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Posts Tagged ‘David Foster Wallace’

25 MARCH, 2015

Reinventing the Secular Sermon: Remarkable Commencement Addresses by Nora Ephron, David Foster Wallace, Ira Glass, and More

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How to live life “on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”

We live in an era where religion is, thank “god,” increasingly being displaced by culture and secular thought. And yet, secular education and the arts have a great deal to learn from religion as a mode of seeding values of good-personhood and disseminating ideas about the meaning of life. The contemporary secular equivalent of the sermon — religion’s most potent ideological delivery mechanism, that compact packet of wisdom on how to be a decent human being and lead a good life — is the commencement address. This singular genre of intergenerational hand-me-down advice accomplishes something no other form of modern communication does — it inverts our culture’s skewed balance of cynicism and hope and fosters what Oscar Wilde called a “temperament of receptivity” to deliver messages we would dismiss as trite in any other context; here, however, we know that trite means vitally true — it means hard-earned, life-tested, experience-proven truths about the simplest yet most difficult tenets of existence.

Now, some of the greatest commencement addresses of all time have been neatly packaged in Way More than Luck: Commencement Speeches on Living with Bravery, Empathy, and Other Existential Skills (public library) — a compendium of timeless wisdom including classics like David Foster Wallace’s indispensable This Is Water, delivered at Kenyon College in 2005, and Norah Ephron’s piercing 1996 Wellesley College speech, as well as contemporary masterworks of the commencement genre by This American Life host Ira Glass, writer Michael Lewis, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, artist and educator Debbie Millman, novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, actor Bradley Whitford, and more.

The book opens with artist, author, and Design Matters host Debbie Millman’s 2013 San Jose State University commencement address, which was originally and exclusively published right here on Brain Pickings. She writes:

For most of my adult life, I traveled a safe path. I remember in vivid detail the moment I began my journey: August 1983, the hot muggy summer of David Bowie’s Modern Love and Synchronicity by the Police.

A few months after I graduated college, I stood on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Bleeker Street in New York City, wearing pastel blue trousers, a hot pink V-neck tee shirt, and bright white Capezio oxfords. I lingered at the intersection, peering deep into my future, and contemplated the choice between the secure and the uncertain, between the creative and the logical, between the known and the unknown. I dreamed of being a successful artist, but inasmuch as I knew what I wanted, I felt compelled to consider what was reasonable in order to ensure my economic security. Even though I wanted what my best friend once referred to as the whole wide world, I thought it was prudent to compromise. I told myself it was more sensible to aspire for success that was realistically attainable, perhaps even failure-proof. It never once occurred to me that I could succeed at what I dreamed of.

As I look back on this decision nearly thirty years later, I try to soothe myself with this rationale. I grew up in an atmosphere of emotional and financial disarray, so my impulse as a young woman was to be tenaciously self-sufficient. As a result, I’ve lived within a fairly fixed set of possibilities.

Her decision, Millman points out, is far from uncommon — most of us, in one form or another, limit our own possibilities. But what begins as a reasonable and voluntary self-protection mechanism often gathers exponential momentum that ends up dragging us down life-paths further and further from our dreams:

I discovered these common, self-imposed restrictions are rather insidious, though they start out simple enough. We begin by worrying that we aren’t good enough, that we’re not smart enough or talented enough to get what we want. And then we voluntarily live in this paralyzing mental framework, rather than confront our own role in this self-fulfilling paralysis. Just the possibility of failing turns into something self-fulfilling. We begin to believe that these personal restrictions are in fact fixed limitations of the world. We go on to live our lives, all the while wondering what we can change and how we can change it. And we calculate and re-calculate when we’ll be ready to do the things that we really want to do. And we dream. If only. If only. One day. Someday.

But then, Millman argues, we meet “someone more courageous” than we are, a person who “didn’t determine what was impossible before it was possible,” and something in us is reawakened. (The very purpose of a commencement speaker, after all, is to be such an awakening example of that courageous someone, a preemptive living proof that there is hope for transcending those self-imposed limitations.) Turning to Robert Frost’s famous proclamation, Millman transmutes the secret of a great poem into the secret of a great life:

The grand scheme of a life — maybe, just maybe — is not about knowing or not knowing, choosing or not choosing. Perhaps what is truly known can’t be described or articulated by creativity or logic, science or art. Perhaps it can be expressed by the most authentic and meaningful combination of the two: poetry.

As Robert Frost once wrote, “A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It is never a thought to begin with.”

I recommend the following course of action for those, like you, who are just starting out, or who, like me, may be re-configuring midway through. Heed the words of Robert Frost. Start with a big fat lump in your throat. Start with a profound sense of wrong, a deep homesickness, a crazy lovesickness, and run with it. If you imagine less, less will be what you undoubtedly deserve. Do what you love. And don’t stop until you get what you love. Work as hard as you can. Imagine immensities. Don’t compromise and don’t waste time. In order to strive for a remarkable life, you have to decide that you want one. Start now. Not twenty years from now. Not thirty years from now. Not two weeks from now. Now.

Dick Costolo (Photograph by Joi Ito)

That same year, Twitter CEO and former improv comedian Dick Costolo took the podium at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He recounts moving to Chicago, young and broke, hoping to get into the legendary improv comedy group Second City, the yellow-brick road to Saturday Night Live and “ultimate fame and glory.” Eventually, he got to study with the acclaimed director Martin Demont. He shares one exchange with Demont that shaped his approach to life:

Steve Carell was out on stage improvising something. I was backstage and I came up with this amazing line and I thought, “I’ve gotta get out there and get this line out.” So I went out on stage and started trying to move the scene in the direction of what I wanted to say, and Martin stops the scene and says to the whole class (but really he was talking to me): “You can’t plan a script. The beauty of improv is you’re experiencing it in the moment. If you try to plan what the next line is going to be, you’re just going to be disappointed when the other people don’t do or say what you want them to, and you’ll stand there frozen.” He stopped everyone in the room and said, “Be in this moment.”

This became a powerful parable for how over-planning limits our happiness — a lesson that reemerged in a different guise when “the Internet happened” around the same time. Recognizing it as an “extensible structure with amazing possibilities,” Costolo dove in and helped build a number of companies over the years that followed, including Twitter. He illustrates how not planning a script enabled this humble startup to become a global force:

When [Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey] sent out his first tweet — “just setting up my twttr” — he didn’t plan for President Obama to declare victory on that platform in the 2012 election. None of us at Twitter thought that during the earthquake and ensuing tsunami in Fukushima, Japan, that our platform would be a great alternative means of communication if mobile networks were spotty in the aftermath. Certainly none of us even hoped, let alone considered, that our platform would be used to help organize protests across the Middle East and Egypt during the Arab Spring.

Here’s the amazing thing about what I’ve observed from those things. Not only can you not plan the impact you’re going to have, you often won’t recognize it even while you’re having it.

[…]

The impact is what others frame for you and the world after it happens. The present is only what you’re experiencing and focused on right now.

Echoing Steve Jobs’s legendary 2005 Stanford commencement address“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” — Costolo reflects on Twitter’s unexpected journey and his own unscripted career outcome:

You cannot draw that path looking forward. You can’t draw any path looking forward. You have to figure out what you love to do and what you have conviction about, and go do that.

He exhorts graduates to unmoor themselves from the system of external expectations that is formal education — a special kind of societal script — and plunge into the uncomfortable but infinitely rewarding task of writing their own ongoing, open-ended internal scripts:

You are no longer meeting and exceeding expectations. There are no expectations; there’s no script. When you’re doing what you love to do, you become resilient, because you create that habit. You create the habit of taking a gamble on yourself and making courageous choices in service of what you love.

If, on the other hand, you do what you think is expected of you or what you’re supposed to do, and chaos ensues — as it surely will — you will look to external forces for what to do next, because that will be the habit you have created for yourself. You’ll be standing there frozen on the stage of your own life. If you’re just filling a role, you will be blindsided.

Michel Uslan (Photograph by Robert Sciarrino)

Speaking at Indiana University Bloomington in 2006, Batman / Dark Knight franchise originator and executive producer Michael Uslan echoes what college-aged André Gide’s rules of conduct penned a century and a half earlier — “One should want only one thing and want it constantly. Then one is sure of getting it.” — and counsels graduates:

You must knock on doors until your knuckles bleed. Doors will slam in your face; I guarantee it. You must pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and go back and knock again. It’s the only way to achieve your goals in life.

This calls to mind Adrienne Rich’s spectacular 1977 Douglass College commencement address, in which she argued that an education is not something you get, but something you claim. An opportunity, Uslan seems to suggest, is equally something you actively claim rather than passively get.

Bradley Whitford (Photograph by Frank Franklin II)

Bradley Whitford, perhaps best-known for his role as White House Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman on The West Wing, opens his 2004 University of Wisconsin–Madison address by lamenting the quintessential commencement challenge of speaking to “a big, distracted crowd that thinks they know everything about everything.” (This, indeed, might explain one of the most prevalent commencement-address tropes — the speaker’s admission of not remembering who spoke at his or her own graduation many years earlier. Perhaps part of our youthful arrogance is the tendency to dismiss as irrelevant any information with which we aren’t sufficiently familiar — like, say, a prominent but unknown to us cultural figure tasked with delivering a commencement address — and bar it from entering our long-term memory.)

Whitford shares his six most important life-learnings, which he dubs “Everything I Need to Know in Life I Learned on My Way to a Humiliating Audition”:

Number One: Fall in love with the process and the results will follow. You’ve got to want to act more than you want to be an actor. You’ve got to want to do whatever you want to do more than you want to be whatever you want to be, want to write more than you want to be a writer, want to heal more than you want to be a doctor, want to teach more than you want to be a teacher, want to serve more than you want to be a politician. Life is too challenging for external rewards to sustain us. The joy is in the journey.

Number Two: Very obvious: do your work. When faced with the terror of an opening night on Broadway, you can either dissolve in a puddle of fear or you can get yourself ready. Drown out your inevitable self-doubt with the work that needs to be done. Find joy in the process of preparation.

Number Three: Once you’re prepared, throw your preparation in the trash. The most interesting acting and the most interesting living in this world have the element of surprise and of genuine, honest discovery. Be open to that.

This third piece of advice parallels what we now know about the role of “effective surprise” in creativity, including the supreme creative act of forging one’s life-path. Whitford, like Costolo, admonishes against the tendency to peg our sense of arrival on having fulfilled external expectations:

You’ve all spent the majority of your lives in school, where your work is assigned to you and you’re supposed to please your teachers.

The pressure to get into wonderful institutions like this is threatening to create a generation of what I call hiney-kissing requirement-fulfillers. You are all so much more than that. You’ve reached the wonderful and terrifying moment where you must be your own guide. Listen to the whispers inside you.

Whitford offers the fourth of his learnings:

You are capable of more than you think. If you’ve ever smashed a mosquito on your arm, there is a murderous Richard III inside you. If you’ve ever caught your breath at the sight of someone dipping their toes into Lake Mendota in the late afternoon sun over at the Union, you, too, have Romeo’s fluttering heart.

Echoing Anna Deavere Smith on the importance of listening in a culture of speaking, Whitford continues:

Number Five: Listen. It is the most difficult thing an actor can do, and it is the most riveting. You can’t afford to spend your life like a bad actor stumbling through a predetermined performance that is oblivious to the world around you. We can’t afford it either. Listening isn’t passive. It is an act of liberation that will connect you to the world with compassion and be your best guide as you navigate the choppy waters of love, work, and citizenship.

And finally, Number Six: Take action. Every story you’ve ever connected with, every leader you’ve ever admired, every puny little thing that you’ve ever accomplished is the result of taking action. You have a choice. You can either be a passive victim of circumstance or you can be the active hero of your own life. Action is the antidote to apathy and cynicism and despair. You will inevitably make mistakes. Learn what you can and move on. At the end of your days, you will be judged by your gallop, not by your stumble.

Speaking to the 1996 graduating class at Wellesley College, her own alma mater, Nora Ephron begins by offering some perspective on where the world was thirty-four years earlier, when she was sitting in one of those seats herself — an era when “if you needed an abortion, you drove to a gas station in Union, New Jersey, with $ 500 in cash in an envelope, and you were taken, blindfolded, to a motel room and operated on without an anesthetic”; when women were asked to, and complied without so much as a second thought, to strip and have their “posture pictures” taken; when there was a mandatory class called Fundamentals, Fundies, in which women were actually “taught how to get in and out of the back seat of the car.” Ephron, a master at the art of rhetorical buildup where no detail is superfluous to the ultimate point, writes:

Why am I telling you this? It was a long time ago, right? Things have changed, haven’t they? Yes, they have. But I mention it because I want to remind you of the undertow, of the specific gravity. American society has a remarkable ability to resist change, or to take whatever change has taken place and attempt to make it go away.

In a sentiment that has aged lamentably well in the two decades since — a fact that speaks equally to Ephron’s genius and to our culture’s tectonic, toxically reluctant pace of change — she adds:

Don’t underestimate how much antagonism there is toward women and how many people wish we could turn the clock back. One of the things people always say to you if you get upset is, “Don’t take it personally,” but listen hard to what’s going on and, please, I beg you, take it personally. Understand: Every attack on Hillary Clinton for not knowing her place is an attack on you. Underneath almost all those attacks are the words: get back, get back to where you once belonged… The acquittal of O. J. Simpson is an attack on you. Any move to limit abortion rights is an attack on you — whether or not you believe in abortion. The fact that Clarence Thomas is sitting on the Supreme Court today is an attack on you.

Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.

There is, of course, the mandatory David Foster Wallace classic, delivered at Kenyon College in 2005 and considered the beloved author’s only public talk directly addressing his views on the meaning of life. The speech, the original delivery of which you can hear in full here, is strewn with his singular gems of deeply irreverent, deeply urgent wisdom. Among them:

I submit that this is what the real, no-bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.

But for all of his antiauthoritarian incisiveness, Wallace reveals himself once again as a sensitive soul concerned with the essential currency of the human experience — kindness:

Please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to.

But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Jonathan Safran Foer (Photograph by Graeme Mitchell)

This theme of kindness — for what else is there? — recurs throughout most commencement addresses, but nowhere with more timely poignancy than in the speech Jonathan Safran Foer delivered at Middlebury College in 2013. He recounts finding himself on a Brooklyn park bench across from a teenage girl who was crying into her phone. As she sobbed “I know, I know, I know… Mama, I know,” he wondered about what portion of the fragile human experience she was coming to know. Reflecting on his inner tussle with whether to try comforting her or to continue staring into his own device pretending not to have noticed, Foer considers how technology has come to mediate our experience of who we are to one another, as people bearing witness to crying strangers:

It is harder to intervene than not to, but it is vastly harder to choose to do either than to retreat into the scrolling names of one’s contact list, or whatever one’s favorite iDistraction happens to be. Technology celebrates connectedness, but encourages retreat.

He chronicles how we got to this paradoxical place:

Most of our communication technologies began as diminished substitutes for an impossible activity. We couldn’t always see one another face to face, so the telephone made it possible to keep in touch at a distance. One is not always home, so the answering machine made a kind of interaction possible without the person being near his phone. Online communication originated as a substitute for telephonic communication, which was considered, for whatever reasons, too burdensome or inconvenient. And then texting, which facilitated yet faster, and more mobile, messaging. These inventions were not created to be improvements upon face-to-face communication, but a declension of acceptable, if diminished, substitutes for it.

But then a funny thing happened: We began to prefer the diminished substitutes.

Foer traces our sliding scale of communicational convenience — making a phone call is easier than traversing space across time to meet someone in person; leaving a voicemail is easier than investing in the cognitive and emotional tennis match of a two-way conversation; sending an email is easier still, for it removes the emotional undertones of vocal inflection and enables us to deliver an even more sterile one-way message; texting reduces whatever complexity of meaning there might have remained in an email to mere information, distilled to a bare minimum of sentiment. (There is something to be said, too, for the demise of correspondence, which ushered in the death of mutual response and the rise of mutual reaction.) Foer considers the outcome of this process:

As the expectation for articulateness is further reduced, and another shell is offered to hide in. Each step “forward” has made it easier, just a little, to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity.

The problem with accepting — with preferring — diminished substitutes is that over time, we, too, become diminished substitutes. People who become used to saying little become used to feeling little.

[…]

I worry that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts.

He returns to the encounter with the sobbing girl, which precipitated his concerned contemplation:

Most of the time, most people are not crying in public, but everyone is always in need of something that another person can give, be it undivided attention, a kind word, or deep empathy. There is no better use of a life than to be attentive to such needs. There are as many ways to do this as there are kinds of loneliness, but all of them require attentiveness, all of them require the hard work of emotional computation and corporeal compassion. All of them require the human processing of the only animal who risks “getting it wrong” and whose dreams provide shelters and vaccines and words to crying strangers.

[…]

Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. It can be messy, and painful, and almost impossibly difficult. But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die.

Complement Way More than Luck with some of the genre’s greatest secular sermons not included in the book: Joseph Brodsky on winning at the game of life (University of Michigan, 1988), Kurt Vonnegut on boredom, belonging, and hate (Fredonia College, 1978), Bill Watterson on creative integrity (Kenyon College, 1990), Neil Gaiman on courage and the creative life (University of the Arts, 2012), Patti Smith on learning to count on yourself (Pratt University, 2010), George Saunders on the power of kindness (Syracuse University, 2013), and Anna Quindlen’s undelivered Villanova address on the secret to a happy life.

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19 SEPTEMBER, 2014

David Foster Wallace on the Redemptive Power of Reading and the Future of Writing in the Age of Information

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The fun of reading as “an exchange between consciousnesses, a way for human beings to talk to each other about stuff we can’t normally talk about.”

Despite his heartbreaking end, or perhaps in part because of it, David Foster Wallace endures as one of the most revered and celebrated modern sages, from his wisdom on writing and self-improvement to his superb definition of true leadership to his chilling-in-hindsight insights on death and redemption to his unforgettable commencement address on the meaning of life. In May of 1996, Wallace appeared on The Charlie Rose Show to discuss “the future of fiction in the information age.” With his characteristic penchant for meandering eloquence, he addresses questions of prescient and growing significance in today’s world, where the experience of reading is being redefined, not necessarily for the better, by a medium whose full blossoming Wallace never lived to see.

Transcribed highlights below.

On relying on intrinsic rather than extrinsic motives, echoing Oscar Wilde’s famous contention that “a true artist takes no notice whatever of the public”:

If you think about … the size of the audience or how much it will appeal to the reader, you go nuts fairly quickly.

On the tension between commercial entertainment and true art, something Wallace tussled with in writing that year:

The generation I think of myself as part of was raised on television — which means that, at least I was raised to view television as more or less my main kind of artistic snorkel to the universe. And I think television, which is a commercial art that’s a lot of fun, that requires very little of the recipient of the art … affects what people are looking for in various kinds of art.

[…]

Commercial entertainment — its efficiency, its sheer ability to deliver pleasure in large doses — changes people’s relationship to art and entertainment, it changes what an audience is looking for.

[…]

It would be one thing if everybody was absolutely delighted watching TV 24/7. But we have, as a culture, not only an enormous daily watching rate but we also have a tremendous cultural contempt for TV… Now TV that makes fun of TV is itself popular TV. There’s a way in which we who are watching a whole lot are also aware that we’re missing something — that there’s something else, there’s something more.

On the necessary component of fun in reading, on which Wallace would later come to expound in his fantastic essay “The Nature of the Fun,” with a decided bittersweetness over how increasingly hard it is to access that higher-order pleasure as we struggle to distill wisdom in the age of information:

Fiction for me, mostly as a reader, is a very weird double-edged sword — on the one hand, it can be difficult and it can be redemptive and morally instructive and all the good stuff we learn in school; on the other hand, it’s supposed to be fun, it’s a lot of fun. And what drew me into writing was mostly memories of really fun rainy afternoons spent with a book. It was a kind of a relationship.

I think part of the fun, for me, was being part of some kind of an exchange between consciousnesses, a way for human beings to talk to each other about stuff we can’t normally talk about.

On that immutable sense of belonging, or what Kafka called “the axe for the frozen sea inside us,” that reading gives us and TV does not:

There’s this part that makes you feel full. There’s this part that is redemptive and instructive, [so that] when you read something, it’s not just delight — you go, “Oh my god, that’s me! I’ve lived like that, I’ve felt like that, I’m not alone in the world…”

On the idea that as a creative person, you should “draw the art you want to see, start the business you want to run, play the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read, build the products you want to use”:

The way I am as a writer comes very much out of what I … want as a reader and what got me off when I was reading. A lot of it has to do with … really stretching myself … really having to think and process and feel in ways I don’t normally feel.

Complement with Wallace on becoming who we are and the perils of ambition.

Thanks, Paul

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15 AUGUST, 2014

O Captain! My Captain! David Foster Wallace, Robin Williams, Walt Whitman, and the Unholy Ghost of Suicide

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“My Captain does not answer … he has no pulse nor will.”

In the introduction to Quack This Way — the remarkable record of Bryan Garner’s wide-ranging conversation with David Foster Wallace — Garner makes a passing mention of the email address Wallace used in their correspondence: ocapmycap@… The email provider following the @ symbol changed over the years, but Wallace kept his moniker — one that takes on a special, wistful meaning in light of his subsequent suicide.

It was an allusion to Walt Whitman‘s 1865 elegy “O Captain! My Captain!,” a mourning poem for Abraham Lincoln titled after its piercing refrain:

O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:

But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

The recurrence of Whitman’s grim refrain in the context of Robin Williams’s suicide is strange and poignant happenstance. Among Williams’s most beloved films is the 1989 classic Dead Poets Society, in which Whitman’s poem serves as a centerpiece — Williams’s character instructs his students to call him “O Captain! My Captain” — and it appears in one of the film’s most memorable scenes:

Williams, of course, didn’t write the film, nor the scene — but he did carry both, and as he once observed in a 1992 Playboy interview, “characters are just a free way of talking as yourself.”

As soon as one fully grasps the soul-ravaging depths of depression, a tragic parallel between Williams’s death and Lincoln’s emerges, lending Whitman’s eulogy double poignancy — Lincoln was assassinated by antagonists he had dedicated his life to fighting, and Williams died by the claw of the ghastly inner monster that severe depression lodges in the human spirit, losing a long fight with the unholy ghost.

(In the same interview, Williams also stated: “Some issues are deeply personal. I get near them and think, I’m not ready to deal with that yet. When you’re comfortable with it, you can be free about it. If not, it’s open-heart surgery.” In yet another eerie parallel, Williams underwent actual open-heart surgery seventeen years later — a procedure that, according to the prestigious Cleveland Clinic Foundation and a multitude of medical authorities, puts patients at a significant risk for postoperative depression. Mental health, of course, is a complex ecosystem in which myriad physiological, psychological, and social factors interact, but this detail gives one pause nonetheless.)

Ultimately, what drives a person to take his or her own life is a matter of intensely private unknowns and unknowables. Whitman’s words ring:

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will…

Suicide, lest we forget, is a social malady — please join me in supporting the pulse and will of life with a donation to the Suicide Prevention Hotline.

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11 AUGUST, 2014

David Foster Wallace on Writing, Self-Improvement, and How We Become Who We Are

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“Good writing isn’t a science. It’s an art, and the horizon is infinite. You can always get better.”

In late 1999, David Foster Wallace — poignant contemplator of death and redemption, tragic prophet of the meaning of life, champion of intelligent entertainment, admonisher against blind ambition, advocate of true leadership — called the office of the prolific writer-about-writing Bryan A. Garner and, declining to be put through to Garner himself, grilled his secretary about her boss. Wallace was working on an extensive essay about Garner’s work and his newly released Dictionary of Modern American Usage. A few weeks later, Garner received a hefty package in the mail — the manuscript of Wallace’s essay, titled “Tense Present,” which was famously rejected by The New Republic and The New York Review of Books, then finally published by Harper’s and included in the 2005 anthology Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. Garner later wrote of the review, “a long, laudatory piece”: “It changed my literary life in ways that a book review rarely can.”

Over the course of the exchange, the two struck up a friendship and began an ongoing correspondence, culminating in Garner’s extensive interview with Wallace, conducted on February 3, 2006, in Los Angeles — the kind of conversation that reveals as much about its subject matter, in this case writing and language, as it does about the inner workings of its subject’s psyche. Five years after Wallace’s death, their conversation was published in Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing (public library).

Wallace begins at the beginning, responding to Garner’s request to define good writing:

In the broadest possible sense, writing well means to communicate clearly and interestingly and in a way that feels alive to the reader. Where there’s some kind of relationship between the writer and the reader — even though it’s mediated by a kind of text — there’s an electricity about it.

Wallace, who by the time of the interview had fifteen years of teaching writing and literature under his belt, considers how one might learn this delicate craft:

In my experience with students—talented students of writing — the most important thing for them to remember is that someone who is not them and cannot read their mind is going to have to read this. In order to write effectively, you don’t pretend it’s a letter to some individual you know, but you never forget that what you’re engaged in is a communication to another human being. The bromide associated with this is that the reader cannot read your mind. The reader cannot read your mind. That would be the biggest one.

Probably the second biggest one is learning to pay attention in different ways. Not just reading a lot, but paying attention to the way the sentences are put together, the clauses are joined, the way the sentences go to make up a paragraph.

This act of paying attention, Wallace argues, is a matter of slowing oneself down. Echoing Mary Gordon’s case for writing by hand, he tells Garner:

The writing writing that I do is longhand. . . . The first two or three drafts are always longhand. . . . I can type very much faster than I can write. And writing makes me slow down in a way that helps me pay attention.

In a sentiment that brings to mind Susan Sontag’s beautiful Letter to Borges, in which she defines writing as an act of self-transcendence, Wallace argues for the craft as an antidote to selfishness and self-involvement, and at the same time a springboard for self-improvement:

One of the things that’s good about writing and practicing writing is it’s a great remedy for my natural self-involvement and self-centeredness. . . . When students snap to the fact that there’s such a thing as a really bad writer, a pretty good writer, a great writer — when they start wanting to get better — they start realizing that really learning how to write effectively is, in fact, probably more of a matter of spirit than it is of intellect. I think probably even of verbal facility. And the 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.

Wallace argues that one of the most important points of awareness, and one of the most shocking to aspiring writers, can be summed up thusly:

“I am not, in and of myself, interesting to a reader. If I want to seem interesting, work has to be done in order to make myself interesting.”

(Vonnegut only compounded the terror when he memorably admonished, “The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not.”)

Wallace weighs the question of talent, erring on the side of grit as the quality that sets successful writers apart:

There’s a certain amount of stuff about writing that’s like music or math or certain kinds of sports. Some people really have a knack for this. . . . One of the exciting things about teaching college is you see a couple of them every semester. They’re not always the best writers in the room because the other part of it is it takes a heck of a lot of practice. Gifted, really really gifted writers pick stuff up quicker, but they also usually have a great deal more ego invested in what they write and tend to be more difficult to teach. . . .

Good writing isn’t a science. It’s an art, and the horizon is infinite. You can always get better.

Despite the prevalence of mindless language usage, Wallace — not one to miss an opportunity to poke some fun at then-President George Bush — makes a case for a yang to the yin of E.B. White’s assertion that the writer’s responsibility is “to lift people up, not lower them down,” arguing that part of that responsibility is also having faith in the reader’s capacities and sensitivities:

Regardless of whom you’re writing for or what you think about the current debased state of the English language, right? — in which the President says things that would embarrass a junior-high-school student — the fact remains that … the average person you’re writing for is an acute, sensitive, attentive, sophisticated reader who will appreciate adroitness, precision, economy, and clarity. Not always, but I think the vast majority of the time.

Learning to write well, with elegance and sensitivity, shouldn’t be reserved for those trying to have a formal career in writing — it also, Wallace points out, immunizes us against the laziness of clichés and vogue expressions:

A vogue word … becomes trendy because a great deal of listening, talking, and writing for many people takes place below the level of consciousness. It happens very fast. They don’t pay it very much attention, and they’ve heard it a lot. It kind of enters into the nervous system. They get the idea, without it ever being conscious, that this is the good, current, credible way to say this, and they spout it back. And for people outside, say, the corporate business world or the advertising world, it becomes very easy to make fun of this kind of stuff. But in fact, probably if we look carefully at ourselves and the way we’re constantly learning language . . . a lot of us are very sloppy in the way that we use language. And another advantage of learning to write better, whether or not you want to do it for a living, is that it makes you pay more attention to this stuff. The downside is stuff begins bugging you that didn’t bug you before. If you’re in the express lane and it says, “10 Items or Less,” you will be bugged because less is actually inferior to fewer for items that are countable. So you can end up being bugged a lot of the time.

But it is still, I think, well worth paying attention. And it does help, I think . . . the more attention one pays, the more one is immune to the worst excesses of vogue words, slang, you know. Which really I think on some level for a lot of listeners or readers, if you use a whole lot of it, you just kind of look like a sheep—somebody who isn’t thinking, but is parroting.

'Paper Typewriter' by Jennifer Collier from 'Art Made from Books.' Click image for more.

He returns to the question of good writing and the deliberate practice it takes to master:

Writing well in the sense of writing something interesting and urgent and alive, that actually has calories in it for the reader — the reader walks away having benefited from the 45 minutes she put into reading the thing — maybe isn’t hard for a certain few. I mean, maybe John Updike’s first drafts are these incredible . . . Apparently Bertrand Russell could just simply sit down and do this. I don’t know anyone who can do that. For me, the cliché that “Writing that appears effortless takes the most work” has been borne out through very unpleasant experience.

In a sentiment that Anne Lamott memorably made, urging that perfectionism is the great enemy of creativity, and Neil Gaiman subsequently echoed in his 8 rules of writing, where he asserted that “perfection is like chasing the horizon,” Wallace adds:

Like any art, probably, the more experience you have with it, the more the horizon of what being really good is . . . the more it recedes. . . . Which you could say is an important part of my education as a writer. If I’m not aware of some deficits, I’m not going to be working hard to try to overcome them. . . .

Like any kind of infinitely rich art, or any infinitely rich medium, like language, the possibilities for improvement are infinite and so are the possibilities for screwing up and ceasing to be good in the ways you want to be good.

Reflecting on the writers he sees as “models of incredibly clear, beautiful, alive, urgent, crackling-with-voltage prose” — he lists William Gass, Don DeLillo, Cynthia Ozick, Louise Erdrich, and Cormac McCarthy — Wallace makes a beautiful case for the gift of encountering, of arriving in the work of that rare writer who not only shares one’s sensibility but also offers an almost spiritual resonance. (For me, those writers include Rebecca Solnit, Dani Shapiro, Susan Sontag, Carl Sagan, E.B White, Anne Lamott, Virginia Woolf.) Wallace puts it elegantly:

If you spend enough time reading or writing, you find a voice, but you also find certain tastes. You find certain writers who when they write, it makes your own brain voice like a tuning fork, and you just resonate with them. And when that happens, reading those writers … becomes a source of unbelievable joy. It’s like eating candy for the soul.

And I sometimes have a hard time understanding how people who don’t have that in their lives make it through the day.

'Flights of Mind' by Vita Wells from 'Art Made from Books.' Click image for more.

Echoing Kandinsky’s thoughts on the spiritual element in art, he adds:

Lucky people develop a relationship with a certain kind of art that becomes spiritual, almost religious, and doesn’t mean, you know, church stuff, but it means you’re just never the same.

But perhaps his most important point is that the act of finding our purpose and finding ourselves is not an A-to-B journey but a dynamic act, one predicated on continually, cyclically getting lost — something we so often, and with such spiritually toxic consequences, forget in a culture where the first thing we ask a stranger is “So, what do you do?” Wallace tells Garner:

I don’t think there’s a person alive who doesn’t have certain passions. I think if you’re lucky, either by genetics or you just get a really good education, you find things that become passions that are just really rich and really good and really joyful, as opposed to the passion being, you know, getting drunk and watching football. Which has its appeals, right? But it is not the sort of calories that get you through your 20s, and then your 30s, and then your 40s, and, “Ooh, here comes death,” you know, the big stuff. . . .

It’s also true that we go through cycles. . . . These are actually good — one’s being larval. . . .

But I think the hard thing to distinguish among my friends is who . . . who’s the 45-year-old who doesn’t know what she likes or what she wants to do? Is she immature? Or is she somebody who’s getting reborn over and over and over again? In a way, that’s rather cool.

Quack This Way is excellent in its entirety, brimming with the very spiritual resonance discussed above. Complement it with this compendium of famous writers’ wisdom on the craft, including Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for writing with style, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Susan Sontag’s synthesized wisdom, Chinua Achebe on the writer’s responsibility, Nietzsche’s 10 rules for writers, and Jeanette Winterson on reading and writing.

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