A brief ode to David Foster Wallace

My wife and I just watched The End of The Tour, the first film treatment about David Foster Wallace. It was a great portrayal of a small window into his life and it revealed a lot of subtleties about the torture he underwent…

DFW definitely makes the cut of my top 3 favorite writers.Although I haven’t built up the courage to crack open Infinite Jest yet, his essays were some of the best I’ve ever read and his commencement speech at Kenyon, This is Water, is one of the most paradigm-shifting speeches I’ve ever heard delivered.

Reading his work makes me feel like I’m hanging out with a friend. But not just any friend. A friend who’s smart beyond all comprehension — but makes you feel smart too. You feel that you could easily ask him to go grab a burger with you knowing that, one, he’d be totally down for junk food, and two, it’d be the most interesting time at a burger joint you’d ever have because you know he’d sit there and wax poetically about what he thought about the cultural meaning of that family of six sitting across from you.

He had a way of going deep into things without losing the reader. He toed the line perfectly by being extremely clear without dumbing the writing down. It was as if he wrote with the intention of — my readers are smart, they’ll figure it out — but without being overly pedantic or convoluted.

But here’s the thing... At the same time that reading his work inspire me to become a better writer, it also depresses the shit out of me.

DFW is dead. By his own hand. And I can’t get past this when I read him. How can someone so self-aware — so well adjusted, as he might put it — be so tortured?

Or maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s what got him. I dunno. Either way, I get super bummed out reading his work, which is difficult for me, because I wish I could read more of it without being distracted with this mystery.

Here’s what I got from his words in the movie (which were pulled from the interviews with Rolling Stone editor, David Lipsky) was that, writing literature is all about you. It’s about diving deep in your soul and going bare-knuckles with the demons within to get them out onto the page.

That deep abyss of self-observation and inquiry gets lonely. You start to get obsessed with yourself. Soon, you start to worry about how ‘good’ you are and you start to worry about ‘losing it’ and all the hairy rabbit holes we narcissistic writers can easily make our way down.

DFW seemed to struggle deeply with this. He became obsessed by how he was perceived by his audience. He didn’t want them to think the bandana was a contrived publicity stunt. He didn’t want to sound too ‘smart’ or above anyone. He wanted to maintain his regular-guy-ness. And he was terrified what people would do with his fragile self-image. Like, he just knew they were going to shatter it to pieces — just knew it.

All I can say is this — I struggle with those demons a little bit, but not nearly as much — thanks to blogging.

What I love about blogging is to be able to immediately and directly connect with your audience.

You’re not just putting your book out there — your life’s work that you’ve poured years of your time and sprouted multiple gray hairs for — and then kissing it goodby as it fades beneath a blanket of suits, pantsuits and ties in agents, publishers, media reps, professors, fellow literary people, and so on.

It’s just you and the people who matter most. The people who read your work. The people who take your words and do whatever they do with them.

Instant connection. Instant gratification, baby. The American way.

So here’s to David Foster Wallace. If he was still around, and if we could talk him into it, sure, he’d likely still be a literary great, but he’d have an incredible blog. He’d have full control over his message. He’d probably self-publish a lot.

So, there’s my small tribute to one of the greatest writers who ever lived. Thanks for conveying to us so well what it’s like to be alive. To be American. And to be human.

Time to crack open Infinite Jest, I suppose…

Previously on Higher Thoughts:

<= Your Audience and You