Interview With Purdue University

Picture of Natalie van HooseAuthor: Natalie van Hoose

Let’s start by talking about the culture at your program. What’s the location like? What are some local hangouts for writers?

Before I decided on Purdue, I called then-second-year fiction writer Adam Lefton and asked these same questions. I was from Florida and had never been to Indiana; in fact, I’d rarely been above the Mason-Dixon Line. What could I expect from Lafayette? There was a pause before Adam, a New Yorker, said, “Well, it’s the Midwest.” There seemed to be a lot packed into that statement, and at the time, I pretended to understand all its implications, but now in my third year, I’m still figuring it out.

What I can tell you is that Lafayette (where most of us MFAs live [Purdue is across the Wabash River in West Lafayette]) is a mid-size Indiana town where you can bike to most places of interest, be on a first-name basis with local business owners, and throw a rock and hit a sports bar. People love their dogs. The mail carrier will greet you by name. And your freshman class is bound to include students who show cattle at the state level or hunt with a cross-bow. You might find yourself getting into bluegrass or adopting a pointer. The important thing is to accept Lafayette on its own terms.

Community among MFAs at Purdue is strong, and besides frequenting the bars, we tend to have a lot of potlucks and road trips to state parks or annual fall festivals. We also recently revamped our MFA Reading Series. Entertainment in Lafayette may be humble compared to the big city (Chicago is about two hours away), but the local scene includes a pinball arcade, cosmic bowling, a farmer’s market, and karaoke—these are all real gems. For the high-class, there’s an excellent wine bar downtown, as well as a hip joint with craft beers and entrées like fig and goat cheese pizza. An hour’s drive to Indy will get you to a Trader Joe’s, an Ethiopian restaurant, and an art film cinema.

Tell us about your experience in class. What’s the focus of your workshops? What parts of your writing have you put the most focus on?

A beauty of Purdue’s program is that it’s a three-year track. You take workshops and other courses for the first two years, but the third is reserved for your thesis. This can be a huge advantage for writers who are still finding their aesthetic and need some time to hit their stride, particularly since the first year is largely spent in figuring out what you’re doing wrong. This was my experience, at least.

The workshops are small—eight students and an occasional squatter from an alternate genre—and they’re grounded in discussion of peer work. Every class will run a little differently depending on the instructor, but all the workshops are pretty heavy on craft, rather than theory. Personally, I came into grad school with little knowledge of craft issues, and my early stories demonstrated this. For example, someone pointed out that my protagonists were usually passive, a pattern I’d never noticed, and as a result, much of my first year was focused on giving characters more agency.

The workshop dynamic is really determined by the personalities in the room, and this will change with each group of students. There were some hot tempers in my first year, followed by a more laidback, congenial group in my second. Overall, though, Purdue’s program has a long-standing tradition of camaraderie and mutual support, and the warmth with which incoming MFAs are welcomed would be hard to beat.

What sort of funding opportunities are available? What are you teaching? How easy is it to balance your teaching and writing?
Another standout feature of Purdue’s MFA program is its generous funding.
All MFA students receive full tuition waivers and teaching assistantships for the duration of their studies. This has several advantages, the most obvious being that your steady paycheck (while modest) can enable you to get an MFA without going into debt. You also don’t need to wonder if you will receive the same amount semester to semester; you’re covered for all three years. But a long-term benefit of the funding-for-all system is that you’re not in any competition with your peers. That can make a significant difference in the workshop environment and the pressure on your own writing. It frees you to be genuinely happy when your fellow MFAs produce great work and get it published, without worrying how you can somehow top it to guarantee your financial wellbeing.

In terms of teaching, MFAs instruct an entry-level composition and rhetoric course for five semesters and have the option to teach an introductory creative writing course for at least two semesters. The more ambitious may take on an additional course such as business or technical writing. The writing-teaching balance is always a challenge, especially when grading and your own deadlines start to overlap, but Purdue’s 1:1 teaching load (2:1 for one of your three years) is not nearly as overwhelming as some other programs.

Still, it’s worth noting that graduate school requires you to take on a tri-fold role: writer, student, and teacher. The latter two are not only simpler, but also come with much more concrete ways of measuring success, and it’s easy to avoid facing writerly difficulties and failures by excelling in these other arenas. By all means, you should be a great student and/or teacher, but it can become a high you ride at the expense of your own work.

In addition to teaching assistantships, there are four paid positions within the program, examples being the Visiting Writers Series Coordinator and the Editor-in-Chief of Sycamore Review.

What’s been your best memory of working with faculty?

The MFA is wonderfully flexible at Purdue, and as writers have the option of taking another genre, I signed up for a poetry workshop with Marianne Boruch. I made all the rookie mistakes, writing poems about autumn or unrequited love, sometimes unrequited autumnal love, and Marianne took it all very seriously. There was no way I could compete with the vocabulary of my classmates, either in my poems or the discussion of others’ poems. I was like a bulldog that had wandered into a greyhound race—dang slow next to all those sleek, sharp poets—yet Marianne was not only gracious, but truly helpful.

What’s been your greatest struggle in graduate school thus far? How has this program shaped your view of craft?

I still find it tough to convince myself that my writing has got to come before all else, that it merits the first fruits of my time and energy. Real devotion to the discipline is difficult to develop. It’s on a plane with celibacy or fasting—it requires dedication, self-denial, and no small amount of pain. Being a hedonist, it’s not easy to resist the temptation to just abandon my sloppy story and go hunt down some texts that will blow my students’ minds, or hit the local bar for Bigguns and fried pickles, or simply read some other, better fiction writer. These pleasures are so attainable. Falling in love with the process of writing—more than the ideas or the end result—has been my greatest challenge, and it’s an ongoing one.

In terms of craft, I find that the program has made me far more aware of what craft elements actually are and how they work. As I mentioned, I came in fairly clueless about these things, yet a few years of defining and discussing craft can give even a Florida bumpkin some degree of finesse. In my own work, for example, I’m now aware that my strengths lie more in character and image than plot and that there are ways to compensate for these kinds of disparities. Or when I’ve found good material, but have trouble entering it, I can make strategic changes in point of view or structure and see what happens, keep fiddling with that Rubik’s cube until things start to line up. Lately, it’s just that—finding the right point of entry into a story—that’s been the most interesting problem.

What’s your next step? What sort of steps does your program take to prepare you for your post-graduate experience?

I’ve applied for a Fulbright, so keep your fingers crossed for me. But assuming I reenter the job market next summer, then it’s likely I’ll be looking for work as an English language teacher abroad, which is what I did for several years before coming to Purdue. Honestly, I haven’t thought too deeply about what is next—seven months is a long way out—but I’ll be coming out of the program with three years of teaching experience, a thesis, and no fear of waiting tables if that’s the only opportunity at hand.

We do have a professional development seminar during our third year in which our program director, Porter Shreve, discusses fellowships, grants, the process of getting an agent, and the like. A Google Drive with relevant links and information has been set up, and any of us can access and add to it. Plus, something I appreciate about our faculty is that they do not forget about you once you graduate; if you find that several years from now, you need advice or a recommendation, then they will come to your aid.

What tips would you give a prospective student who is considering attending your program?

Stop by! Come and sit in on a workshop to get a feel for what the program is like. If you can’t get yourself to Indiana, then contact us via email. There’s a whole pack of us who would be happy to respond or give you a call. If you are visiting, then let us know. We’ll field your questions and take you out for a beer—and fried pickles.