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”