From Just This Side of the Gauntlet (Writing Lessons)


No more uni-object concepts, contemplations, arm clover breath, heaving bosoms, hystories as symbol; colossi, no more man, fist to brow or palm to decolletage, understood in terms of a thumping, thudding, heated Nature…No more qualities. No more metaphors…Not sensuously here but causally, efficaciously here. Here in the most intimate way…I admit to seeing myself as an aesthetician of the cold, the new, the right, the truly and spotlessly here.”

Here and There, David Foster Wallace

We are all dying to give ourselves away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately – the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly. To games or needles, or some other person. Something pathetic about it.”

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

She uses epigrams. She means business.

As if you’ve asked me at some kind of press conference post-my-winning-an-award, here are the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever received:

In Paris we asked a teacher if he went around calling himself a “writer.” This man had written many books, so I don’t quite recall how this was up for debate. In reply Teach made a face and said (paraphrased) “Don’t worry about being a writer. You write, you’re a writer. Sometimes I tell people I’m a cosmonaut, for kicks. You do what you do, the title is so besides the point. You will get caught in the name of the thing.” Junot Diaz also made a nice spin on this point in a recent New York Times magazine: “What’s interesting in my work is the way that I am when I’m playing…not to get a date, not because I want someone to hug me, not because I want anyone to read it. Just to play.” Writing is in a vacuum. It is not – never – the chatter, the BS surrounding.

In New York we asked a teacher what she made of MFA programs. Her course was listed as a Master Class in Creative Writing, but for her we did no creative writing at all. We took a survey of 20th century Western fiction instead and looked for the sleight of hand in the elegant novel, things to notice, praise, imitate. We talked about style but mainly Big Themes. To our question, she made a face and said (paraphrased) “If you want to go for more school, I’d go for literature. Learn things outside yourself, always.” I’m of course giving these teachers a mystical sheen of wisdom that their words definitely didn’t pack at the time – these bits of advice appeared in transit, as anecdote. But she reminded me to love to read and he reminded me to adios the ego, and these reminders stick like oatmeal-in-the-ribs when I worry, as one worries, about the bigness of the project of falling in love with something. And I’m in love with writing, it turns out. She also told me to trim the commas and push myself to be clear in concision. Can’t win em all.

I recently read D.T Max’s recent memoir-cum-ode to David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. Many potentia-lessons pop off the page here. This, for one: “Brains and wit and technical tightrope-calisthenics are powerful tools in fiction, but I believe that when they’re used primarily to keep the reader at arm’s length they’re being abused – they are functioning as defense mechanisms…I do not wish to be a hidden person or a hidden writer: it is lonely.”

It’s awfully hard to read this memoir; quotes like these feel like punches in the gut. Because the thing about David Foster Wallace – about being a David Foster Wallace acolyte, I should say – is that the people who love his work know well the spinning, difficult neuroses of this kind of mind that camps in the clever because it’s actually a little afraid of the basic. We too have feared being hidden and being lonely above all else, yet we resonate with a lot of tropes in post and post-post-modern fiction. The newness of it, still – voices sounding like they’re really talking, and cheek, and little treats for those well-versed in their pop culture. I mean, you know this if you ever had a McInerney phase or were ever enrolled in an undergraduate writing class. Death to punctuation! Jazz and rock n’ roll and Allen Ginsberg! But DFW (by way of Polonius) attests that beneath this all, still, there must be a pressing personal truth. Reasons for your ‘style choice.’

And that’s of course the wrinkle that makes an already brilliant comedian like Wallace so special, this dissatisfaction with simply being a unique writer or a bold writer or finding new ways to diagnose a Gen-X-crafted malaise in his fiction. He was only able to write stories like the loopingly traumatic The Depressed Person in Brief Histories or characters like Don Gately in Infinite Jest because he was sincere, and boundlessly sympathetic to those who feel alienated from the world at large. That was his goal and his magic. In this way, his canon is a marriage of irony and sincerity, the new and the classic. And for my part, it was so special to first “hear” another person name these tensions as it seems (to me) no one has named them before or since. What I learned and continue to learn about writing from Wallace (here by way of D.T Max) is that this is how meaningful it should be. This is how much it should matter. Your arrhythmic cheek is not sufficient, kiddo. To blow it up and tear it down and shed light on the dark, you will need more than wit and it will be rough as anything. You’ll need lots more paper and stronger bones, you’ll need years. Just to start.

We know now that this person who wrote fiction about what it sounded like and how it felt and what it was “to be a fucking human being,” – his words – committed suicide. Which is so so sad not least because if I’m having a really egomaniacal day there’s a dark meta-moral in that story: it doesn’t work out. So maybe it isn’t possible to connect genuine pain and emotion with the urgent minutiae of our pop-culture-infused day to day, or at least lift the instructions from a Wallace fiction into the pragmatic light of the Real World. He couldn’t implement his own tools because it just isn’t possible to suture the whirring modern brain and the genuine article heart. Therefore, we are all destined to remain lonely because…well, because if THIS person who saw reason yet could still not abide couldn’t hack it, however can I? And if Wallace is the inspiration, the bar, the job, how am I supposed to be a writer, one who writes? Looks like meaning-making can eat you alive. I think I’m in love with a fair-weather friend. A flighty master. He’s got a quick temper. He can be oh-so-cruel.

Cry foul! Patently unfair. The fault is never in our stars, right? And the thing about your heroes is they’re not really your friends. They have real friends, who knew them, and they have widows and they have estates. Sometimes they have insufferable chronic depression, which is not and never the same as the blues or being precocious. Just the idea of being so vested in a complete stranger goes a way to prove a lot of Wallace-y points about the problem with us kids today. We worship too much and for the wrong reasons – go for a gander at Epigram 2.

Plus it’s a stupid argument, I see as much. An excuse. No one stopped trying to make musical fusion after Jimi or Janis or Bonzo died (well, I suppose Led Zeppelin did…). Science has hit many roadblocks and seen many casualties — certain devoted billionaires are still trying to reach the Andromeda galaxy even though we’ve lost a few brave cosmonauts to space. A lot of things are daunting and never done before, it’s clear the treats of being human are in the challenges. Yet I’m sitting on my bed and wrestling with language, contemplating what looks to be the dark monster of my love rising up towards me and threatening to ruin my life. Is it possible to separate your self, your soul, from what you do? Should you? We know what Wallace thought: IJ’s Marathe on the mountain-top urges us to “Choose wisely. You are what you love.”

Syllabus summarized! So the things I know about writing – shall we just blow it up to art-making? This is 2012 – begin and end with love. And love is work. And love is lonely sometimes. To do it we (I) just have to do it and respect what’s come before and have something urgent to say, and them’s the shocking, thrilling breaks.

And perhaps because I’ve so far disregarded my second teacher’s advice and have not enrolled in any kind of graduate program in which to keep studying at the feet of the masters, I”m going to do something horrible and cheap right now (but brave? Could it maybe just be brave, this once?) as a way to wind this buddy down. I’m now going to quote a foppish young eager-beaver we’ll call Myself: “I am very smart, but I’m very afraid. I wonder on days like today if this is a contradiction in terms.”

Hmm. Halfway there. I quite like buttons, structurally. So this is Tony Kushner: “The Great Work Begins.” And this is Thornton Wilder: “the audience for which masterpieces were created is not of this earth,” and this is Julio Cortazar: “the order of the Gods is called cyclone or leukemia, the poet’s order is called antimatter, firm space, flowers of trembling lips, God I’m drunk, Jesus I’ve got to get to bed” and MOST OF ALL THE END I SWEAR we like to say “rest in peace.” To my favorite author. From the bottom of my heart, sir. I promise, for now, for one, for better or worse,a(n almost)-someone (who-writes) will carry on.

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