When I was a sophomore in high school, my English teacher brought me a newspaper article. The headliner of the piece sat there in his photo, a Seattle-style grunge musician perched on a barstool, bandanna holding back his awesome hair. He looked to be in a mood, as did most rock stars in the 1990s.
“This article made me think of you,” she said. The article wasn’t about a musician; this moody pinup was a writer. A genius, they were calling him. It was 27-year-old David Foster Wallace. He had just written Infinite Jest.
Of course, I read the book immediately. I remember the day I finished it, how I felt, how much I admired David Foster Wallace. I read everything else he wrote. He was a genius. I thought so too. I had read a lot of books up to that moment, but not from authors who got featured in the New York Times for being geniuses. He was my first writing hero.
He hung himself twelve years ago today.
A lot of words have been written, thought, and spoken about the supposed link between creativity, madness, and genius. A lot of people wanted to know what DFW really died from, and his wife was pretty vocal in reporting that it was a chemical imbalance.
Three years ago, right around this time of year, I was co-creating a podcast about authors and writing. I went to Ithaca and I interviewed the Director of Cornell University Press, Dean Smith, who shared with me a copy of a letter David Foster Wallace had written to the Press about a piece he wanted them to publish.
I don’t want to jump to any conclusions about who he was or what he experienced in his mind throughout his life based on one letter. That would be the ultimate fiction, wouldn’t it? But I will say that people who have the ability to create the kinds of patterns in their heads that make an incredible story have the propensity to use that power against themselves in just the most destructive ways. That’s not limited to writers, of course.
Chemical imbalance or no, it sure is easy to get caught in an infinite loop of using thoughts against yourself. And that’s not a medical condition. That’s a habit.
I will also say I choose to believe the ghost of David Foster Wallace haunts me in a positive, content-producing way. It’s a form of literary ancestor worship I made up to get me through the decades of trying to write a novel. It may not be true, but it’s a nice little story I invented to cheer myself on with my own hero. Maybe that makes him more of a concept than a person, but we never met, so in that sense he was always just a concept to me. Now he’s a concept that helps me write. Better, right? Better than thinking my hero hung himself, that’s for damn sure. That story sucks and produces nothing.
David Foster Wallace gave a very influential and lauded graduation speech in 2005 called This is Water. I’ve never listened to it.
I prefer his fiction.