John Warner is the author of the leading volume of fake writing advice, Fondling Your Muse: Infallible Advice From a Published Author to the Writerly Aspirant. He teaches at Clemson University.
Twice in my life, when I had no one, David Foster Wallace was there for me. The first time was Labor Day weekend, 1988, my freshman year of college at the University of Illinois.93 No one had told me that even though it was only the second week of school that everyone was supposed to go home. My dorm complex, “the six pack,”94 looked like something out of a post-apocalyptic movie, space for many with very few present. Occasionally I’d hear Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me” coming from some other lonely soul’s boom box echoing through the central courtyard, but for the most part it was me and my six inch (not a misprint) black and white television and an advance copy of Wallace’s story collection, Girl with Curious Hair.
My mom owned an independent bookstore at the time and one of her sales reps must’ve said something like, “this is what the kids are reading these days,” and so she’d sent it to me. A week and a half into school, I was off to an uninspired start, enrolled in 15 hours worth of gut courses, 1200 person lectures with little accountability and even less intellectual stimulation. I enjoyed the free time they left me to nap, but I was well on my way to sleepwalking through my education. Out of sheer boredom I picked up the book and began reading and those stories became my companions through the long weekend.
Since the English AP exam at the time stopped well short of postmodernism, I didn’t know that such things existed, but the first story, “Little Expressionless Animals,” with Alex Trebek as a character literally tickled me. I had an instant sensation that unlike most of what I’d been fed in high school, this Wallace guy had things to say about the world I lived in. Even now there’s very few writers who manage to write about the world we inhabit today instead of ones in the past.
His fascinations – television, politics, the way people can be casually cruel or unusually kind to each other – were mine. While up to that time I might’ve said that I had an “interest” in writing, I didn’t really know that these subjects were in bounds for a writer. I’d assumed they were too, I don’t know, small. Wallace proved to me that the opposite was true.
Fast forward nine years when I had my own individual Infinite Summer. That interest in writing had metastasized into an MFA degree from McNeese St. University in Lake Charles, Louisiana.95 I’d turned in a thesis that I’d begun to loath even as it came off the printer. The stories were primarily ersatz Carver, the kind of competent, shapely tale that got through workshop with minimal fuss, but for sure didn’t excite anyone, least of all me. I was a justifiably unpublished sub-mediocrity and it looked like it was about time to pick up an LSAT prep book.
I had three months left on a lease and nowhere to live after that, so for the summer following graduation I stayed in Lake Charles with the only possessions I hadn’t sold at a yard sale or shipped back home: a bed roll, a lamp, and a copy of Infinite Jest, and my dog.96 Some friends had stuck around as well, so days were spent shooting pool or watching movies, maybe drinking too early and too much and nights it was me and the lamp and the dog and the book. I’d become a certified Wallace fan by that point, having devoured A Supposedly Fun Thing… and Broom of the System. His essay on the Illinois State Fair cemented our bond as Midwesterners. I thought he was, to put it plainly, a fucking genius. Nights, I listened to the condensation drip from the window air-conditioner and read, sometimes just a few pages, other times for hours. Where writing and creativity had begun to look hopelessly narrow, Infinite Jest, cracked the world back open.
Once again, reading David Foster Wallace showed me what was possible. But as intimidating as his brilliance was and is, above all, the book demonstrates that if you want to write something at all compelling you’ve got to bore in on what interests you and just work that shit until the goods come out the other side. During my graduate studies I’d lost that feeling, or more accurately, I’d never found it because I was too wrapped up in what the circumscribed group of workshoppers were going to say. I’d been keeping my neck firmly tucked toward my shell lest it get lopped off.
Summer over, having not written a word for better than three months I moved back to Chicago, into my parents’ basement. I was twenty-seven, broke, jobless and imagined a future life as a kind of mole-man, my eyes saucering from the lack of natural illumination as I spent more and more time underground. One day I started typing a dialog between a man looking for a job and a career counselor and all of the sudden the career counselor is talking about gung fu and the Ultimate Fighting Championships and a poem by W.D. Snodgrass97 and there’s a little fillip in my stomach that I haven’t felt for quite some time. That dialog and what followed it became the first story98 I ever published and it wouldn’t have happened without Infinite Jest reminding me what’s possible (namely anything).
A couple of years later I had the chance to tell David Foster Wallace about all this, to thank him personally for his example and inspiration, but I choked. I’d been invited to tag along to a dinner with Wallace and about six others after a reading by a friend of mine at Illinois State where Wallace was teaching at the time. He was low key and cool, obviously smart, but not showy about it and as the dinner progressed, the words I might use to convey my admiration roiled around my head without finding any purchase. The best I could do was telling him that I “really enjoyed” his writing at the time of our farewells.
After his passing, as I read the tributes to the man that had been pouring into the McSweeney’s website, more grief fell out of me than I thought possible for someone I’d met once, briefly. I told a friend about this and very seriously he said, “It’s like he’s your Princess Diana.”