Archive for September, 2008

The Great Concavity

Friday, September 26th, 2008

(WARNING: Extremely long memoir blog post ahead)

In the fall of 1998, having just turned 30, I decided to read Infinite Jest. Throughout that year I had developed a welt in my shoulder from carrying monolithic tomes in my half-slung backpack. I went from Gravity’s Rainbow to Mason & Dixon to Underworld, developing a thirst for epic, tree-shredding doorstops, each one attached to my hip, Basket Case-style, for months on end. It was a big year for big books by the big names – even Paul Auster cranked out a chunker. Meanwhile, 1998 was a big year for big shit in relationship-land, peaked and fried artistic drive, indulgence and occupational distress. It was obviously time to read Infinite Jest.

At the time this seemed like the beginning of my relationship with David Foster Wallace, and by “relationship” I refer to the typical angry young fanboy pedestal on which he has been placed by countless intellectuals, be them pseudo, closet or overt. In retrospect, though, I later realized that my introduction to Wallace’s writing marked a half-way point in my overall, frustrated relationship to the man, a relationship that was ultimately rooted in my own professional regrets.

Some time during my undergraduate education at Illinois State University, around 1987 or 1988, I started devoting more time to experiments with fiction. Please don’t confuse this with “experimental fiction”. Most of my work was extremely juvenile, with terrible, rambling, unstructured stories and poetry that could only be expected of a clinically depressed jackass who thought that “serious” writing involved creating a tortured character, torturing the character for a few more pages, and then killing him (always “him”) off. Fortunately, I started reading a lot more Vonnegut, so my characters and situations at least became more comic. In 1989 I took my first creative writing class, and then went on to write a weekly column for the school’s newspaper. Again, it was full of goofy, Angry Young Man (AYM) crap, but was also generally entertaining. By 1991 I was writing both my column and a number of feature articles for the paper, and, as an undergraduate, I was enrolled in a graduate level creative writing workshop.

The state of creative writing workshopping at Illinois State University in 1991 was somewhat embryonic. There were really only a handful of grad students who took it seriously, and, of those, it seemed that there were about four of us with any actual talent. This was my first real exposure to academia. Undergraduate students are typically not “academics”. Most of them, particularly at ISU, weren’t going to school in order to pursue a university career. My major was Psychology, not English. There was certainly an expectation of post-graduate study, but the goal was generally independence from academia. Those English folk acted quite differently, though. It seemed important to not only master your subject, but to build a political image within the department. The best writer in our group, a guy with pure talent, had this basketball-buddy relationship with our teacher, Dr. White, another talented guy who would really hit a publishing stride by the mid-90s. White was a post-modernist to the core (he also looked a lot like Morrissey, a bespectacled Hegel-obsessed Morrissey with a slightly reduced hair tower), and encouraged us to experiment, to write from both the heart and the intellect. Ricardo managed to do this, writing more from his pure talent than anything else, and, being the star pupil, White loved him. Hence, basketball buddies. The rest of that group always seemed to be in the shadow of Ricardo, and rightly so. What truly surprised me, though, were the students who didn’t have any business being in a graduate level creative writing course. Some of these people wrote about ten pages the entire semester. One of them was still struggling with a half-baked short story that I remember her presenting back in 1989, in my other class. The course was both a comfort zone and a grazing pasture. It was a support group that didn’t offer a particularly great amount of support to those who didn’t have the chops. I was witnessing the separation of wheat from chaff, but, in this case, those with lower aspirations were simply coasting through the rest of their graduate degrees. Creative writing was just one of the things they fiddled with while honing their analytic skills. None of them seemed to have the write-or-wither soul that I have come to expect of the serious writer. Well, there were about four of us who had it.

I wasn’t a particularly amazing or innovative writer. I was a first-and-only-draft writer. For me, writing was like parallel parking. You get into the zone and do it. If you’re not in the groove, you might as well not even attempt it. I generally had a good instinct for a well constructed paragraph, and my newspaper experience taught me how to crank out the copy. So I was prolific, and, as you can tell, pretty judgmental of people who weren’t. All of my writing was firmly absurd and humorous, generally well-written, but not particularly . . . profound. Unfortunately, this workshop felt a bit like the Academy Awards. No one was going to give an Oscar to the funny guy. Meanwhile, Ricardo was writing about The Shit. The Ghetto. The Drugs. The Slang. Language. Energy. He was a promising young black writer in 1991, and academia really loved that stuff. It was cool to be able to throw out a Public Enemy lyric every now and then while still knowing your Hegel (and looking quite a bit like Morrissey). It was all about deconstruction and thick language, and Irony hadn’t yet been piss-marked by marketing. I remember Dr. White saying that my last piece was well done, a good piece of writing, but also “comic book” (this was before it was academically cool to know anything about comic books).

Somewhat contrary to his criticisms, White seemed quite surprised that I wasn’t going to stay on for graduate school. My plan was to get the hell out of Normal, Illinois and find some sort of “real” job in Psychology, or at least try to find some use for that sketchy degree. My undergrad memories are generally a miasma of gists, but I still have an eidetic recollection of that moment when White asked me to consider graduate creative writing as ISU, even suggesting that I could commute from Chicago. I had been programmed to limit myself to strict definitions of “graduation” and “job market” during a period when a liberal arts education wasn’t doing much for those who weren’t professional students. I had gone from Computer Science to Philosophy to Psychology, and, after five years, I needed to prove to my parents that I could graduate (thus earning the first and, to this day, only bachelor degree of my extended family). The idea of ditching my hot-off-the-press Psychology degree and re-enlisting seemed like an insult to my parents’ hopes. That moment, in May of 1991, disappointment blossoming from Dr. White’s face, is still burning, still challenging the notion of what I was supposed to do with my life.

1991 was also the year when David Foster Wallace began working on Infinite Jest. He was already a published author, a rising star. After the novel was published in 1996, he became a literary sex symbol and superstar. Meanwhile, back in the fall of 1991, intellectually derailed after taking three GREs (General, Psychology and English), I found myself a job guarding fish at the Shedd Aquarium. I started reading comic books, and my writing became little more than pages of notes, ideas, sentence fragments. I was plodding through the tar pit of Generation X. As you stay with a job that expects nothing of your mind, your ambition begins to erode. I guarded the fish, moved to Chicago, and generally pretended that I still had an interest in writing. There was no real reason to write, though. I had no audience, no weekly newspaper column, no bespectacled Morrissey to please. And I was pretty immature, so those bootstraps went untouched. I lost that job about the same time Wallace finished his draft of Infinite Jest. Then I just didn’t bother finding another job for nearly a year, living on savings and credit cards*.

*(My father is groaning in his grave as I type that. Years later he told me that nothing frustrated him more than when I would live from my savings and not have a steady job. He was a work-a-holic to the end and, true to the irony of the cancer that killed him, was reduced to having to stay home from work and live from his insurance and disability salary. There were few insults that could be more profound than this blow to the core of his ethic.)

Some time in the middle of this year of early retirement I rediscovered a 50-page story I had written for my second undergraduate creative writing class. It was meant to be the beginning of a novel, written by an AYM Vonnegut-wanna-be. Pissing my savings away on comic books and pizza, I had nothing else to do, so I started working out the plot, spreading notes about the living room floor. Then I started turning that plot into pages of story. Soon I was writing every day, working first on a roommate’s Mac. The Mac was his family computer that eventually moved on to a college-bound brother, so then I switched to the electric typewriter from my first couple years of college (I entered college just before desktop publishing blossomed, so most of my early stories were written using Wordstar in DOS). Eventually the poor plastic Smith Corona fried itself out, so I finished the last 40 pages of the novel using an Underwood No. 5. The experience was exhilarating, months of living in the parallel parking sweet spot. The job I had just started at Starbucks seemed like a watering hole on my journey to artistic fulfillment.

I watered that hole for six more years. During that time, I shopped the novel around to some of my friends. A couple of them read it. Most didn’t. Imagine taking on the pet project of designing and building your own car. You live within those plans for a year, investing your mind, hand-shaping the chassis and body, sanding, painting, waxing and adjusting until you have finally created a working, tangible object that people can enjoy. You drive the car to a friend’s house and ask him if he wants to take a ride in this thing that you made from nothing, this entity of sole creativity. He says “great job” and then just sort of never bothers getting in the car. Maybe next time. I’m a little busy. I’m sure it’s great. Soon that just feels like “I’m sure you had fun writing it, but it’s not worth my time.” Then it moves on to “I’m afraid to tell you that you’re a crap writer so please don’t put me in that very awkward position.” If you can’t get your friends to read something, how could you possibly get a stranger, who has no buy-in to YOU, to even consider such a waste of time. So the book just sort of drifted off. I wrote a few more short stories over the years, some of which were okay, many of which were turkeys. I wrote more poetry, a bit more mature than the AYM junk of my youth. I poured coffee, watched television, and eventually regrouped with some new ideas for a second novel. I filled a couple sketch books with those fragments, but the ideas, never truly developed, began to dissolve like jet streaks fading into the blue sky.

The Starbucks was in a sort of mall, in a train station, a few stores down from the tiny branch of a bookstore. I remember when Infinite Jest first surfaced. A giant book with white clouds over a blue sky. I was feeling particularly anti-buzz during those waning years of the 90s. I wasn’t about to pick something up just because all the hipsters had Christened it as worthy. So I marked the arrival of another “it” author and let it all pass. Pour more coffee. Mark time. Jot down the fragments. The book store people weren’t beyond influence, though. I took some of their recommendations, particularly the ones that didn’t seem too influenced by momentary cultural fads. I started reading more DeLillo, drifting back to Pynchon, and, by 1998, decided to skip “crap” and only read works of challenge. I also started to turn some of those notebook fragments into sentences and paragraphs.

I considered my first novel to be on the level of a first short story. I used it to learn the form. Ultimately, it was a lost cause that no one cared to read, so I was going to use all of my neurons to write a “real” novel. A tome. A Piece of Work. By the fall of 1998 I had become much more vocal online, sharing some of my poetry and various snippets, and even took the time to explore the open mic fad at a few local bars and coffee shops. I was becoming less concerned with the opinions of my friends and more enamored with the idea of creating a thoughtful work of fiction, of being a part of a greater community. This wasn’t parallel parking, though. I wasn’t in the zone. I was in love with the idea of it all, which is a very different investment of energy.

By the end of the year I had become bold enough to enter a private writing workshop. This wasn’t anything near the level of the academic workshop. There was no screening. All I had to do was fork over some cash and show up. In that respect, it really didn’t feel like a workshop. My peers were all over the scales of talent, and there wasn’t much feedback from anyone beyond the instructor. This workshop was for people who wanted to see themselves as writers. It seemed pathetic, but it also motivated me to write. I was back in some sort of competitive situation, and I wanted to be better than everyone, regardless of how low the bar. I was also knee deep in Infinite Jest, absorbing the incredible and relentless energy of David Foster Wallace. His work is partially motivating, getting you to think and run your own wordy experiments. His work is also destructive. The man was an actual genius, thinking and creating on a very different level than anyone I had met. Yet he was young, savvy, into various elements of pop culture, somehow touchable. He wasn’t Pynchon, writing from a sequestered world, or DeLillo, writing from atop the marble steps of accolade. Wallace was your very cool, smart, sometimes completely annoying friend who you saw every now and then, who was busy making his mark on the world. And he was frighteningly prolific, able to sustain limitless energy for over 1000 pages.

My writing became more detailed, more indulgent. I didn’t go so far as to add footnotes to anything. This was motivation, not simple fanboy copying. I started to explore real pain within the context of humor. The goal was no longer to torture characters, but to bring them through a storm of fire, out to a new place. I gave my instructor one of the draft chapters. He eventually gave me some flattering feedback, encouraging me to continue on into his other classes, even suggesting to curb some of his fees. I was supercharged, of course, but I was also distrustful. I was paying him to say all of that. He was just a therapist, telling people what they wanted to hear. Even in the midst of this reinforcement, I returned to the memories of the friends who never bothered reading the first novel. Would I always have to pay people to read my work? Could nothing I created exist on its own merit? Was I good at anything beyond pouring coffee?

As I continued to read Infinite Jest, I became more fascinated with David Foster Wallace. That was the thing you did with DFW. Look at this pictures. Think of his giant brain. Wonder what it would be like to be his buddy. The book jacket mentioned his living in Illinois. That’s a potential buddy connection. With some pre-Google research I discovered that his residence was in Bloomington, and that he was faculty at Illinois State University. He had joined ISU about one year after I left it. Ricardo was there, too, having matriculated into his imminent position. I found Ricardo’s book, containing material we had workshopped back in 1991, and noticed one of his stories included in an anthology that also had a story by Vonnegut. The creative writing workshop was beginning to gel, and Dr. White had become a nationally recognized post-modern author. It had been nearly eight years since I had refused the invitation to invest myself into that fledgling program. My choice had taken me on a soft path to nowhere. However completely unrealistic it was, I convinced myself that I could have been David Foster Wallace’s actual academic buddy, but I had flushed it all away.

By the time I finished reading Infinite Jest, I had dive bombed into an all out depression. I stopped going to the writing class, never bothering to retrieve my critiqued work. Outside of work, I stopped talking with people. I unplugged my phone so as not to receive messages. For a couple months I was off the map, incommunicado in a world where communication had become ubiquitous. I didn’t abuse myself during that period. Infinite Jest had scared me off from that avenue. I was just convinced that I had absolutely nothing worthwhile to say, and the simple idea being in that position, even in a one-minute phone conversation, became terrifying. The writing disappeared, of course. Why bother? I had wiped my ass with destiny’s Jim page.

In the spring of 1999, as my Great Wane of the Psyche began to shift, I decided to continue an experiment from the preceding year. I had started writing “interactive letters” to my favorite authors. Each letter contained a series of conversational statements or small paragraphs, along with multiple-choice responses that the author could simply check off. This wasn’t a personality inventory. Rather, it was meant to simulate a barroom conversation, generally frivolous and designed to be goofily entertaining to the author. I included a SASE, enabling a harmless, fun opportunity for participation. Unfortunately, the first author I tried this on took the bait, checked off his multiple-choice answers, and mailed it back. This motivated me to try it on another author*, only the shit ticket I ended up giving him must have been both insulting to his intellect and such an obvious waste that he never bothered sending it back. I admit that I spent very little effort composing that second letter, and most of it consisted of ignorant quips comparing New York to Chicago. Still, I thought that perhaps I could ultimately compile these letters into a fun book. It would have been a great opportunity to be sued by all of my favorite authors.

*(I first became aware of Paul Auster through a reading at Illinois State University, arranged by Dr. White back in 1990. The lattice of coincidence expands.)

I’m sure there have been many people who have invented various realities around the idea of being DFW’s smartie pal. McSweeney’s clubhouse image didn’t help. In 1999, as I emerged from my post-IJ exile, DFW published his first collection of post-IJ fiction, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Working past my derailed destiny, I decided that I could still find a way to be his buddy by handing him one of my unique, wacky interactive letters at a reading/signing for the new book. It worked for Neil! So I hammered out a dopey collection of conversational tropes, including fun facts from my time in Normal, IL, found a shiny shirt that made me stand out about as much as this guy, and headed over to Borders. The reading was excellent. Wallace read his piece on “the asset”, using a comical Southern accent. Hey, he uses funny accents sometimes, just like me. I stood in line, rock star shirt a-shimmer, and talked with the woman in front of me who happened to be one of his ISU students. I was back in the groove of identifying myself as a writer, inching closer to one of my peers.

During any book signing there will always be at least one person that the author personally knows. I’m sure it provides a brief oasis from the parade of fawning strangers and wanna-be best friends. An honest face, a forgotten colleague, a touchstone of your normal life. Have you ever been the next person in line after such a reunion? It’s happened to me a few times. Usually the author is still busy talking with his or her True Friend, signing your book absently while all smiles are directed sideways. I can accept that as dumb luck. Things were a bit different with Wallace. He was so happy to see one of his students and briefly catch up, find out how she had moved on, wish her well. Then it was time for Shiny-Shirt Guy. Again, just look at this guy for a second. Yeah, watch out. I don’t remember much of our conversation leading up to my handing him the envelope, but as soon as I did it his expression turned dark. He hefted the thick letter up and down, eyed it with comical suspicion, and, as I assured him that it wasn’t at all what he thought it was (that is, it wasn’t a real letter, probably amounted to no more than a single page of content, and was padded out by the SASE), he rolled his eyes. The guy sighed annoyance and rolled his eyes and begrudgingly signed both the new book and my worn copy of IJ. Yes, I was yet another self-proclaimed smart guy who was attempting to inundate him with my own babbling, attempting to be his brain buddy. He was rude and dismissive, and I stumbled from the table as if I had been slammed in the solar plexus. I drifted over to my line-queue friend, who assured me that DFW was actually a nice guy, and then, still shimmering in my ridiculous blue shirt, I slouched off, back into the world of coffee and pointless, unrealized dreams.

You might think that this marked the end of my relationship with David Foster Wallace. Or perhaps it marked the moment when I decided to move to central Illinois and catalog his garbage. I’m only a stalker of the imagination, though, so, not long after the crash-and-burn signing, I hunkered down with Brief Interviews. It’s an incredible book. Somehow he had managed to compress all of the frightening energy of Infinite Jest into a bit over 300 pages. The intensity crushed me, but it didn’t throw me into another depression. How could it? The Depressed Person, one of the standout stories, goes into such nauseating detail of the persona of a hopelessly self-obsessed depression-addict that there was no way I could slip into depression without the buoyant reminder of how silly and absurd such a mindset can get. Also, this wasn’t my buddy Dave writing to me. This was DFW, genius writer who rolls his eyes at the feeble machinations of fanboys. The entire book was steeped in contempt. This wasn’t just a sustained negativity. This was true contempt for the reader. Somehow, I made it through all of this without being convinced that DFW was an asshole. He was complex enough to be both serious and funny, and smart enough to be intolerant of those who weren’t investing themselves into life. I would have rolled my eyes, too. Maybe.

The funny-letter project ended with Wallace, but so did some of my notions of the relationship between an artist and a consumer. Every work of his that I subsequently read was no longer steeped in his voice. His style remained, but it no longer felt personal. This wasn’t a guy who I could become friends with. He was a professional writer, and my role in that exchange was “the reader”. This was liberating, as I could enjoy his work without the nagging feeling that I was supposed to cross into his destiny. It didn’t matter if I was supposed to have stayed at ISU in 1991. It didn’t matter if I fancied myself a writer. Those failures had no impact on my role as a reader. I was able to let go of all of those expectations and simply enjoy his work, learn from it, allow it to flourish.

Later that summer I received the SASE. Even though I had found a positive role for DFW in my life, I still had that image of Dr. White’s disappointment over my rejection of graduate school. I still felt the presence of that unexplored path. What if DFW shared to stupid letter with Dr. White and Ricardo? It sealed my fate as a crackpot and a dropout. I had made a joke out of my own ambitions. The envelope contained nothing but a scrap of paper. “Thanks for the nice note – Dave.” It was handwritten. I’m not sure why he kept the letter. Perhaps he didn’t even read it. That little note, just a handful of words, brought with it a rush of closure. If he really thought I was a crackpot, he probably wouldn’t have bothered. The cordial relationship between author and reader was solidified. I had managed a personal connection on some level, worked through it, and came out of that cloud with clarity instead of coveting, energy instead of envy.

I finally stopped pouring coffee in December of 1999. Then I packed up the plantation and moved out to Baltimore for what amounted to an experiment in semi-informed decision making and a reactionary expression of free will. I worked on novel number two, ultimately writing some passages so dark that I was back on the edge of depression. The writing became a reflection of my deep disappointment in various life choices, an intellectualization of self-loathing. After my situation collapsed, I moved back to Chicago in 2001, truly starting life anew. In the fall of 2001 I noticed that Dr. White was doing a reading and signing at a bookstore near the University of Chicago. Still fragile from my soul-destroying Baltimore experience, still in the process of redefining who I was, I decided that it was time to confront my history. I needed a new image of Dr. White to replace the 1991 nucleus of regret. I needed 2001 to be the start of a new life, not a rehash of the old one.

When you obsess over something for years it invariably becomes warped and embellished. This is particularly true of failed relationships. Sometimes you forget that the reason you broke up with someone is because that person is an asshole. I’m not going to make such a grand statement about Dr. White, as he was always kind. Over the years, though, I had seen too many movies that corroded my memory. Trite crap such as Dead Poet’s Society and Good Will Hunting. Dr. White had become the gutsy, motivating champion. Oh captain, my captain, and all that shit. That was never his role, though. He was just post-modern Morrissey. Morrissey never sings a song just for you. He sings out to the world, to the girlfriends and the supermarkets. Folks, here’s the one nugget I want you to take away from this endless ramble-a-thon: Never confuse Morrissey with Robin Williams.

Dr. White recognized me, or, at least he recognized the beam of recognition that I was blasting at him. He asked how things were going, said that I looked exactly the same, and then signed my book. The conversation wasn’t any longer than the one in which DFW dangled the envelope and rolled his eyes. White had written “All Best” in my book. All best. That’s just about as impersonal as you can get. When DFW saw a former student, he lit up and asked her at length was she was doing, how her writing was going. Dr. White did his “All Best”, scrawled his signature, and moved on to the next fan (of the thirty or so of us who were there). We didn’t discuss DFW and the expansion of ISU’s writing program. We didn’t catch up as fellow artists. I was a non-academic, so there was no reason to discuss much of anything. The inviting, outstretched hand of 1991, beckoning me to join the ranks, had been rescinded, and the past had become encased in cement. I was on my own.

Obviously we can’t live in the past. What had been less obvious to me was the damage that can result from considering the past as a fluid entity. One can live in the present, but still be convinced that certain actions in the past were still in process. Pouring concrete over the past gave me something to stand on. I’m pretty embarrassed about the years I wasted doodling in notebooks, keeping my goals minute, living in a bubble. After 2001 I was able to move forward, to invest my talents into a professional career, never pouring another cup of coffee for anyone other than myself. I didn’t give up on my dreams, but I did give up on living in a dream state.

So lately I’ve been wanting to revisit the urge to write. The characters I’ve created haven’t gone away. Plots are still insistently remaining in my brain, churning about. I’ve been willing to make the attempt, even in a world where David Foster Wallace was out there, creating from the top tier. And I’ve been more serious about my role as The Reader, for you can’t be a writer without being a reader. Then, two weeks ago, just after I turned 40, David Foster Wallace killed himself. That’s what caused this tumescent self-centered upchuck of a blog entry. I assumed that I would always struggle with the challenge of writing in a David Foster Wallace world. That challenge kept me on my guard, forced me to sharpen my mind and never invite another eye-rolling. Creativity is a chain reaction, the ideas of one person building upon the ideas of someone else, and it feels as though the impetus of that reaction has ceased to exist. A part of my history, of what is yet to come, has been prematurely ended. His work is rich enough that I’ll be reading it repeatedly for the rest of my life, drawing inspiration and awe, but it is crushing and sad to think of his depression, his decision to kill himself, and the suddenly premature finality of his oeuvre (Wallace always insisted that, above all other intentions, Infinite Jest was a novel about sadness). I’ll bet that there are plenty of aspiring writers out there who have similar stories, who wanted to be DFW’s buddy, and now we’re left to live and create outside the terrible comfort of his shadow.