David Foster Wallace and the Hard Problem of Writing as Work

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From my friend Tom Strah’s home studio. Another famous suicide.

There’s a lot of reasons to kill yourself. Not least of which is that if one perceived life as a series of projects, tasks to be completed, the penultimate project would be coming to terms with one’s death. Not simply mortality, but the precise moment of the end. I know I can’t help but think about it often.

Though final projects have a simple seduction, the question remains to ask oneself — how did I come to the notion that life was a series of projects in the first place? As a young man I absorbed a certain amount of sadness for the world that David also spoke of experiencing. A sadness of place and time, not one of loss or heartbreak. Mainly out of a (pretty messed up) notion that I was supposed to be sad. That a writer, if they wanted to be great, had to take on the burdens of their individual moment and that this moment had questions relating to despair.

I don’t think David ever marked any intentionality to his depression; but it was certainly consequential. And if we can measure and note certain types of consequences to their progenitors in decision — then I think it would be hard to deny that part or parcel of David’s depression came from his circumstance. His intuition that his life was a project.

At least this kind of reasoning made me feel better. Because slowly it started occurring to me that maybe, what a writer might learn from David’s life — is what not to do.

Now this may seem like an ungenerous place to start from .. so I’ll do a little backtracking.

DFW was an important writer for me. I think his tragic figure is part of what makes him important. Like lots of others surely did — I found David after his death. I saw him on the cover of a magazine. In the last breaths of the 20th century’s media empire where being the only writer to ever be featured on the cover of Rolling Stone still meant something. I inhaled David Lipsky’s article and I think that arguably one of most important DFW texts was the book Lipsky did: Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. I agreed with DFW in conversation in that book when he spoke about postmodern writing (Barthelme, Pynchon, Paley) being more accurate to how “reality felt on your nerve endings.” When one is young and a raw nerve it’s nice to hear that others too find themselves wincing the night away.

I also just associated with his carriage. David’s level of self conscious hand wringing felt important to who he was as a writer. As an act, David left one thinking ‘well, only a brilliant person could tie themselves up in these many knots.’ Truly, what he did is hard to do.

David, as a figure, started as one of inspiration. I was always a little luke warm on Infinite Jest*, but I still think Brief Interviews with Hideous Men has its moments of brilliance. The story Signifying Nothing has a nice pace to it, is striking, and leaves one thinking. It’s difficult to not find a certain self-conscious charm to the opening flash of A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life. The Brief Interviews portions can often be entertaining, both structurally, and due to some feeling that these are answers. Maybe not to your problems, or mine — like independent mathematical proofs — the answers are purely theoretical, but often those answers are the most fun.

Yet ultimately, there seems to be a tone of unfortunate brilliance — because like so much of what he did in fiction, the writing often feels tortured. Flayed. Not anesthetized lying on a table but like a medical school cadaver — or a more deranged version of that — a person which has been intentionally killed in order to further a med student’s scientific pursuits. But this is what I liked. His story in Brief Interviews titled Octet is a fascinating web of insecurities bordering on guilt. The book is almost like a Gogol, it has a smell of pain. Angsty loneliness, confusion caused by an excess of intelligence.

It feels as if you’re with someone who is trying to understand the world so seriously that they miss the simple pleasures right in front of their face. My feeling about Infinite Jest has always been this: you’re going on a jog with David and in spurts of monologue he’s trying to explain why he thinks he’s depressed. People get addicted to things, it’s horrible, they waste their time etc. But all you really want to say in return is; “Well, David, I don’t think you feel bad because other people get addicted to drugs.”

But what a meager response this would be.

Think of all the suffering! Shouldn’t writers, too, have to suffer for their art? I’ve come to believe this less. For years I’ve been allergic to calling writing — art. Let writing be writing, let art be all the things you’ll find in a museum. I think, with hindsight, that this allergy was formed after a little too much pain. I wanted to turn writing into a profession, thereby reducing the chances of suffering (even if this solution was an incorrect solution).

I think this is a sentiment to which David could understand, or was at least attempting to understand. In his final uncompleted novel, The Pale King, the quiet dignity of professionalization is one of the key structures for understanding our world — but probably more so for understanding David.

I can not think of a worse idea for a novel than the day to day lives of IRS workers. Though any other office job with accentuation on the mundanity of it all would work the same. In The Pale King, David had a section which was going to be about each character in the tax office, in succession, turning a page. This character turns a page, then that character turns a page, then this character etc.

I think this elucidates, quite clearly, how far gone he had gotten, that such a boring idea might somehow come out really smart … the same thing happens in IJ where The Year of the Adult Depend Undergarment is taken as, well, this author is clearly very smart, it’s my fault if I find this sort of juvenile and bizarre (seriously, how would that work? a company naming a year? It doesn’t make any sense.)

It seems obvious that if only David had been forced to work in a real office, one where it was the job he did to make rent, experiencing the crushing boredom — but worse, some of those meetings, their existential malaise the banality of having to sit through people saying the same things over and over and over … he probably woulda realized the feeling he had on his lunch break, when he stared at a pretty tree, ate his sandwich and daydreamed — that was the feeling to chase.

But David was a professional. He was obliged to be functional by the clear validation of his talent.

It is very strange to think about that writing ever got this notion that it was a profession. That it might be something to be taught and worked and that people might sit behind desks and write like it was their job. Sure, there are functionary aspects to writing which appear joblike, however, that’s just the work to create the final product. Yes Jorge Luis Borges and Virginia Woolf and Mark Twain all at one point probably sat behind a desk, but other than that they have very little in common — and that’s what we like!

David’s problem was, he had taken the idea of the work itself and turned that into the highest good. To cover your ass, to validate, what is, a strictly unnecessary skill. But that’s what skills are. The fact that we cultivate such frivolity is what makes humans interesting and unique. But one is not obliged to their skill set, nor is it a detraction to not actively cultivate them. It’s the ridiculous value system that is the state of capitalism we live in today where specialization has reached its ultimate. This pigeon holes education and considers the completion of a task as an irrelevant cog in an ever growing industrial machine. But there’s only so much one can hope to accomplish in a day, and I’ve learned the hard way, what’s meaningful to finish for me, is often irrelevant for most everyone else. I don’t consider this to be a negative, because I’m not pulling any strings. The artist doesn’t demand competency from their readers (nor have the ethereal projection of the readers demands on them), their only job, is to be as open, curious, and interesting as possible.

After working years and years at jobs, floating along, I’ve encountered this weird phenomenon. I’ll tell people that the point of a job is to actually accomplish something, and they look at me like they have no idea what the hell I’m talking about. Jobs have become a thing to do because people need jobs. This has been the subtle creep of automation and redundant competency, which had me applying for a job the other day which would’ve involved me working a whole day’s labor just to pay for my background check and drug screen. Working the job to prove I can show up to work the job.

Which is what makes David so frustrating. In one way, he’s in it for the good stuff: subtle, beautiful observations. The thrust of literary consciousness. Writing in a way which for that small subset of the populace, doesn’t treat them like children, it knows, there are some people that still do want to work at reading.

He has the money and freedom and literary success to do whatever he wants, and The Pale King is what he comes up with. Like an obsessive protestant minister, he lectures on the fealty of work — to prove to himself it’s worth it as much as anyone else.

And this, I think, is why David Foster Wallace is the most interesting, tragic literary figure of the new century. If one is to even be particularly callous, one could almost trace his depression and ultimate suicide to the event stress and realization that he could be a great writer, there were now expectations, and that he’d have to be a professional at it. Which is not the artist’s responsibility.

What is the artist’s responsibility? To thine own self be true is exactly the type of dumb hokey sentiment that David would’ve hated, but in response I would say; sometimes things are dumb. Literature as much as anything. I mean, Saul Bellow, struggling on his big hospital novel was gloomily walking through the Paris streets, saw a hydrant spilling water into the gutter and thought that he should at least be as free as that water. Now isn’t that kinda … dumb? Yet it was the impetus to remind him to write whatever way he wanted. It was a calling of the heart rather than logic or obligation. David was too often smart for that.

But this isn’t all to say that there aren’t good things in this professionalization. Doing things well takes time and people should focus on doing well, realizing positive visions. Having the means to do so, whether we continue with our same financial structure or not.

And one thing you absolutely have to congratulate David for knowing, for making crystal clear; the specialist is hyper-aware of their shortcomings. No one knows better than the professional: behind the degree, the title, the knowledge, is simply a person who works hard. A person, who does their best with what they have. They try to calculate all the angles to the best of their ability, yet ultimately fail — just like everyone else.

So why did David feel like he couldn’t fail? To bear with depression all the work of the world.

Well, he was good at calculating the angles. Maybe, in some sense, this is what literature does. In the process of uncovering hidden realities, they must first be discovered, so no stone can be un-turned. And in this way, there’s an element of performance, not strictly necessary, but useful, to show how one is different. This is the notion of literary celebrity. David just happened to have that biggest audience literature has ever seen (in the 90’s and early 00's), and was distracted by the immensity of his responsibility to perform. It was a strange position to find oneself in as an artist.

Yes, I have come around to calling writing an art. A painter friend helped by pointing out something obvious.

Kurt Vonnegut was once helped by a painter friend when Kurt was distressed — feeling like he was doing something completely different from all the other writers he saw. His friend told him that there are “artists who talk about the history of their art, and artists who talk about what it’s like to be alive now.” Kurt said that he had never heard a better description for the differences in art. And while that idea has always stuck with me — I’ve also often found it feeling a bit incomplete. Perhaps it is true that there are mainly two different kinds of artists, but what of the circumstance for art?

I like going to art museums. But on a trip last summer to the Art Institute in Chicago I found myself drifting through the halls. Exhausted. Looking for a refuge away from people. All the human history but literally — so many paintings in museums are paintings of people. I complained about this to my painter friend who informed me that it’s very difficult to sell paintings of people. Most purchasers of art don’t want paintings of some random person hanging up in their house. So, on a certain level, I was exactly like everyone else. He also implied that because of this economic truity, only artists who try to work in the pantheon of history get really good at painting people. Which is why museums are so filled with paintings of people. To get great at their art they had to ignore the easiest access of their marketability.

I wouldn’t say that this realization changed anything for me, but as artists we’re always trying to come to terms with our circumstance. And something about hearing how I would buy art on the same terms as everyone else, helped. It made me appreciate art museums again.

In Lipsky’s book (and that OK film based on the book The End of the Tour) DFW speaks about how he treasures his average guy-ness. This has always seemed to me like an important point for understanding him, but also for understanding the artistic spirit. So much so, that in a short story I completed some years ago, I used a bit of planned dialogue to help describe a character (based on myself).

It’s worth it for the character because she has entered into a world where intelligence isn’t everything. I think it would be relatively easy to argue that the reader of fiction actually would prefer someone whose intelligence doesn’t get in the way of the story. Because a book, like a painting, is something that they’re bringing into their home. Hyper competence can actually be weird and distracting. Exhausting. Now this isn’t to say that one shouldn’t strive to be the kind of artist who creates work that will live in a museum — I think what I’m trying to say is: David would’ve been happier as an artist instead of a professional. The kind who sold a lot of paintings or books. He felt forced to continue validating his talent. Maybe not much could’ve changed that — but it’s what I’ve learned to not do.

Which is sometimes hard, because my deepest ugliest secret — the one I hate looking in the face — is that I think I have about as much natural talent for this as any single person gets. But art isn’t like tennis. I can’t just work really hard to get in the tournament, on some level I have to figure out just what this art activity can do for somebody else.

Practically, this answer has become ‘not very much.’ But isn’t that art?

  • One footnote, in honor of. I talked to a young man who informed me that DFW is especially popular in the young, male, and athletically ambitious. Particularly he is always referenced on weight lifting forms. It perhaps is useful to think of David’s themes in this context. Finishing IJ as a type of achievement, almost physical (during the reading of it, the reader might notice himself casually snacking, to keep his energy up). It might also explain some of the heavy nonsense of what so much of the book hopes to achieve. Doing a wrist curl every-time one has to flip to the appendix.

Podcast: Western Thought. Writes literary fiction. His audiobook The Town of Books; first chapter. https://www.mixcloud.com/jondrist/town-of-books-chapter-1/

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