If any of you are saying, “Who the helvetica is David Foster Whatsit?” please don’t go yet! Yes, this month’s nonfiction revolves around a particular person, BUT the meat of the book is about something more broad: writing. The craft, the business, the joys and pitfalls and neuroses thereof. I chose it for this month’s Let’s Dewey This because his insights are so incredibly relatable that I thought you guys – my fellow wordslingers – would like to read them.
Some background: DFW was an author of experimental literary fiction, who fell into a big ol’ pile of fame in 1996 with his thousand-page dystopic satire, Infinite Jest. The first book of his that I read was Brief Interviews with Hideous Men in 2014, which blew me away. I’ve been curious about him ever since – curious but too rhapsodic about Brief Interviews to dare trying another of his books. Anyone else ever get like that about an author? The one book you read is so great you want to preserve it as a single shining jewel in your mind? Well, I’m going to change that.
Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself is actually a five-day conversation held between DFW and journalist David Lipsky in 1996. After Wallace’s suicide in 2008, the entire conversation was published, a memento of his mind.
Here are my favorite passages:
The following few quotes are on the dangers of craving praise. These resonated so deeply for me they shook my bones.
“When I was 22 or 23, I pretty much thought every sentence that came off my pen was great. And couldn’t stand the idea that it wasn’t. Because then you’ve disintegrated—you know, you’re either great or you’re terrible.” (32)
(I recently blogged about the pressure to always write well.)
“What I really remember is the times when working on that book was really hard. And I just gutted it out, you know? And I finished something. And I did it for the book, not trying to imagine whether [anyone] would like it. I feel like I’ve built some muscles inside me that I can now use for the rest of my life.” (70)
“If [praise] means that much to me, then I’m real fragile and real breakable. ‘Cause what if… you don’t like me? Or what if the next thing gets a bad review, you know what I mean? … Well then I’m like something made of glass, that has to be treated just a certain way or he breaks. … And if [I was praised] I would have had exactly an hour of a kind of greasy thrill about it. And then there would have been a feeling of utter emptiness. Which is the feeling of, ‘Now I’m back to being made of glass, what’s the next thing I’m going to find that’s gonna handle me just right?’ … If I depend on [praise for a publication] then I’m gonna be miserable except for once every five years?” (74)
“Something happens in your late twenties where you realize… that how other people regard you does not have enough calories in it to keep you from blowing your brains out. That you’ve got to find, make some other détente.” (25)
“If you have some success early in life, you get to find out early it doesn’t mean anything. Which means you get to start early the work of figuring out what does mean something.” (69)
On jealousy and comparisons:
“I don’t think in terms of ‘more talented’ or ‘less talented.’ There’s a kind of stuff that I vibrate sympathetically with, and a kind of stuff that I don’t. … I think the envy stuff just so burned me, that it’s just, isn’t there anymore. … All the time that I wasn’t doing any publishable stuff, and I watched other people—you know, like, all of a sudden there was the new brat pack. … And realizing how disposable, and that terrible, that terrible sense of, ‘I had something and now I don’t and somebody else has got it instead.’ … A kind of mind-set that can get ravenous and that can tear you up. … I just don’t wanna send any blood supply to that part of my brain anymore.” (23)
On how shyness and worrying about how others see you can indirectly help a writer:
“I think being shy means being self-absorbed to the extent that it makes it difficult to be around other people. For instance, if I’m hanging out with you, I can’t even tell whether I like you or not, because I’m too worried about whether you like me. … But there’s also, the shyness feeds into some of the stuff that you need as a fiction writer. … There are very few innocent sentences in writing. You’ve gotta know not just how it looks and sounds to you. But you’ve gotta be able plausibly to project what an alien consciousness will make of it. So that there’s a kind of split consciousness that I think makes it difficult to deal with people in the real world, for a writer. But that actually comes in handy.” (16-17)
“This business about marketing yourself, there’s nothing wrong with that. Unless we’re allowed to think that that’s it. That that’s the point, that that’s the goal, you know? And that’s the reason we’re here—because that’s so empty. … If you as a writer think that your job is to get as many people to like your stuff and think well of you as possible… It kills the work.” (165)
Interviewer: “The people who can just get fat off of sort of temporary achievement are the ones who don’t keep going farther.”
DFW: “You’re describing something that they use the phrase ‘resting on your laurels’ for. … I think there’s an ability to savor and be satisfied with something that doesn’t just result in stasis.”
Interviewer: “I guess you could squat on your laurels, right?”
DFW: “Or sort of sitting in the vicinity of your laurels and looking fondly at them.” (13)
His answer when people ask that annoying AF question, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’:
“I get them from a Time-Life subscription series, which costs $17.95 a month.” (107)
On the dangers of easy entertainment, a theme in Infinite Jest:
“At a certain point, we’re gonna have to build some machinery, inside our guts, to help us deal with this. Because the technology is just gonna get better and better… And it’s gonna get easier and easier, and more and more convenient, and more and more pleasurable to be alone with images on a screen, given to us by people who do not love us but want our money. Which is all right. In low doses, right? But if that’s the main staple of your diet, you’re gonna die.” (86)
“The terror is the dawning realization that nothing’s enough, you know? That no pleasure is enough, that no achievement is enough. That there’s a kind of queer dissatisfaction or emptiness at the core of the self that is unassuageable by outside stuff. … And that our particular challenge is that there’s never been more and better stuff coming from the outside, that seems temporarily to sort of fill the hole.” (292)
But one shouldn’t go to the other extreme either, with books that are too snooty for their own good:
“It requires an amount of work on the part of the reader that’s grotesquely disproportionate to its payoff. And it seems—when I am a reader of that kind of stuff, and I’m talking like heavy-duty experimental stuff… I feel like I am as a reader like a small child, and adults are having a conversation over my head; that this is really a book being written for other writers, theorists, and critics.” (36)
Despite being labeled a genius, he shows a refreshing lack of pretentiousness:
“I’m not a particularly exceptional person. I think I’m a really good reader, and I’ve got a good ear. And I’m willing to work really hard. But I’m more or less a regular person.” (42)
“I just think to look across the room and automatically assume that somebody else is less aware than me, or that somehow their interior life is less rich, and complicated, and acutely perceived than mine, makes me not as good a writer. Because that means I’m going to be performing for a faceless audience, instead of trying to have a conversation with a person.” (41)
“I have this—here’s this thing where it’s going to sound sappy to you. I have this unbelievably like five-year-old’s belief that art is just absolutely magic.” (91)
And my most favorite passage of all…
“If you can think of times in your life that you’ve treated people with extraordinary decency and love, and pure uninterested concern, just because they were valuable as human beings. The ability to do that with ourselves. To treat ourselves the way we would treat a really good, precious friend. Or a tiny child of ours that we absolutely loved more than life itself. I think it’s probably possible to achieve that. I think part of the job we’re here for is to learn how to do it.” (292-3)
If you have thoughts on any of these quotes, I’d love to hear them!