MFA Spotlight: McNeese State University

I am very pleased to welcome Allie Mariano to our blog, and want to take this opportunity to thank her again for agreeing to conduct this interview about the MFA Program at McNesse State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana in continuation of our MFA Spotlights.

Allie is an MFA candidate at McNeese in Lake Charles, LA where she teaches freshman composition, is assistant to the department head, and is the editorial assistant for a comparative literature journal, Intertexts.  She is working on her thesis, a collection of short stories focused on acts of violence, physical and figurative. This fall she, along with the other McNeese MFAs, will work on the “reboot” of the McNeese Review.  

NICHE: What led you to pursue an MFA in Fiction?  Tell us a little bit about your journey into the MFA and what factors made you pick McNeese State University? Was financial aid or ranking a factor?  What is unique about McNeese’s application process?

ALLIE MARIANO: Although I always enjoyed writing, I didn’t know about MFA programs until I took an undergraduate fiction workshop.  I had a really tough, but encouraging professor who encouraged me to keep writing.  I taught in France after undergrad, and I realized that though I was writing, I really wanted to be in a community where that was the focus.  I had visited McNeese with a friend who was accepted before I even considered applying, and I was struck by how welcoming and friendly the faculty and students were. When it came time to apply, the ease of application (they only ask for a writing sample, and if they like it, you send everything else) and full financial support were definitely attractive.

NICHE: One of the unique features of McNeese’s MFA Program is that it is a three-year program verses a two-year program. In your opinion, what are the benefits and/or downsides of a three-year program as apposed to a two-year program?

ALLIE MARIANO: I couldn’t imagine completing my MFA in two years.  At McNeese, we have the option of pursuing an MA in English Lit while working on our MFA.  After two years of workshop and writing classes, as well as a variety of literature classes, I’ve been able to examine my approach to fiction from many angles, and I feel prepared to revise what I’ve already written, as well as write new material for my thesis.  The downside of a three-year program might be the time commitment.  Three years on a graduate student stipend is probably not for everyone.

NICHE: How are workshops structured and run at McNeese?  Do you find the environment in the workshops supportive?

ALLIE MARIANO: Fiction workshop meets every Monday every semester.  While I’ve been at McNeese, everyone in our workshop has been extremely supportive and genuinely interested in each other’s work.  The comments in workshop are typically critical, but constructive. Outside of workshop people recommend stories to read and discuss their writing.  

McNeese only has one major professor for each genre, so typically students will have the same professor leading workshop all three years.  I happened to come during a transition period in the fiction department and have been fortunate to work with two different professors.  We’re looking forward to our new fiction professor, John Griswold, who will begin leading workshop next fall.

 How do you like living in Lake Charles, Louisiana?  What can you tell us about the area?

ALLIE MARIANO: In general, I like living in Lake Charles.  I’m from the Memphis area and was used to a larger city, so Lake Charles can seem a little small at times.  I probably won’t stay here forever, but I also kind of like being able to walk or run to the lake from my house and only having to drive a few minutes to get anywhere.  The food is awesome, and there are a ton of different festivals during the year.   Southwest Louisiana is the deep, deep South, which can be a bit of a culture shock for non-Southerners. There’s something strange about this city, but I mean that in a good way.  I’ve met some interesting people around town, and I’m always running into people who want to tell me their life stories. Lake Charles is also a two-hour drive from Houston and a three-hour drive to New Orleans, and both are fun places to visit for the weekend.

NICHE: McNeese’s program gives their MFA students the option of earning an MA along side the MFA.  Did you pursue this option, and if so, why?

ALLIE MARIANO: I did choose to pursue the MA alongside my MFA.  Before I considered an MFA, I thought I would eventually pursue a PhD in literature.  The great thing about the MA at McNeese is that many of the professors are also writers.  The MA classes definitely supplement the exploration of one’s own approach to writing.  In my opinion, constant reading is the only way to improve one’s own writing, and the MA has given me the opportunity to read many, many things I would never have picked up otherwise.

NICHE: What can you tell me about McNeese’s visiting writers?

ALLIE MARIANO: The conferences with the visiting writers have been great. It’s a good opportunity to meet with someone outside of workshop, and most of the feedback has been very thorough. I’ve found their unique perspectives can shed new light on something I’ve been working on for a while.  They are also good about giving more editorial-esque, rather than workshop-y adviceThomas Fox Averill was a recent visiting writer, and he gave me some superb advice: If workshop doesn’t like something in your story, you probably just need to do it more and better.  

NICHE: What other benefits does McNeese’s MFA Program offer that you’ve found particularly beneficial?

ALLIE MARIANO: Everyone teaches. This is great experience, although it is time-consuming, so time management is a necessary skill.   The faculty in the English department is great.  The professors are very approachable, and many of the literature professors also have backgrounds in creative writing, so conversations about writing can spill over into other classes.

This year was the MFA program’s 30th anniversary, and our program director, Amy Fleury, organized a huge event to celebrate it. It was a wonderful opportunity to meet and talk with alumni like Adam Johnson and the founder John Wood.  The program encourages and cultivates its particular tradition, and this event was one way for the current students to take part in it. 

NICHE: What advice would you give aspiring writers or current attendees of MFA programs?

ALLIE MARIANO: The most important aspect of writing is reading. I have absolutely no regrets about coming to McNeese, and the things I have learned from my professors and fellow graduate students are invaluable.  But, an MFA program does not make someone a writer.  Choosing to pursue an MFA will give you the time to focus on reading and writing, but it is up to that person to learn and develop from the experience.  I realize this is nothing original or new, but hard work is the most important part of writing.

This MFA Spotlight was originally published on Niche’s website on April 26th, 2012.

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