Infinite Monday: David Foster Wallace 1962-2008
…send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
– John Donne
There but for the grace of God go I
– I have no idea who said this
The news of David Foster Wallace’s death suicide by hanging hit me hard on Saturday. Not because he was a great talent. Confession: I’ve never read his most acclaimed novel, Infinite Jest. Had it on my book shelf for 3 years before I admitted that I wasn’t going to read it, and even worse, didn’t really want to read it. It was over 1000 pages, and from the whole 2 pages that I had read of it, I could tell that it wasn’t exactly a page turner like the last over-1,000-page book that I had read, The Count of Monte Cristo. I gave Infinite Jest away to the Squirrel Hill Library in Pittsburgh right before departing town for L.A. And I didn’t give the thick book with the pretty cloud cover much thought after that. Also, I don’t read essays, which he reportedly excelled at. (This dislike of essays may also be why I seem to be one of the few people in my Facebook circle who is not a “Fan Of” David Sedaris.)
No, I was most struck by the David Foster Wallace’s death for two reasons:
1) At a party that I attended after I read the news online of his death, the most common reaction to the announcement of his suicide was, Who is David Foster Wallace? You see, no movie had ever been made out of his book, so though he was a darling of the literary world, the vast majority weren’t aware of his existence. If a writer hangs himself in his home, and there is no one there that has read his 1,000 page tome, does his death make a sound?
And the second reason that his death hit me hard:
2) Another writer lost the fight to the demons.
My friend, Yusuf IM’ed me yesterday, and asked, “What do all writers have in common?”
And I would have to say that “demons” is the one thing that we all share — monsters following us around wherever we go, telling us that our work is shit, that we are shit, that our lives are worth shit, shit, shit.
Getting even the smallest thing done means battling these horrors every time we sit down to write, and frankly, it’s exhausting. The self-doubt, the constant fear, the looming despair — it’s exhausting. And the thing is, I’m fairly certain that they don’t go away with fame or success. They’re something you’ll have to do battle with for the rest of your writing life.
Basically there are two ways out of The Constant Demon Battle:
1. Stop writing. This, in my opinion, is the equivalent of those crazy Christian workshops that claim to convert gay men into Born Again Heterosexuals. Even when it supposedly works, the results are creepy, and you often end up feeling sorry for the woman that he eventually marries and their children, b/c you know that they will grow up to be confused adults. It’s not good to fight so hard against nature.
2. Or you can kill yourself. If you’ve been following this story, you’ve probably heard or read this quote from the commencement address that Wallace gave at Kenyon College: “It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.”
Though, I’m saddened by his death, I must express some admiration here. To say a thing like that and then to hang yourself… good writers switch it up.
But good writers also stay to fight the demons to the end.
I think many of us writers, who can usually lay claim to some lingering scar or at least a few fits of wild depression in our past, hear about a death like this and think, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
The problem is that we understand how intense the desire can be to just give up. Writing calls for constant bravery. Life calls for constant bravery.
And being brave is the hardest thing that any of us will ever have to do.
David Foster Wallace