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Aug 2008: A Lesson from David Foster Wallace


David Foster Wallace gave me the best writing lesson I ever had in less than four seconds.

It was the mid-90’s and he was a professor at Illinois State University where I was an English major. Sometimes I’d ramble at him about tennis or books while he listened politely. He had a reputation for being stand-offish and cocky, I think he was simply shy.

When I first met him, I had no idea who he was. I just saw him as a cool professor with a penchant for bandannas. The other fiction professors were a one-armed black man (who disliked me because I had written a poem about black squirrels, which he didn’t know existed and thought I was trying to make some point about Race)  and two white guys in their 60’s with long grey hair (one of which told our class that none of us would ever have more than 20 readers, and the other who had the audacity to assign his own book to the class).

David, it seemed, was about the only one I might be able to talk to about the link between LSD and creativity. Especially since I often saw him coming and going from my neighbor’s house (the one with blankets over his windows and the fluffy white dog named 8-ball).

So I read Girl with Curious Hair and approached him after class one day. I asked him what he was trying to accomplish when writing “Little Expressionless Animals.”

He told me: “I don’t know, I just wrote it.”

I was silent ~ the idea of abandoning any themes or motivation and simply letting the story tell itself. Just write it and let the critics and students sort it out! It was so simple and brilliant.

At least that’s what I think he meant.

Maybe he was just trying to get rid of a pesky student.

I’m betting on the latter…

 

Many years later a reviewer from the Anchorage Press called my novel, Sponsored By… “imaginative”, but that if you really wanted to read a good critique of consumer culture, to instead read Infinite Jest. I took that more as a compliment than insult, especially since my  book was intended to be ridiculous.

Anyway, thanks for the lesson, David.


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