Once I knew a shy man, a brilliant man, who wooed the literary world. I was his creative writing student at Illinois State University in the mid-nineties. He was the weird writer/professor just featured in Time, with the red bandana and Lennon glasses, messy hair and shredded jeans, clunky boots and lumberjack shirts–this was the new Hemingway or stylistically, the new Thomas Pynchon. David looked like he belonged in the band Nirvana than the guest of honor at élite literary cocktail parties. He was about to release his Dystopian masterpiece, Infinite Jest. In hindsight, the five-month experience of sitting next to brilliance (everyone said so) has become a soul-file pressed within futuristic glass, those images and sounds felt by me as if alive, caught within the glass, safeguarding his pursed expressions, the dry one-liners, and the scratching scribbles when his black-ink pen edited my work. Then there was that two-sentence tag line, his judgment of me as a writer before I was expelled out of his universe and another semester began. His judgment of me labels the soul-file, a tattoo, and nudges me to keep writing.
During the spring semester of 1996, once a week we met as a class for a few hours in a giant circle. He’d cross an ankle over a knee, and it bobbed while we took turns reading our work, dissecting the good, the bad, and the ugly. He was a contradiction of quiet consideration and passionate outbursts with a brain that swirled so fast his mouth couldn’t keep up with it. He’d close his eyes and they would roll behind the lids; he would tell himself to relax, to calm down, as if he attended a yoga class for one, and the Buddha tapped him on the head and reminded him, “Breathe, David, breathe. Only an hour left and then you can escape the fluorescent lit room and the thirty undergrads who stare at you and wait for you to say something brilliant.” I imagine David Foster Wallace answered the Buddha, “If you call me brilliant one more time, I’ll–”
I ran across the following interview from 1997 and chuckled as he scoffed about the profession of teaching in higher education. He suggested after a few years, a teacher loses that magic, a relevance to offer students. That included my semester with him as a student.
David, you missed an important point about teaching. The impact of inspiration. You felt uninspired or inadequate as a teacher, but as a student, I gobbled up every expression, every leg crossing, every eye twitch, every utterance of advice like golden nuggets of wisdom. I wrote constantly. I thought about the craft of it, the art of it. I tried hard to shape words into images you would be proud of. Sycophant? Stalker? No. I kept a respectful distance. I had the sense to know how lucky I was that he was my teacher, and I was his student.
I’m almost twenty years older. You moved on, of course, and left ISU. You taught in California, wrote, became famous and then hung yourself in your garage in 2008. I was saddened but not shocked to hear the news. I speculated the voices in your head screamed instead of whispered or that your Buddha booked. Was it hard to be brilliant? I had never been David Foster Wallace’s friend or neighbor or lover or knew anything about him except as a teacher and his words in stories I tried to understand.
The two sentence tag-line came about from a page of editing he did to an assignment of mine. Two desperadoes, a father and daughter, arrived penniless to an insignificant town, and the car lost control and crashed through the entrance door of a Motel 6. The particle board paneling splintered over the olive shag carpeting. Anyway, he had crossed out, underlined, and ravaged my opening scene, drew an angry face here and smiley face there and then at the bottom, loudly proclaimed, “You have talent, but your grammar sucks.”
On Friday, the day of spring break, he assigned to me his mother’s grammar book. She was at a nearby community college and had written Practically Painless English. He told me to “Do every assignment. The entire book.” I did.
I have learned that reading good writing helps you write well. I’ve learned that it’s important to review the grammar book, especially if you are a teacher, to combat the exposure to bad writing.
It’s the “You have talent” part I like to remember. If David Foster Wallace thought so, Wow! It helps, when I’m in the dark and bludgeon myself with doubts. Inspiration is a great gift. Thanks, David.
What? You’ve never read anything by him? Try out this short story published in The New Yorker. Good luck keeping up with him. DFW New Yorker “Backbone”
I’m embarrassed to say I’m unfamiliar with him. I intend to look him up, however. Your post has intrigued me.
Hi, Kate. Don’t be embarrassed. He wasn’t a mainstream writer–literary fiction at the top of the heap. I’m grateful you stopped to comment 🙂
Not familiar wit he author. Though, I can certainly get behind “good writing” and use of grammar.
One of the reasons I started indulging in A.C. Doyle, H.P. Lovecraft, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler very early on. After the ‘Fun with Dick and Jane’ primers of the first grade, which I despised.
Hemingway was masculinity personified in his writings. As was Jack London. Pychon didn’t click with me. Too self centered, gentled and esoteric. Kind of the same for John Updike.
One of my favorites is Tom Wolfe and his “Radical Chic And Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers”. And his gleeful laying bare the hypocrisy of liberal fads. Also a huge fan of the late, great Ross Thomas
and his political intrigues. His writing style is the closest to Hammett and Chandler that I’ve read. Very addictive stuff indeed. With four titles written under the pseudonym, Oliver Bleeck.
Hi, Kevin. It’ good to know some of your favorites who influenced you. We share an affinity for Jack London, Hemingway (I like his short stories more than the novels) and very fond of Chandler. This sounds like a great post, so I will cut this short. I do hope you come by and share your thoughts again, soon! If I don’t hear from you before the week is out, if you celebrate Christmas, I hope it’s magical, and if not, I hope your celebrations are spiritual and satisfying. Peace, my friend 🙂
Holy cow, Cindy. You lucky, lucky son of a gun! I had no idea, and I can only imagine just what an incredible experience working with him must have been like. As a reader who always enjoys what you have to say, perhaps the time spent under his tutelage was a worthy investment. But I would also imagine that many others have contributed to your thirst for fine writing skills.
And I couldn’t agree more regarding the necessity of reading. Sometimes I worry that if I read too many passages of poor writing, it will seep into my own and I’ll become foggy. Panic! I have enough challenges as it is.
Happy Holidays, Cindy. This was a lovely piece and portrait of your teacher.
Shelley, I really appreciate your kind words and encouragement. I have called you “Erma Bombeck” because you have a great niche for sharing the mundane and frustrating and weaving a tapestry of comedy and light-hearted sarcasm. It’s very charming, and I look forward to your post each week. I’m always happy when you swing by. You have a great holiday break, too! Here’s a toast of a few ounces of fine Scotch swirling around some ice. 🙂
Sorry I can’t offer any insight Cindy, I’ll let David’s words speak for him.
“In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.”
― David Foster Wallace
Awesome quote. Thanks, Paul. Illuminating possiblities. Satire, yes? What’s the point of stressing the dark if not including the hope?
Cindy, I really enjoyed this post although I too had never heard of him. Why do brilliant minds snuff themselves out so often? You certainly gave one answer. When you mentioned how important David’s inspiration was for you I immediately thought of the following very brief video about why technology will never replace teachers. It’s definitely worth watching if you haven’t seen it:
Malcolm, thank you for sharing! I loved it and forwarded it to my principal. No doubt it will be shared at our next faculty meeting. Marvelous 🙂
One of my guest writers asked for a good grammar book after crawling off the bloody editing table in my office LOL. I’ll be adding Wallace’s mom’s book to my rec, Cindy. Just loved the description of your sacred time with him and what he honestly and brutally (and rightly) did for you as mentor.
If you get to it, you’ll see I couldn’t resist sharing:
Thanks, Diana. I enjoyed your post. Being afraid of writing down my thoughts incorrectly keeps me from making many mistakes. I still use passive voice too much and I use adverbs too much.
Awesome of you to voice the areas you feel you need to watch for.
Wow, I only just stumbled on this Cindy! Fantastic piece about one of my favourite authors – very impressed that you knew him!
Why am I not surprised you know who he is and understand his writing? Thanks, Dave. It was an experience I knew was rare and awesome. I never took his presence for granted. I spent as many minutes as I could in his office, trying to get to know him, for I wanted so much to become his friend. We had some fun conversations about religion, about travel, about the writing process.
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I am very confused – [sorry to get off topic like this but..] – my blog list says I’m following you, the follow button is checked – so why am I not getting these posts in my Reader? I not only owe you an apology but WordPress does as well!!
I’m not sure, but you certainly don’t owe me an apology. Some kind of computer glitch. You are in my reader 😉 so we can bounce back and forth. Sometimes I get bogged down with too much reading that I miss some of your posts, too. No worries!
Thanks for understanding.