“The Ecstasies of Reading Such a Cosmos,” or: What the MFA is For

OK yes, I do recall those hopeful sultry nights at Lazy Moon and at Jimmy Hula’s and Buffalo Wild Wings and once even Tilted Kilt (which of all places, why?)—I admit to it, I confess, I’m feeling vaguely ashamed, yes, OK, whatevs.

Writers and books; styles and genres and theory; the literary merits of this or that; Truth in nonfiction; Really, X is hooking up with Z? But what about Y?; what’d you think of Professor —’s book?; Art with that embossed fancy-pants capital-A: we all of us were Stephen Dedalus, earnest motherf***ers, jealous and critical and yet still supportive of each other, super-serious about our Craft, the Text as sacrosanct, like, well sort of like what a healthy child is to a first-time mom: miraculous, and therapeutic, and possibly redemptive.

And too we were Hester Prynne, marked by that above-mentioned A, shyly chewing our pizza slices or our fish tacos or our boneless buffalo wings and downing our craft beers (a little too neatly, maybe) and feeling frankly righteous as cloistered monks, because we were Outsiders, and everybody knows that Outsiders, ever since James Dean (the actor, not the pornstar), are cool.

Or maybe since Moses?

Or maybe actually now that I’m thinking about it since God, that entity which created the Universe, which necessarily means it/he/she’s outside of it, and thus quod erat demonstrandum is the ultimate Outsider?

We were godly.

(Outside; set apart—sanctified, from the Latin sanctus, holy, and on through Old French before being borrowed into Middle English.)

“The city,” asserted Erasmus, “is a huge monastery.” Well, yes: the graduate writing program functions like a city functioning like a monastery. It’s both a place and an activity, a Vatican inside a much larger Rome, and for a couple of years, your identity is subsumed in it, pretty much entirely.

(Detractor: how can you be both inside and outside, bro? You’re mixing metaphors! Here’s F Scott Fitzgerald’s famous thought about mixing metaphors: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed notions in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Which this isn’t to assert that yours truly possesses a first-rate intelligence, but just to say that paradox and contradiction is very much the realm of the creative writer, and besides, that’s how you make a metaphor.)

I am attempting to write this thing as an alumnus, to figure out, while I’ve got control of this here soapbox, what it is I’d most like to have known, while I was in it. These sorts of things, posited a posteriori, often devolve into a certain well-traveled Take Advantage Because It Goes So Fast And You’ll Miss It When It’s Gone! polemic. I’m truthfully hoping to avoid this, because I find it a little bit cheesy—bathos in place of pathos; think about like, middle school graduation, Vitamin C (notice how pale pop stars were once allowed to be), those girls who weren’t really friends clutching at each other and weeping, the one kid with the obvious boner, somebody’s buzzed mom grooving out on the dance floor—so yeah, please, let’s avoid that.

And yet I don’t want to give you the impression that I’m a cynic. Because frankly, you should take advantage of it. Because it does go so fast. And you will miss it when it’s gone.

The common misconception is that the MFA program is primarily about writing. That unlike other graduate-degree programs, it functions more like a residency or a fellowship than like school.

This, I think, is plain wrong.

I’d like instead to suggest that while writing is of course an important activity in the writing program, it’s not the central activity—the central activity is reading. And by reading I don’t just mean reading books, although that’s a big part of it. I mean it in the sort of technological sense; e.g., reading as ingesting-and-interpreting data as prelude to functioning. Processing, to be more accurate.

In 1964, the radio astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson accidentally discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB), the incredibly faint thermal radiation which physicists believe originates from the Big Bang. This discovery sparked interest in the field of cosmology, and too it set in motion a decades-long quest to map the CMB, like across the known universe, the idea being that this map would function as a kind of “baby picture” of the universe: it would show us, theoretically (and very, very roughly), what the thing looked like about 380,000 years after the Big Bang, which on the cosmic timescale is like, well, it’s not very long (the universe is believed to be 13.7 or so billion years old. Divide 380,000 by 13,700,000,000 and you get 0.00002773722. What this means: if the universe were a year old, the CMB map would show what the universe was like—if I got the math right—when it was just about fifteen minutes old.)

It wasn’t until 1992, nearly thirty years later, that scientists, using data collected from the COBE satellite, produced this what’s called anisotropic map (as in, the map contains not the God’s-eye view, but our view, the vantage point from which we looked). The reason it took so long is predictable: technological issues, the primary one being pretty simple to understand but really f***ing difficult to solve: there’s lots of radiation, both natural and man-made, fluttering around, and all this radiation ran interference, like what night pollution does when you’re trying to look at the stars. Or like when you try to discern the words of a heavy metal song over the instrumental noise. The physicists working to map the early universe had to find a way to block out the interference and attune themselves to the particular wave frequency of the microwave radiation (microwaves, unlike other forms of electromagnetic radiation have extremely long wavelengths, and are thus pretty difficult to detect—think of it this way: imagine you’re looking at a vast crowd of people, all of them twerking, but at different speeds. Think of each individual twerk as a wavelength. Your eyes will probably first be drawn to those people who are twerking at a frenetic pace: these would be equivalent to light in the visible spectrum. Those people twerking at average or slower than average speeds, or who are twerking so fast they seem in fact to be standing still, would be equivalent to wavelengths we can’t see with the naked eye: radio waves, microwaves, UV, X-ray, gamma-ray.)

Does my elaborate metaphor make any sense?

The writer in the MFA program is the scientist who, overcoming various technological and logistical issues, figures out a way to attune him or herself to the correct frequency, or that is, the frequency correct for him/her.

What I mean is: there’s lots of stuff. Lots of things around you to experience, intellectually and emotionally and physically. This seems like a pointedly obvious statement, I know. But it does for reals take some time to get acquainted with the world, from the writerly perspective. It takes some time and some serious effort to identify and then interrogate your own value system, an absolutely necessary thing if you plan on being an honest writer (and more than that, an honest person). It takes some time and effort to then go ahead and figure out just what it is about the universe which interests you—and believe me, these interests will shift and conflate and dissolve all the freaking time, a result, probably, of shifting/conflating/dissolving values.

What you’re doing when you commune with other young and/or early-stage writers in the MFA program is not exactly earth-shattering stuff; you’re not creating new rebellious literary movements or writing masterpieces (and I know you probably know this, but I didn’t)—what you’re doing when you’re engaging in all those literary conversations and reading those authors who are new to you and writing craft papers and (respectfully and thoroughly) critiquing each other’s work is this: you’re learning what it means to be a human being. A person.

The term for this is empathy.

You are learning how (and why, hopefully) to read yourself into the experiences and experiential gestalts of others.

And so what this means is that the writer in the MFA program is also the satellite gazing at the cosmos, at all the stars and nebulae, recording these things, and then, like Mary of biblical fame, pondering them in his/her heart, or asking, along with the French scholar Michel de Certeau, “To what erotics of knowledge does the ecstasy of reading such a cosmos belong?”

And too, and ultimately, the writer is the photon itself, that single infinitesimal particle of light, navigating through space like (well sort of like) Barth’s Swimmers navigating the night-sea, and hoping, despite its faint signal and the infinite host of other signals, to enter, and then, to be seen.

Eric Fershtman photoEric Fershtman’s work is published/forthcoming in various places, including the Seneca Review, Essay Daily, Cosmonauts Avenue, The Review Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and The Barnstormer. He won the Summer Literary Seminars Emerging Writers Award in 2012 and received his MFA in fiction from the University of Central Florida in 2014.

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One thought on ““The Ecstasies of Reading Such a Cosmos,” or: What the MFA is For

  1. You’re dead on about “reading” as being a prelude to functioning. With respect to the mfa, the first test of said functionality is the workshop critique. I don’t think you can overstate the benefit of ones ability to thoughtfully and respectfully review another’s work. That simple ability to communicate with another person outlives the mfa and writing and is, i believe, indispensable in the world at large. Just something I’ve come to notice in my brief time post-mfa.

    Liked by 1 person

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