Reflection: Dark Times with David Foster Wallace

DavidfosterwallaceRecently, I was poking around on the Internet and came across this little collection: Celebrating the Life and Work of David Foster Wallace. It’s a series of tributes, some by authors like George Saunders, Don DeLillo, Jonathan Franzen, and Zadie Smith.  Just like Wallace’s work, the tributes are funny and sad and true.  They detail Wallace’s anxiety and depression, how towards the end he wasn’t able to take phone calls or leave his house.  But they also discuss how David Foster Wallace was a kind, soulful person, never condescending, and often too nice for his own good.

Reading these tributes brought me back to the summer I read Infinite Jest.  I had recently finished Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and loved it, so I found myself in the library, staring at the DFW section, which contained maybe four books. Infinite Jest was the one that grabbed me.  I love megabooks, and this was the most mega book I had ever seen.  Not only were there around 1000 pages, but the print was tiny, and there were all these endnotes–probably 30 pages of them.  I felt instantly connected to an author deranged enough to write something like that.

The summer I read Infinite Jest–yes, it did take me the entire summer–was a dark time in my life.  I was living in this shabby boarding house with a bunch of strangers, waitressing at a bad restaurant for 3 dollars an hour and not many tips, and having some kind of nervous breakdown.  I was severely bulimic at the time and pretty broke–a wicked combination–thus spent lots of time eating cheap gas station junk food and puking it up in the boarding house bathroom.  That or I’d be chain smoking on the front porch.  Or I’d be circling the block, listening to Elliott Smith on my walkman at 2:00 AM.  Anyone who tried to get close to me got pushed away or held at a safe distance, so it was just me, Infinite Jest, and my dull misery.

Wallace’s descriptions of addicts, of all the crazy and compulsive things they do and think, blew me away. Like a drug addict, I spent most of my time doing things that I didn’t really want to do, because I felt compelled to do them.  Reading Infinite Jest, I just kept thinking, he knows.  Somehow, he understands this.  And knowing that he knew gave me a dim sense of hope.  I thought if someone could understand it, then maybe someone could fix it.  Maybe someone could recover.

 The other revelatory aspect of Infinite Jest was the discovery of what was possible in fiction writing: the footnotes, the endnotes, the weird intellectual distance fused with this underlying sense of desperation.  I love the bizarre scenes, the language, the brilliant juxtaposition of the halfway house and the tennis academy, and the way Wallace pulled it off without ever being silly or trite.  The satire of the book does not compete with the deep, emotional trajectory of these characters.  This crazy, massive book is probably one of the most moving things I’ve read.

 My writing style completely changed after Infinite Jest.  I definitely went through that imitation phase, where I was adding footnotes to everything I wrote.  But gradually, my admiration evolved into something a bit more true to my own style.  I carry Infinite Jest with me to everything I write and everything I revise.  There is a meticulousness to Wallace’s writing that I will never be able to achieve–I’m just not at that heightened level of brainwave–but the humor, the playful language, the bizarre juxtapositions, sometimes I am able to pull that stuff off.  And it makes me very happy.

 When I heard the news of David Foster Wallace’s death a few years later, I was in a different place psychologically.  My dark days were long gone and I was actually feeling semi-normal.  Life was okay.  Hearing the news, I was devastated, for the first time, about the death of someone who I’d never met. In Jonathan Franzen’s tribute to David Foster Wallace, he expresses the utter contradictory nature of his suicide:

 “There was the person of Dave, and then there was the disease, and the disease killed the man as surely as cancer might have.’ This story is at once sort of true and totally inadequate. If you’re satisfied with this story, you don’t need the stories that Dave wrote – particularly not those many, many stories in which the duality, the separateness, of person and disease is problematized or outright mocked.”

Yet, in the end, Wallace himself succumbed to the inadequate story, and the good stories, the kind that he told, couldn’t reach him anymore.  Those stories reached me, though.  And I realized, after reading Franzen’s tribute, it was precisely the way that Wallace challenges the duality of person and disease in Infinite Jest that so spoke to me.  Person and disease are not separate, and trying to separate them often leads to disaster.  I don’t think I felt like an actual person during that dark summer.  I just felt like a series of symptoms and behaviors that needed to be gotten rid of.  Once I got rid of them, then I could be a person.  But when I read and felt all of those things about the addicts and the tennis kids, it was hard to deny my personhood.  So here I am, way far away from those dark times with David Foster Wallace, wishing he was still around.

Writing Process Blog Tour

William Boyle, author of the stunning, debut novel Gravesend, asked me to participate in this Writing Process Blog Tour.  Basically, a writer answers four questions then invites two other writers to answer those questions the following week.  He described it as kind of a chain letter for writers, which sounded pretty cool to me.  Check out his post for the Blog Tour here.  And see my interview with him from a couple of months ago here.  He has some really interesting things to say about writing.

Here’s my contribution.  And stay tuned for next week’s contributors, whom I’ll introduce at the end.

1) What are you working on?

Lots of things!  I’m drafting a novel I recently finished called In the Right Light, in Certain Mirrors.  The chapters alternate between six college kids, the focus being on how different, yet connected they all are.  I’m also working on a novel about Kyle Boot, the 15-year-old pale kid from George Saunders’ “Victory Lap.”  In my novel, we catch up with Kyle at age 39 and see what he’s been up to since the “geode incident”; I also recently started a collection of linked short stories about a teenage girl growing up in the Bronx.  My vision for the project is a cross between Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son and Saundra Cisnero’s House on Mango Street.  And as always, I have a couple of stand-alone short stories on the backburner, simmering in various stages of doneness.  The two I’m most excited about: a retelling of Lovecraft’s, “The Thing on the Doorstep” and a story about a woman trying to get into amature boxing and coming up against all kinds of obstacles.

2) How is your work different from others’ work in the same genre?

I loved how Robert Yune responded: “This is such a ‘dear in headlights’ question.”  Totally.  Don’t want to sound like a blowhard, popping off about the nuances of genre, but also don’t want to sound like you’ve never thought about what you’re actually doing and where you fit. I grew up in the Bronx, in a racially and ethnically diverse neighborhood, so code-switching, Santeria, and Jamaican beef patties make their way into my work fairly frequently.  In my day-to-day life, I felt this constant sense of danger, anxiety, and excitement.  I saw and did a lot.  Then at 18, I moved to upstate NY and got immersed in what I can only describe as a culture of suburban alienation.  I felt safer, but more disconnected from my environment and the people in it.  I had to prove myself all the time, but in a way that was totally different from how I had to prove myself in the Bronx.  I bring both of these perspectives to my writing, and sometimes they are both really present in a single project, which is interesting!

I think I’m always looking to straddle genres.  I’m a total fangirl for some of the innovative and fabulist writers out there like Amelia Gray and George Saunders, but I grew up on deeply personal, emotional writing, like the stuff you’d find in Oprah’s book club.  And I’ve also read a fair amount of horror and sci-fi.  So I’m always merging these approaches.  Think David Foster Wallace meets Judy Blume, occasionally with a witch or some aliens thrown into the mix.  In work of mine that I consider less successful, it’s usually because the writing is pulling too heavily in one of these directions: too cerebral or clever OR way too vulnerable, like cringe-worthy, like “Yikes! TMI.”

3) Why do you write what you do?

My primary motivation for writing is almost always my characters.  I find them so compelling and I want the world to know them, know their stories and struggles, find humor in the way they talk and think, feel empathy for some of their crappy life experiences, and maybe most importantly feel resonance and connection.  I am constantly inspired by the amazing authors and works I encounter, and when I read, I want to write.  Everything I read, even the stuff I’m not as crazy about, has an influence on what I write.

4) How does your writing process work?

It’s evolved a bit over time.  I started out as a major vomit writer–straight from my gut to the page.  I’d hear a first line, or a piece of a conversation in my head, and a few hours later, I’d have a story or a novel chapter in front of me.  But it would be rough.  Usually kind of out there, too. These days, I move a bit more slowly.  Maybe it’s just that I’m getting older, and that I don’t smoke cigarettes anymore.  My neurons don’t fire quite as quickly, but my work is more grounded, a fair trade-off.

My work ends up being more cohesive if I can manage to work on a project daily, even if it’s just for ten minutes.  My ideal scenario is to write every day for at least an hour.  That doesn’t always happen though, and in fact, it’s pretty rare. I have a pretty busy lifestyle–a demanding job in academia, almost two hours in the car each day commuting to work, and my Creative Writing MFA program.  Plus there’s my actual life–spending time with my wife and cats and friends and family.  And sometimes at night, I truly need to tune out–watch Master Chef or The Challenge.  So I end up doing these marathon writing sessions on the weekend.

That’s me and my work, in a blog tour nutshell.  Next week, check out Therese Walsh and John Langan, two amazing writers that I’m super excited to be passing the torch to.

Therese Walsh is the author of two incredible novels, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, and The Moon Sisters.  She is also the co-founder of Writer Unboxed, a site visited daily by thousands of writers interested in the craft and business of fiction.

John Langan is a fiction writer whose work tends to be located at the darker end of the literary spectrum.  He’s published two collections of stories, The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies and Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters, and one novel, House of Windows.  He’s also co-edited an anthology with Paul Tremblay, Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters.

Authors: George Saunders on Revision

Last night I discovered this video of George Saunders giving a talk at Google.  I guess Google hosts these talks by authors, musicians, artist, etc.  I was pretty intrigued since I hadn’t seen him speak in public (with the exception of an appearance on the Colbert Report.)  With my favorite authors, there’s always this fear around seeing their personas: what if the guy is a total dick?  Or awkward and stiff?  Boring even.  Not warranted.  Saunders gave a great reading of “Escape from Spiderhead” and had a lot of interesting (and funny) things to say.

Saunders revises in this obsessive, iterative style, just reading the story again and again, making small or large tweaks here and there, until the thing is done.  This process can take a very long time.  Obviously, there’s nothing too earth shattering about this.  Most writers do some form of iterative revision.  What I found interesting, though, is what he pays attention to during that revision: sentences and words first off.  Does this sentence actually do anything? Is it interesting?  No?  Delete.  For example, “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” was, at one point, almost two hundred pages long.  Quoi?  Did you say two hundred pages long?  Yup.  Now it’s, what, a twelve page story?  Saunders spent ten years with this story, going through this obsessive, iterative revision process, ultimately chopping a hundred and sixty plus pages.  What I loved about this anecdote is that it showed me in no uncertain terms the work, the time, the patience, and the dedication involved for those of us who actually want to be able to call ourselves writers.  

The other thing Saunders pays attention to is his imaginary reader, whom he describes as being intelligent and skeptical.  Obviously he wants to win this person over.  So as he writes and revises, he gauges what he’s reading with this imaginary meter–on one side of the meter, it shows he’s doing really well.  On the other side, it shows he’s doing poorly.  He tries to always keep it on the “doing well” side.  If he reads a sentence or passage and finds the meter slipping to the “doing poorly” side, he stops and tries to figure out what’s going on.  Then he fixes it.  I thought this was a really valuable insight into the revision process.  I’ve caught myself many times, sensing that I hadn’t done well in a given passage or scene, but just kind of ignoring it, or glossing over it.  This isn’t going to fly.  And that’s why it sometimes takes ten years.  You have to fix everything–no dead spots allowed.

This talk gave me a lot to think about.  It’s well worth fifty minutes of your time.  And I am really looking forward to hearing George Saunders’s voice in my head the next time I read “Escape From Spiderhead.”

Craft Essay: An Insider’s Outsider View of Place In Gravesend by William Boyle

gravesendWhen I started reading William Boyle’s novel Gravesend, I knew I was in for a lesson on writing place. The authentic dialog, along with Boyle’s sparse exposition created a vivid setting. Rather than explain the place, Boyle brings it to life. The reader sees Gravesend, Brooklyn through the characters’ experiences, hears it spoken in their voices, and watches it play out in the actions that they take. Boyle’s depiction of the setting through the character Alessandra is particularly strong. Because Alessandra returns to Gravesend at the start of the novel after being away for several years, the author is able to use her insider/outsider perspective to create a rich, multi-dimensional picture of Gravesend.

When Alessandra comes home from LA for the first time, she immediately notices, “The whole house smelled like dirty sponges” (ch. 2). Boyle often expresses her mixture of love and hate for her Brooklyn neighborhood with sensory experiences. Later in the chapter, Alessandra enjoys a meal with her father and Boyle illustrates her nostalgia for the food.

Pasta with gravy he’d defrosted that afternoon and braciole from her Aunt Cecilia. She’d forgotten how good it was to eat like this. In L. A. it had been all hummus and avocados and smoothies, quick and healthy stuff on the run, and she didn’t miss it. This gravy tasted silky and sweet with a garlicky bite and the parmesan from Pastosa was unlike anything she could get out west. (ch. 2)

This vivid, nostalgic depiction of the food could never have been achieved through the eyes of a character who hadn’t left Gravesend. The braciole and gravy would be business as usual. Good, but not transformative. The author uses Alessandra’s perspective to layer an interesting blend of nostalgia and boredom, love and hate with the concrete details about life in Gravesend.

Boyle expands the reader’s view of Gravesend to the nearby bars as Alessandra grows restless and reflects on her options for going out. “There weren’t many bars in the neighborhood, not that she could remember. A dive called The Wrong Number with graffiti on the sign. And Ralphie’s, a clammy sports bar full of fat cops and smooth Italian boys stinking of cologne. Those were the options back when” (ch. 2).  We only think to quantify or judge things in our neighborhood when entertaining visitors. In Alessandra’s case, she is the visitor and the host, which is why she evaluates the bars in this self-conscious way. Boyle often uses opportunities like these to allow the reader to discover Gravesend while Alessandra re-discovers it. Boyle uses Alessandra’s perspective to give the reader a vivid description of the neighborhood bars that is critical, yet intimate.

In addition to being an intriguing and realistic character, Alessandra is a vehicle for illustrating place. Her intimacy with the sights, sounds, and smells of Gravesend along with the distance she has from them creates a deep, multi-dimensional portrait of a place. Her ambivalence is embodied in all that she sees around her, and her objectivity allows her to communicate with the reader in a way that some of the other characters who have never left Gravesend wouldn’t be able to. Boyle uses this character’s perspective, along with gorgeous writing to bring Gravesend, Brooklyn to life for the reader.

Review: The Laughter of Strangers by Michael Seidlinger

18110813I opened this book expecting a gritty, tragic boxing story, similar to what I found in F. X. Toole’s Rope Burn: Stories from the Corner (better known now as Million Dollar Baby) and Fat City by Leonard Gardner.  And the story is tragic–a washed-up fighter trying to hang on to his champion identity while his body and mind deteriorate. His trainer, Spencer, isn’t much help. He focuses on media strategies rather than training regiments to try and keep “Sugar” relevant. But the author’s experimental approach to constructing narrative, character, and reality makes this much more than just another sad boxing story.

Writers have a romantic and sordid history with boxing. Norman Mailer, novelist and journalist, wrote about the legendary battle between Muhamud Ali and George Foreman in Zaire, Africa in The Fight. Mailer, who boxed himself, saw the sport as a metaphor for “the great gamble of life.” Hemingway was also known to get in the ring, although allegedly, he wasn’t very good.  In On Boxing, a collection of essays on the sweet science, Joyce Carol Oates reveals that her interest in boxing began in childhood, an offshoot of her father’s interest. Unlike Mailer, Oates “can’t think of boxing in writerly terms as a metaphor for something else”; on the contrary, she sees life as a metaphor for boxing. She also points out that “it’s impossible not to see that your opponent is you” (4), and it’s this point that serves as a central theme and a playground for literary experimentation in The Laughter of Strangers.

The narrator, “Sugar” Willem Floures, begins to hint almost immediately that he and his opponents are not exactly distinct. “I know how they’ll fight just like they know how I’ll fight./They know what I’m thinking./I know what they are thinking./We are alike because we are alike.” In this prose, which is often formatted like poetry, we see Sugar’s struggles, written out in the rhythm of combinations and rapid-fire jabs.  The stream-of-consciousness narration is a vehicle for displaying Sugar’s confusion. He often thinks things that the reader cannot fully comprehend or trust. Near the beginning of the book, Sugar admits that he is often confused and not in touch with reality. “I’m quick to act but last to understand the effects of what I’ve done. By the time you read any of what I’ve said, I will have yet to fully comprehend the telling. I might tell you everything, more than I want to tell, and it wont hit me as reality for weeks, months; it might never register as reality.”    Continue reading

Craft Essay: A Minimal High–Denis Johnson Under the Influence

imagesAnyone who has taken a creative writing workshop in college has experienced the dreaded acid trip story. Despite the fact that it’s virtually impossible to write a good drug story, one ambitious student always takes on the challenge. The result is always the same: overwritten, cerebral experiences, one right after the next. Everything was swirling around me. I saw color and I reached out and tried to grab it. Each time I moved my hand over it, the color changed. I opened my mouth and realized I was tasting the music, tasting each note. Why this type of writing is unsuccessful is obvious: it’s overly expository, it’s not grounded in concrete images that the reader can connect with, and probably worst of all these crimes, no one cares about the person tasting music. Thus, another acid trip story crashes and burns. But how does one write successfully about the experience of being on drugs?

In Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson uses a different strategy than our Creative Writing 101 student. Rather than focusing on cerebral descriptions and out-of-body sensations, the author draws on insights from many of the narrator’s experiences to create a composite of dissonance. To be fair, writing about an acid trip or two is very different from writing about being addicted to drugs.  Nonetheless, our Creative Writing 101 student would benefit from reading this work, and would likely be able to write a much better acid-trip story afterward.  Johnson uses a combination of minimal exposition, contrasting images, philosophical ponderings, and descriptions of humiliating experiences to create the contradictory world of drug-addiction.

In the first short story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” Johnson introduces us to the narrator who we only get to know as “Fuckhead.” The reader is immediately drawn into Fuckhead’s drug-induced state. “The downpour raked the asphalt and gurgled in the ruts. My thoughts zoomed pitifully. The traveling salesman had fed me pills that made the linings of my veins feel scraped out. My jaw ached. I knew every raindrop by its name.” Along with the images that ground the reader in a physical experience rather than a cerebral one, Johnson uses contrasting word combinations such as “zoomed pitifully” to illustrate Fuckhead’s dissonance–some parts of the body feel good, others bad, others numb. One moment, there is euphoria, the next there is despair. Johnson depicts this with contrasting word pairings and contrasting sensations rather than the physically disconnected, cerebral language of our creative writing 101 student.

Continue reading