I graduated from the University of Tampa low-residency MFA program in 2015, and I’ve missed the sense of community that came along with it ever since. In my everyday life, the only writer I have regular contact with is my wife, Susan. She and I talk about all sorts of things, including writing, and not writing, but there’s no substitute for spending day after day in the company of a bunch of people pursuing artistic goals.
I try to attend UT’s Lectores reading series whenever I can. It happens twice a year, during the program’s 10-day residencies. Last Friday’s reader was Alexander Chee, whose essays I’ve read and who I had the pleasure of meeting in the space of a brief handshake. He impressed me as a quiet, intelligent man–maybe a bit shy–whose favorite activity I’d bet is something other than standing at a podium in front of a bunch of MFA candidates and strap-hangers such as myself.
UT hosted a reception for students, faculty, and alumni the same evening. During the reception, I had a conversation with a member of the faculty whose writing I admire. It was the sort of conversation over a couple of beers that starts with catching up on the past year or two, then veers off the trail and into the woods. We each have a son on the cusp of adulthood, trying to figure out how to be a man. As fathers, we’re horrified at the used-up state of the world our generation is handing down for our descendants to deal with. The political situation, the threat of war each generation of Americans has come to expect, and how we deal with it brought out some of our hopes and worries about what’s ahead for our sons.
When he asked me how I felt about my son’s having recently enlisted into the Marine Corps, I offered up some boilerplate crap–“I’m proud of him, but terrified of what he’s getting into.” My writer friend wasn’t having it and let me know by asking gently incisive, and direct questions, like precisely targeted rabbit punches. He drew out some of my real fears, some based on my own military career, not all of which I confessed on the spot, and the conversation became an unexpectedly intimate thing that stuck with me for days and led to this rambling post.
To be in the company of writers is to take the risk and enjoy the rewards of being around people who think and evaluate for a living and miss little. I was saved from oversharing by the interruption of one of his bright-eyed students, but not before I shared some of how my son went through the process of deciding to enlist, rather than go to college. I talked about something Susan told me, that with her daughter, who is off studying astrophysics, she has progressed from acting as the parent of a teenager to the parent of an adult. That is, from the role of directly managing a kid to manage her life, to the role of a consultant who offers advice when asked for it.
This led to the subject of the shortness of a human life and the limited time each of us has to accomplish anything that can endure beyond our life spans. People, nations, civilizations come and go, each amounting to no more than the briefest flash of smoke in the scope of geological time, never mind the cosmic scope. Our squishy brains lack the capacity to comprehend a timescale beyond the existence of homo sapiens. To demonstrate this, he asked,
“Do you know much about dinosaurs?”
I said I think so, for a non-paleontologist.
“My son knows everything about them,” he said. “So–he’s got this pile of plastic dinosaurs, and he brings me a couple and shows me a t-rex and a stegosaurus–you know what those look like?”
I said that I did.
“We see those species together all the time, right? In picture books from the time we’re toddlers and on the shelf of all the toy stores, but–”
“They lived in different periods right? Jurassic and Cretaceous?”
“Right! T-rex and stegosaurus never laid eyes on each other, and the periods of time they lived are as far separated as humans are from the last of the dinosaurs. In comparison to the dinosaurs, humanity isn’t even a blip on the screen. But look at what we’re doing to the planet. It’s hell in a handbasket.”
“And our own pitiful lifespans are so short, we’re just ants in a pile.”
It was time for another beer.
“How do we keep from falling into nihilism?,” he said. “How do you do it?”
“I guess I try to have some hope that we’ll survive long enough to figure it out, as a species, before we burn it all up.”
“That’s why I turn to absurdism in my writing. It’s the only way I can move forward in the world without becoming a nihilist.”
This conversation, or whatever version of it my memory retains, has been playing in my mind for several days. It has led me to ask myself why I’m spending my time writing science fiction. How can I devote myself to creating what most consider mere entertainment? There’s limitless opportunity to tell stories that say, look, here’s what could happen if we don’t change. Or, we can unleash the dread inner nihilist and write stories that show how utterly fucked we are. We can shake our fist and call out warnings like Margaret Atwood or grit our teeth and go for the full Cormac McCarthy apocalypse. (I doubt either of those two would label themselves genre writers, despite clearly having written science fiction novels, and because the majority of their work is marketed as mainstream literary fiction.)
It’s possible that more beers were opened before time to move into the reading space for Mr. Chee. I mentioned the relatively sparse crowd. When I graduated from the program four years ago, readings were packed with students. I asked where everybody was.
“This is pretty much it,” he said.
Apparently, the program isn’t drawing the same number of suitable applicants. Of course, this is only my speculation. I wonder if the “MFA bubble” has finally popped. It seemed, a few years ago, that every writer (and a few non-writers) in America was rushing to enter an MFA program. I wonder if other programs have seen a decline in applications. I’d rather believe that than believe the program I attended is in decline.
In any case, I’m glad to have experienced it. UT is a great place to go to school, though without the G.I. Bill and the Yellow Ribbon Program, I couldn’t have afforded it barring an automobile-sized student loan.
I’m sorry to have missed my friend’s reading last week, and if he happens to read this, let it be known that I have one of his novel’s for him to sign when, hopefully, our paths cross again in six months or so. I’ll look forward to hanging out in the bar and bumping into other ever-more-grizzled alumni, meeting current students, and talking with writers.