders to submit a hard copy by mail? I'm sure the online submissions are more convenient on Purdue's end, but my recomenders are kind of traditional - that is, afraid of the internet. I'd rather have them submit by mail, but don't want to risk their letters getting lost.

Thanks!
Elisabeth

Christopher Arnold said...

Elisabeth,

According to the Graduate School Admissions website, applicants can submit hard copies of their letters of recommendation if they desire. If so, use the .PDF form provided by the English Department.

http://www.gradschool.purdue.edu/admissions/#RL

Good luck!

Ryan said...

Chris,
Tell me, does your essay in Playboy begin something like... "You may think this story is unbelievable but I swear it's all true! I was sitting at a hotel bar when this slender blonde walked up to me and asked me...".
-just wondering
Ryan

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Komal said...

Hi Chris,
I've been reading this blog incessantly for the last one week, along with http://www.sprawl.calarts.edu/authors/index.php?id=73, which brings me to the conclusion that my writing sample for MFA isn't gripping enough. So, i was wondering if i should apply for BFA instead? I've already done my Bachelor's in English, have worked as a journalist, am 25 years old and all i really want to do is learn how to write fiction. What do you think - should i consider BFA? Or is there a short-term course i could apply for?
Thanks,
Komal

Komal said...

Hi Chris,
I've been reading this blog incessantly for the last one week, along with http://www.sprawl.calarts.edu/authors/index.php?id=73, which brings me to the conclusion that my writing sample for MFA isn't gripping enough. So, i was wondering if i should apply for BFA instead? I've already done my Bachelor's in English, have worked as a journalist, am 25 years old and all i really want to do is learn how to write fiction. What do you think - should i consider BFA? Or is there a short-term course i could apply for?
Thanks,
Komal

Christopher Arnold said...

Hi Komal,

My apologies for the delay getting back to you. By now you've probably already arrived at an answer on your own, but...

From the sounds of it, you're invested in improving your fiction, but not quite sure whether you are ready for an MFA program. Rather than a BFA program, you might consider attending a writers conference that offers workshops. Various conferences are offered year round across the country, and a week-long workshop might give you a chance to clarify your feelings about your work, and about the workshop process in general.

Poets & Writers magazine is a great resource for conferences and residencies. Best of luck, whichever path you choose.

Chris