Why We Write

David Foster Wallace and the Education of the Spirit

Seth Abramson
Jun 25, 2015 · 5 min read

by Seth Abramson

I began writing poetry in 1998 because I deeply resented being a law student. I bristled at the way law school rewires your brain — makes you “think like a lawyer”, a skill-set that’s useful in a few situations and harmful in many others. The first time I was subjected to law school’s “Socratic” instruction, I knew that if I didn’t find a creative outlet and soon, I’d either lose myself in the law or flunk out of law school entirely. Under the law school version of the Socratic Method, you regularly get called on to answer ten or more questions in front of 150 people; it’s harrowing and forces an attention to rationality that’s exhausting. So writing poetry daily helped me keep my head above water. Later on, it helped me to continue practicing law as a public defender even when I’d become exhausted from witnessing tragedies every day.

When we write, we transmit not just data but our very being

In hindsight, I don’t think I knew myself very well when I was a law student, or even for many of the years I practiced law. I don’t think I appreciated exactly what writing meant or could mean for my own emotional and moral development. Was it, a little like a courtroom, yet another place in which I could test my courage and will? Was it a chance for me to expose my idiosyncrasies to the world, in the balance feeling either rejected or embraced? Was it just a means to chart my achievements by tracking publications, prizes, and the gradual development of a readership? Looking back on two decades of being a writer, I think writing has been, at various times, all and none of these for me. But I’ve also learned that the best writers are those for whom writing tracks alongside — rather than being only a poor mirror of — their own evolution as husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends and coworkers. A body of writing or a writing style that doesn’t change as its author ages increasingly suggests, to me, a separation between Life and Art that I find alarming.

I guess my point is that I write because I’m alive, and because I’m afraid to die without having changed myself appreciably. And it’s deeply meaningful for me to undergo this sort of psychological metamorphosis while intimately connected — through reading, writing, and the sort of dialogues these practices initiate — with the communities I live and work in and the people I care most about. As David Foster Wallace once said of his own relationship with writing, “One of the things that’s good about writing is that it’s a great remedy for my natural self-involvement and self-centeredness…really learning how to write effectively is, in fact, probably more a matter of spirit than it is of intellect. ‘Spirit’ means I never forget there’s someone on the end of the line, that I owe that person certain allegiances, that I’m sending that person all kinds of messages, only some of which have to do with the actual content of what it is I’m trying to say.” When we write, we transmit not just data but our very being — and this means that writing well, living well, and using our time here in a way that encourages self-improvement are all inseparable aspects of the human experience.

So how do writers enhance the self-instructive quality of the writing process? While Wallace once said that a good book makes its reader smarter — and he’s right — an equally important ambition is for the author to figure out what sort of relationship with language makes a writer smarter. Or, for that matter, more ethical and self-aware both on and off the page. Unfortunately, in recent years the question of how writers improve their skill-sets has been considered almost exclusively in the context of creative writing programs. The problem with this is that programs of this sort are geared toward helping students learn how to write, not necessarily why to write. Yet most veteran writers will tell you that there’s no obvious purpose in studying the former question until you have a well-considered — if necessarily ever-changing — answer to the latter one.

Deeply considering your own reasons for writing, and your own evolving and likely idiosyncratic relationship with language and culture, is as important as writing well. It’s also critical for writers to understand that readers come to literature for as many reasons as writers do. Some of the reasons writers and readers turn to literature are clearly healthy ones — others, a little less so. David Foster Wallace’s life teaches us much, but I think one of its clearest and hardest lessons is that language can be both a boon and a curse for writers and readers alike. Wallace’s very facility with words and facts at times led him to give too much authority to his own thought process, and too little weight to the healing power of good company. Yet what Wallace struggled with in life he seemed to struggle with much less in his fiction. What this means is that readers who treat Infinite Jest as just an ironic commentary on all that’s wrong with contemporary living fail to see, too, the book’s deep empathy for men and women and the human condition.

In the complicated relationship between Wallace-the-man and Wallace-the-novelist we see the many ways writing and reading teach us to live fuller and more self-conscious lives. And yet this only happens if, across the years, we pay close attention to both our writing and reading processes.

Seth Abramson is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of New Hampshire and the series co-editor of the Best American Experimental Writing, whose next edition will be released by Wesleyan University Press in late 2015. His most recent book is Metamericana (Blaze Vox, 2015).

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