The following is an excerpt from “Process” by Sarah Stodola.
Amazon Publishing (January 2015). All Rights Reserved.
She’d rather be a character in a book than a real person. So said a college girlfriend to David Foster Wallace once, maybe expressing a long-held sentiment, maybe offering the kind of throwaway remark spoken late at night when exhaustion has turned thoughts inside out. Or perhaps she only felt bored, and wouldn’t it be nice to experience the novelty of a more noteworthy life for a while? Whatever the impulse behind it, it struck Wallace and stuck with him. He found himself thinking about just what she’d meant: What’s the difference between a character in a book and a real person, and how does language dictate one or both? He thought about the concept so much that a story grew up around it. Wallace spent a good chunk of his senior year at Amherst College feverishly turning it into his first novel, The Broom of the System, in which the plot becomes secondary to the twenty-four-year-old protagonist’s doubt in her own reality and belief that word choices are controlling her life. Wallace himself was twenty-four years old when the novel came out.
Broom was the first of what would turn out to be only three novels, the third one left unfinished when Wallace died by his own hand in 2008 at the age of forty-six. Each explores a simple yet overarching theme that for Wallace was one of life’s most complicated puzzles. Given the young Wallace’s tendencies toward overindulgence—with drinking, pot smoking, and women, to scratch the surface—it’s no surprise that as he made his way to Arizona for an MFA program after Broom, his thoughts turned to that very modern, very American concept of excess. He became obsessed with the idea of too much—too much drug intake, too much entertainment at our fingertips, too much expectation for our talents.
Wallace began to articulate this obsession through several writing projects that eventually merged into one. In his midtwenties, Wallace started a story about a video so entertaining that viewers watch it until they die. Soon after, he started a separate one about a tennis prodigy and the peculiar neuroses of his very modern family (Wallace himself was a competitive tennis player in high school). Several years later, after a failed attempt to quit writing altogether and earn a PhD in philosophy at Harvard, Wallace went into treatment for alcohol addiction. At the tail end of it, he moved into a halfway house outside Boston. He took copious notes while there about the people he met for whom excess had nearly become a death sentence. In particular, an outsized character known as “Big Craig” became the basis for a story about a man named Don Gately. It occurred to Wallace then that the three stories belonged together, and his dizzying second novel, Infinite Jest, began to take shape. After half a decade of incubation, he wrote it in three years.
Wallace seemed to come with the fully realized ability to write. By 1995, though, as the publication of Infinite Jest was nearing, his easy enthusiasm had ceded to something darker. “I have a lot of dread and terror and inadequacy-shit, now, when I’m trying to write. I didn’t used to,” he wrote to Don DeLillo that year. In 1998, reminiscing about the journey of a writer in his essay “The Nature of Fun,” he wrote, “In the beginning, when you first start out trying to write fiction, the whole endeavor’s about fun. You don’t expect anybody else to read it.” But success in writing changes the writer, he believed. “Things start to get complicated and confusing, not to mention scary.” To come out on the other side, he wrote, one can “sustain the fun of writing only by confronting the very same unfun parts of yourself you’d first used writing to avoid.”
By the time he was working on his third novel, The Pale King, the insecurity had set in more or less permanently. He did not, in the end, come out on the other side. Which isn’t to say that he could no longer write. Wallace wrote things that weren’t The Pale King, but when it came to the next great novel that he viewed as his most important project, he felt enduringly stuck. (And yet we have a 547-page unfinished novel called The Pale King.) Most writers start out not knowing how to write and gradually gain a sense of competence, if things go well. Wallace came out of the gate knowing what to do, but slowly lost his ease around words. The struggle produced an anxiety that soaked his writing days. “If past experience holds true,” Wallace said of his future writing in 1997, “I will probably write an hour a day and spend eight hours a day biting my knuckle and worrying about not writing.” The angst spread well beyond his writing. “He had anxiety about everything,” says Juliana Harms, who was engaged to Wallace in the late nineties.
When Wallace did get down to writing, he wrote first drafts in his small, slanted handwriting in notebooks or, during at least one phase in the 1990s, on legal pads. Part of a draft of The Pale King was written in a notebook with a character from the animated TV series Rugrats on the cover, another in one featuring a photo of kittens. These drafts came after the running observational notes he kept, often in steno pads filled with text that could be serious or veer toward screwball, and also with a fair number of doodles dotting the pages. Wallace once called himself a “five draft man,” writing three drafts by hand, then typing out two further drafts, all destined to have copious notes in the margins, words crossed out, and the occasional smiley-face sticker placed near a passage he felt he’d done well with. Wallace happily declared himself to be the fastest and most adroit “two-finger typist” he’d ever heard of, not that he necessarily faced stiff competition in that realm. Of course, his claims of such exacting processes have to be understood as a goal more than a reality. Wallace didn’t necessarily stick to his own rules.
If Wallace was writing well, the words tumbled out of him in bursts that could last for a string of hours or a couple of days. While writing The Broom of the System, he claimed at one point to have written twenty-four pages of it in three hours. He once showed up on a Monday after disappearing over the weekend to tell his girlfriend that he’d written a thirty-page short story called “Little Expressionless Animals” “straight through.” His old roommate, Mark Costello, claimed Wallace could at certain times write twenty-five thousand words in one day.
Wallace didn’t need a particular writing space when things were clicking. He felt he could write anywhere—in a coffee shop or his apartment or at the library. When his then fiancée Juliana Harms accompanied him to a gathering of MacArthur “geniuses” in 1999, he stayed in the hotel room much of the time to write. When they took a trip to Jamaica, he wrote in the hotel bathroom.
And yet he was dedicated to the strange writing spaces he set up for himself at home. Starting in college, he laid towels out around his writing spot, by-products of the several showers he was known to take every day. When he lived in Syracuse for a short time while working on Infinite Jest, he chose an apartment so small that when he wrote, he moved everything off the desk and onto the bed, and when it was time to sleep, did the reverse. When he moved back to Illinois for a teaching job and bought his first house, he chose a writing room and painted it completely black, then filled it with old lamps. He stacked books on the floor and constantly pinned drafts or other printed materials to the walls. He sipped mineral water with a lime wedge throughout the writing day there and looked on the room as his inner sanctum. When he moved to California to teach at Pomona College, the lamps came along, too, settling into the garage of his new house there. His wife, Karen Green, took charge of the paint this time, covering the walls in red, along with some random things that had made the move out west with him, including a poster of Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss.
Prolific phases could make Wallace euphoric. The writing came with such a thrilling force, it hardly required organization or a schedule. “Routines and disciplines go out the window simply because I don’t need them,” he said of these phases. They also made him superstitious. He’d sometimes make sure to use the same pen as the previous day when things were humming along, calling it his “orgasm pen.”
But being on a roll may have caused Wallace to become careless. Maybe things were going so well he forgot to see the need for his edifying daily jog, or a reasonable bedtime. “As the healthy activities diminished,” says Harms, “that is when he started working later, sleeping later, and watching more television.” And then the writing began to suffer.
When writer’s block descended, it lingered like sludge. “It was an agonizing pull for him to really try to come back from that,” says Harms. Wallace sought out plenty of tricks to combat it, none of them reliably successful. He set up those previously unnecessary schedules. He asked other writers about their routines. Before he quit both for good, he smoked pot or drank in an effort to kickstart his mind. Harms calls these techniques, cumulatively, his “antiprocess.” “David, especially with his addiction issues, and his very, very, very busy mind, he craved a sense of routine, but he also fought against it,” she says.
And as always, he found himself chronically distracted. He was obsessive about television and could sit for hours on end watching it. On the other hand, Wallace wrote—and maybe even convinced himself—that watching television could be valuable research. The tube’s “kind of window on nervous American self-perception is just invaluable in terms of writing fiction,” he once observed in an essay in which he delved seriously into the connection between the contemporary novelist and the tube. In the same essay, he dissected not only why television is such an appealing time-suck, but also how it can distort reality for the fiction writer in dangerous ways.
Another go-to distraction from writing involved, of all things, writing. Wallace typed old-fashioned letters to any number of people, many of them writers: Mary Karr, whom he dated; Jonathan Franzen, with whom he became friends via these letters; and Don DeLillo, whom he’d never met but who allowed him to pick his brain about the writing life. In one letter to DeLillo, he wrote of his problem “taking half-hours off to write letters like this and still calling it Writing Time.” Perhaps no great writer has ever been so effusive about his writer’s block. Wallace wrote and wrote about his inability to write. “My thoughts now have the urgent but impeded quality of speechlessness in dreams,” Wallace wrote in a letter to Franzen. In these letters, he’d marvel at the ability of other writers to stick to their routines, to simply get down to work when they told themselves to.
Surprisingly, Wallace didn’t have a problem with the Internet. In a 1998 interview he claimed never to have been on it before, although that would seem an exaggeration. Indeed, he participated in an online interview in 1996. His reasons for staying away may have been manifold. “One, I think his comfort was in handwriting,” says Harms. “But two, I also think he had enough wisdom to know that the Internet might do to him as opposed to for him.” Considering his ingenious ability to encapsulate the pitfalls that come with access to unlimited stimuli, the Internet preoccupied Wallace far less than one would expect.