2016, Archives, June 2016, The MFA Years

An Inside Look With Mary B. Sellers, Louisiana State University ’18

Image: Billy Metcalf

What is it like living in Baton Rouge? How far does your stipend go there living wise?

I have the advantage of growing up in the South, so I wasn’t too worried about any ‘cultural shock’. But Baton Rouge itself—it’s a nice city. It’s got that “Louisiana” texture to it which I find delightful—like: big, beautiful trees, too many shrimp poboy signs to count, shockingly lax liquor laws… But one of the best things about living here is the proximity to New Orleans. It’s about an hour South (depending on whether you’re more of the speed-demon or grandma driving type), which is an easy drive to do, even for a day trip.

There’s also Mardi Gras, which is a life-changer. Really. I don’t think anyone should be allowed to leave this Earth without experiencing a true Louisiana Mardi Gras. Baton Rouge has its own parades, too, which are just as fun as the New Orleans ones, but more intimate (translation: better chance of getting beads).

As for safety, it’s varied. There are safe parts and unsafe parts as with any city, and it’s a matter of using common sense in navigating those. I live in “The Garden District” which is lined with those quintessential Louisiana trees you see in the movies. It really is beautiful. This area is also next to a lovely park with ponds and golfing and walking trails. For students considering moving down here, I’d definitely suggest looking into rentals there as well as the area known as “Spanish Town”, which is located further towards downtown. I’ve heard it’s hip. I’m astonishingly un-hip, which is probably why I don’t live there.

Our stipend is generous, and I’m so thankful for it. However, I still had to learn how to budget, how to be economical with my expenses. Shopping sprees are rare for me, but I’ve discovered this magical place most of you probably know as Trader Joe’s. I do most of my shopping there—I still can’t get over how affordable ($3 wine!) and prettily pre-packaged it all is. I’d also recommend investing in a crock pot. That’s saved me from eating out, and it’s also nice coming back to that homemade smell, sometimes, even if the noodles are too mushy and carrots have too much of a crunch.

How does the program equip you for and support you during your teaching assistantship?

This past year (my first—I guess freshman year? Again? Yikes?) I actually chose to work for The Southern Review instead of teaching with my fellow peers. This position was open to one student in the incoming class. My cohort was a total of seven: three fiction writers and four poets in all. I like the publishing side of things and had previous experience, so I decided to apply. So instead of classrooms, I spent my time (20 hours a week) as the graduate editorial assistant for the magazine. Since my emphasis is in fiction, I worked closely with fiction coeditor Emily Nemens, and spent a majority of my time reading submissions—basically, I was like a professional ‘sifter of stories’. How many I got through? I lost count around 600, and that was mid-spring. But all this reading only enhanced my knowledge of current literary trends, how and what my contemporaries were doing right or getting wrong. I also got the opportunity to work with poetry coeditor Jessica Faust, and helped compile and edit/check the list of contributors for each new issue. I learned a lot about these writers we were publishing, and it was also a nice brushing up on my Chicago style know-how. I also got to attend AWP in Los Angeles this past March, where I worked the magazine’s table and got a fancy lanyard and spent too much money on uber rides.

What is the workshop environment like?

Like most people, I’m guessing, (at least for those more susceptible to imposter-syndrome than megalomania) The Actual Workshop was what I was most nervous about. I’d taken all of the fiction workshops offered during my undergraduate years, and I’d also participated in an online workshop through the Gotham Writers program the year before, but I was still—pardon my French—fucking terrified. But it was okay! Best example I can come up with right now: kind of like hurling yourself into the pool and knowing it’ll be really, really cold for the first few minutes, but that the cold will eventually get better, then warmish, and finally warm(!) and that there’s actually no real chance of freezing Jack-and-Rose-Titanic style.

I didn’t die because someone failed to like a sentence of mine. I lived, and it was okay, and they were actually probably right to not like it because there was, on looking back, a pretty terrible misplaced modifier.

And the thing is: you get to know people in the coolest way—by reading them—examining and remarking and scrutinizing things straight from their insides. That’s a special kind of ‘knowing’ that we writers are privileged to have available to us. I started feeling close to people I hardly knew based on their sentence structure and the particularly ways they could make me cry or laugh in the span of a paragraph.

This isn’t to say that workshop was 100% Snarky-Comments Free, but it was far better than I’d imagined. Sometimes, what I would read as snarky was to someone else, just truth, without apologizing for itself. It’s a matter of perspective, most of the time. But with fantastic professors (like ours), workshop can also serve as a series of lessons for story letter etiquette. What’s professional, what’s not: how you probably shouldn’t say outright that Blank’s story reminds you of a Lifetime Channel movie. You know, that kind of sandbox stuff we sometimes have to relearn. It’s important we all try to be nice humans to one another.

But sure, of course, I sometimes ran across a comment that hurt or confused or pissed me off. But I never once imagined that getting an MFA—especially in creative writing—for god’s sake, was going to be easy and pain-free. Getting this degree has been, if anything, an emotional experience. I’ve gotten used to what lonely feels like. I’ve gotten comfortable being with myself, and only myself, and holding myself accountable. I’ve lost sleep for a story’s sake and watched the moon sink into treetops, and not really felt much of anything except, well, okay, I got that done. I’ll sleep tomorrow. I think you have to be a bit of a masochist, actually, to do this to yourself (or at least be okay with probably becoming one before the program’s end.) So yes, I think the sooner you start growing that tough skin—that necessary exoskeleton—the better.

What is your MFA experience like outside of the classroom?

We have something called the Underpass Reading Series, which happens once a month on a Friday evening. Throughout the year, all current MFA-ers get the chance to read, along with special guests and PhD students. It’s a fun event, and it ends early enough for all of us to grab late dinners and drinks afterwards. Underpass specifically helped more than anything in getting to know the people in my program.

Around February and March, we also have the Delta Mouth Festival, which is organized by current MFA students (usually two—a fiction writer and poet). This takes place over a weekend—Friday, Saturday, Sunday—and is in partnership with Louisiana State University, Louisiana Division of the Arts, Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge, EGSA, and New Delta Review. It promotes literary arts in Baton Rouge and brings together nationally acclaimed, as well as local, Louisiana writers/artists. This past year, we had amazing people like: Carmen Maria Machado, Alexander Lumans, Monica McClure, Tracie Morris, Rodrigo Toscano, Jami Attenberg, Peter Cooley, and Ben Fama.

There’s also our contemporary reading series, Readers & Writers, which hosts a variety of speakers throughout the year.

And, of course, there’s the proximity to New Orleans.

What’s something about your program that can’t be found on the program website, that you think potential applicants should know about?

Because the graduate English department is small—especially in terms of MFA classes, but also on the small side for PhDs too—there’s an immediate sense of intimacy in regards to the department as a whole. We’re all encouraged to take a variety of classes, so I’ve gotten to know students in the PhD program really well by taking literature courses. Last fall I was the one MFA student in a folklore class of ten PhD students, and I was surprised by how welcome I felt. And vice versa, too, for them—this past spring, there were several poets and a PhD student in my fiction workshop. So, because of this “cross-pollination” of genres, workshops, and traditional literature/scholarly classes, the natural barriers between masters and doctorate students are lessened. I think this promotes a greater sense of “us” and belonging. And any English department event is open (and almost always) attended by a blend of MFA and PhD’s. It’s a comfortable support network, regardless of individual “specialties” and emphasis. This also works in favor of diversity in our education. I’m glad to have the chance for more classical, scholarly study. It’s a helpful compliment for my creative work. This closeness also goes for instructors, too—they are approachable, our friends, our peers, as well as our teachers. It’s a good form of casual (in the sense of being warm and open and honest), less “I’m the teacher and you’re the student” and more of a blend, more of a mentor-ish role, if that makes sense. You can have a beer with them at the bar on a Friday as well as listen and learn from them in the classroom.


Mary B. Sellers is pursuing her MFA in Fiction at Louisiana State University. Originally from Jackson, MS, she now lives in Baton Rouge with her dog, Daisy Buchanan. This past year, she was the editorial assistant at The Southern Review. Important activities include: drinking wine and eating tacos on a regular basis. She wants to be a mermaid when she grows up.

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