Saturday, September 13, 2008

In Memoriam--David Foster Wallace

I just saw the news that David Foster Wallace killed himself. I'm stunned and shaken and sad, but I can't say that I'm entirely surprised.

I knew him a long time ago, and I didn't know him well. He was my teacher, at Amherst, in the fall of 1987. I was back at school after a year off, a year in which I'd contemplated leaving and transferring to Oberlin. But that spring, when I was trying to figure out what to do, my dad sent me a clip from the Wall Street Journal called something like "Whiz Kid Writes Wacky First Novel," about DFW's first book, The Broom of the System, which he'd originally written as his senior thesis at Amherst. (One of two theses, I later learned. He'd double-majored in English and Philosophy and written honors theses in both departments (basically unheard of), graduating with a double summa cum laude (even more unheard of). ) I didn't decide to go back to Amherst because of him, but when I got back, I found out that he was teaching that semester, a single creative writing class. I immediately applied to get in.

It's been 21 years, and I still remember that class vividly. DFW was about 25. He had long hair and always came to class with a tennis racket and sometimes cookies. He had us take breaks so he could smoke. We loved him. I can pretty safely say that all of the women in the class (and possibly some of the men) had crushes on him. I bonded with someone, who later became a good friend, because she was the only person in the class with a bigger crush on him than me. He was goofy and charming and cute and unlike any other teacher I'd ever had. But that's not why I remember the class so clearly. He was a wonderful teacher, even at 25, even just out of grad school. He was tough in workshop but not mean. He made me look at writers I'd already discovered on my own--like Lorrie Moore--in a new way, and he introduced me to writers I probably never would have discovered on my own, like Lee K. Abbott, whose story, "Living Alone in Iota," remains a life favorite. He had us read a Stephen King story about a possessed laundry machine ("The Mangler") in conjunction with a prize-winning short story told from the point of view of a dead body ("Poor Boy") to illustrate the differences between literary and genre fiction. There were other tangible things. I used to confuse "further" and "farther," and, apparently, I did it quite often. In one of my stories, I'd confused them yet again, and in the margins, he'd written, simply, "I hate you." I've never confused them since. He once left me a note, postponing a meeting, excusing himself by saying, "I'm so hungry I'm going to fall over." While I was irritated that he wasn't there, I immediately adopted that sentence and have been saying it ever since.

Mostly, he was the first person who really made me think I could be a writer. I'd applied to the class with a (clearly autobiographical) short story I'd written the semester before I left for my year off, a story called "At Charlie's House." On the basis of that story, he let me in to the class. But when I wanted to talk to him more about the story, he told me that, in truth, it wasn't actually a very good story. But that I could write that story told him that I could write better stories. "I don't know what's going on with you and that Charlie guy," I remember him saying. He advised me to move on. I can't say I did that entirely where "Charlie" was concerned, but I put the story away, and I tried to write better ones.

It didn't happen all at once, but at some point during the semester, it just clicked. I worked harder for him than I had for any other professor in any other college class. Writing fiction was the only thing I'd ever done that frustrated me that much but that I still wanted to do. It was a revelation. The second story I handed in--about a mother and daughter on a ferry to Alaska--was 20 pages, the longest story anyone had handed in at that point. I was very apologetic about making everyone read 20 pages, but he told me it wasn't long enough. If I really wanted everyone to be on that ferry with me, I needed more detail. I gave him detail. I took the whole thing apart and put it back together again. My revision was 40 pages long, and he kindly agreed to read another draft even after he'd gone. The final version was closer to 60 pages, no longer really a story at all. That story won me a prize at Amherst--which astonished me--and it got my senior creative writing thesis proposal accepted. I can't say that he made me a writer, because I probably would have figured it out some other way, further on in time. But I definitely know it wouldn't have happened the way it happened if it hadn't been for him, if he hadn't been so smart and so tough, if he hadn't challenged me the way he did, if he hadn't pushed me to challenge myself.

We stayed in touch for a few years after that--somewhere, in a box in my basement, are the few postcards and letters I got in those pre-email days. One letter arrived when I was in India for the first time, a letter he wrote mostly to tell me that he'd sent in my letters of recommendation for grad school. He told me other things, though, like that he was in a halfway house for drug rehabilitation. It was a strangely intimate letter from a former teacher to a former student, especially since I hadn't known he had any issues with drugs. He told me that he wasn't much of a traveler, so he was impressed with my bravery about going to India. He signed it Love, but with his full name. Love, David Foster Wallace.

I haven't seen him or talked to him in more than 20 years. I always thought that if he ever came to read at Amherst, I'd go see him, but that never happened. But when I wrote above that I wasn't entirely surprised to hear that he'd killed himself, it goes back that far. I often said, at the time, and since, that he was the smartest person I'd ever met. I think that's probably still true, and it's probably true for a lot of other people--that he was the smartest person they'd ever met. Even at 21, I could tell that it was the kind of smart that made you strange, that it was too much. Even then, we got glimpses of another side of him.

At some point, I stopped reading his fiction. One of his gifts as a teacher was that he kept his own writing separate from our writing (not that, realistically, any of us could have written like him anyway). I read The Broom of the System, I read Girl with Curious Hair. I read his later essays with great delight--I still have fond memories of reading his essay about going to the Illinois State Fair while I was in Delhi in 94-95, and along with everyone else, I adored his cruise ship piece--but Infinite Jest was too much for me, though my brother loved it and gave me a copy, hoping we could talk about it. Still, even as I strayed from him as a reader, I've followed his career from afar. A few years ago, I met his parents at an Amherst reunion, and I told them he'd been my teacher all those years ago. I told them how important he'd been to me.

I don't know anything about the present tense of his life or what drove him to kill himself. I'm sad for his parents and his wife and his sister, for his friends and all of his other students, for everyone else he encouraged with his intensity and with his smartness and his humor. And selfishly, I'm sad for myself. For the past 21 years, since the fall of 1987, I've thought that when the time came that I published my own book, that I'd send him a copy with thanks, that I'd tell him, all these years later, how much he'd influenced me. He was there at the beginning for me, and in addition to all the zillion other reasons I'm sad he's gone, I'm sad that he won't be there anymore along the way.

17 comments:

Kitt said...

Wow. He was a good teacher to you. It's a loss, even if you hadn't stayed in touch.

I saw the news just before I saw your post, and you articulated what I was thinking quite well: "it was the kind of smart that made you strange."

I read "Infinite Jest," and I can't say I liked it, but I appreciated the brilliance of it. Brilliance but of a frighteningly strange variety.

Who knows what demons he wrestled with, with a mind like that.

Lisa said...

I have such a clear memory of the three of us on the subway last year on the day after Thanksgiving, coming back from dinner and talking about him because J had bought a copy of Infinite Jest at the Strand. I think that will always be my strongest association I have with his name, now -- the three of us standing and swaying on the train, deep in conversation about him. At least until I read the book, but I suspect it always will be.

Very sad.

Lisa said...

Not Infinite Jest, excuse me -- I just checked and it was Oblivion.

kate said...

What a lovely remembrance. You showed me his humor, quirkiness, creative honesty and caring as a teacher. The loss of such a teacher and friend is so very sad.

Michelle Lewis said...

Thank you for this. At this time I suppose it's natural to want more information or details to help clarify what has happened. To hear this personal account and its shared details was helpful. What a sad time.

Cara deBeer said...

What a terrific memorial. I'm sorry you lost a mentor figure, though.

Suicide is always so sad and hard.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. I've spent all day reading appraisals and memories. I'm very sad, heartbroken even, and I appreciate your writing this.

Caren Chesler said...

Sue Dickman, I don't know you or David Foster Wallace, but you've got me sitting here, on my porch in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, crying big tears for two people I don't know.

Your story was lovely.

Her said...

Thank you for sharing your memories. You are lucky to have them.

Paul Brockmann said...

Hey Sue -- You may or may not know that your brother sends me links to your stuff periodically. I've no idea if he let you know I also blog, though mine is more photo driven than word driven. Thanks very much for writing this: it gives me another view of him that I'm glad to have. I've only ever read the stuff he wrote in Harper's over the years, which included the tennis piece and the cruise ship piece, I'm fairly sure. (The fiction always remains on my endless must-read list...) I was very sad when I heard the news this morning, thinking what a loss it is, and selfishly pondering that he was born the same year as your brother and me, and I'd always seen him as such a success, and gosh, how could he choose this path, and blah blah blah. Anyway, enough -- please do keep writing. You do it awfully well and I love your voice, and every so often I try to mesh that voice with the you I knew in the 1970s. :-)

very fondly -- paul

Gary said...

You need to edit/revise/add/ enough to this and send it to a place like Salon.com or Slate. It's great stuff and speaks to the point (better than) I tried to make to a friend who loves Wallace's work ... "Sad business, this writing. Whatever drives us to peck away apparently masks something fragile. I don't mind being fragile. In fact, I've always known I was fragile, at least in the respect that ain't nobody gets out of this world alive. But I'm in no hurry. I'm always curious about what's going to happen when I wake up in the morning."

~ Gary http://www.garypresley.com/

Patry Francis said...

You made me feel as if I'd known him. What a gift! The only trouble is that now, after reading your piece, I have to grieve.

Anonymous said...

I hate you, too. Thank you so much for posting this. Send it to McSweeney's. I think it'll be a nice addition. j

Anonymous said...

Thanks Sue, I was really shocked to read about the suicide. I was more shocked to read how well you articulated the uneasy experience of being around someone with chronic depression and a high IQ.

You nailed it. I taught young, was child sports legend and all while wandering in depressive darkness. Sure, I've occasionally come up for air and pushed out a film/book, but the endless therapy, new "trail" meds, battling your mind not to use (drugs/alc) while an ever present darkness just keeps tracking you down.

I think thats why DFW tried so hard, damn hard to make the 12 step programs work. They can give you peace for a minute, but the apathy he so often wrote of can take a sinister turn and it looks like this time it did.

I feel bad for his family, friends and former students. But lets all hope he's free.

Lary Wallace said...

Thanks for writing such a tender, personal, and unaffected reminiscence.

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NIkarra said...

I myself only just discovered who this guy was, and since then I've spent pretty much all week either online trying to find out about him or in a sort of numb state. The amount of times I've cried over this this week would amaze you... I cried even before I'd read a shred of his stuff. (Sorry if that sounds a little weird).

It's so weird grieving for someone you don't even know, and didn't even know had died...

Thank you for sharing this with the world, your story was absolutely touching.