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Katie Arnold-Ratliff MFA '08 - Writing
Katie Arnold-Ratliff had a score to settle.
Having grown up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and after attending high school in Vallejo, California, Katie had been groomed for the Sarah Lawrence experience. She applied to Sarah Lawrence, was accepted as an undergrad and wanted to attend—only, the timing wasn't quite right.
"I was only seventeen, and in the end I couldn't bring myself to move so far away from everyone I loved, and I always had a bit of shame about that."
Instead, Katie attended Mills College—a small, liberal arts women's college in Oakland. She arrived at Mills with aspirations of forging her niche in poetry, but an intervention—of the literary kind—saw her alter her writing trajectory.
"Midway through my time at Mills I had the great fortune of working with a professor in fiction named Amanda Davis, who changed my writing goals midstream. I changed my focus to fiction, wrote a 40,000 word novella for my thesis, and graduated with no real idea of what to do next. Then I went through something really hard in my personal life, and began to write about its themes in a fictional narrative, and ended up with a bunch of writing I didn't really know what to do with. In hindsight I think I chose to pursue an MFA to figure that out."
Knowing where she wanted to pursue her MFA was a no-brainer—Sarah Lawrence’s conference system provided the perfect model to help Katie figure out what she wanted to do with her loosely assembled writings.
"The conference model is incredibly useful to a writer in particular. The hope in any MFA setting is that your writing will make enough of an impression on your professor that he or she will start to pick up on your talents and your weaknesses, will be able to diagnose those things in you personally. But if there are twelve of you in a classroom and you never meet up to talk about these things, those sorts of insights are relegated to the comments your professor makes on your work. That's not much of a dialogue. The fact that I could sit with my professors every other week and talk about what I was aiming to do in my work and the degree to which I was or was not hitting that mark was immensely helpful."
Rather than return to California after graduation, as she had anticipated, Katie’s writing career quickly flourished in New York, where a staff position at a respected magazine has led to a prolific freelancing career.
"Within a month of graduation I'd signed with an agent and gotten a staff position at a major magazine, where I am now a senior editor. The agent is still my agent, and she's about to take a look at my second novel—the first one, which was the final result of those strange scribblings I didn't know what to do with after college, was published in 2011. I'm still in New York, and I've managed to make a pretty awesome side career in freelancing: I've published articles in Time, Tin House, Slate, Salon, The New York Times, and others."
But Katie’s ties to Sarah Lawrence are far from severed—nor does she expect those ties to ever unthread entirely.
"I became very close to one of my professors at Sarah Lawrence, who I worked with after graduation to edit my first novel, and she had a friend at the magazine I mentioned who needed an assistant, which is how I ended up working there. So I can draw a straight line from my time at SLC to my life now: to be blunt, I wouldn't have anything I have if I hadn't gone there for my MFA."
By Daniel Ross '13