I didn’t know David Foster Wallace. Aside from his insightful commencement speech, This is Water, I didn’t know much about his career, his writing, or his lifelong struggle with depression. Yet, on the seventh anniversary of his death, I found myself mourning him in a way that seemed inexplicably personal given the fact that we were complete strangers.
I chalked it up to having picked up my reserved copy of The David Foster Wallace Reader from the library and started, not at the beginning, but three-quarters of the way through the massive tome with his teaching syllabi. This left me feeling nostalgic because, as a composition instructor who has witnessed the trans-formative power of writing, I knew exactly what had gone into crafting those deeply personal pieces of administrative ephemera.
I nodded as I read his description of English 170R and the various course requirements and grading standards. The best teachers strive to create syllabi that not only provide substantial structure, but also give students the ability to exercise freewill and make mistakes. It’s a tough job because, as a teacher, you also have to anticipate the loopholes and be one step ahead of those students who might try to outwit the system. I burst out laughing when I read Wallace’s footnote warning about what constitutes college-level writing, which states, “Written work with excessive typos, misspellings, or basic errors in usage/grammar will not be accepted for credit. At the very least, you’ll have to redo the work and incur a penalty. If you believe this is just the usual start-of-the-term-saber-rattling, be advised that some of the students in this course have had me as an instructor before—ask them whether I’m serious” (611).
When in doubt, leverage your past history to ensure compliance—especially if you have witnesses.
There’s a tenderness in Wallace’s syllabi; a kind of vulnerability that all of the best teachers offer their students (even when they’re desperately trying to be hard asses). It stems from the fact that all the most creative teachers have a healthy respect for rules and, yet, also take great joy in casting them aside once learned. These teachers walk the wire and invite students to stroll along with them; safety net at the ready.
As I moved on in the anthology and read more of his work, I was struck by how deeply affected Wallace was by everything around him, and how much researching, learning and thinking he must have done to process all of the information he took in before he turned it into cogent, yet seemingly conflicted analyses of tennis, state fairs, and lobsters. Wallace doesn’t openly label things as good or bad, right or wrong, rather he gently leads the reader toward his thesis until they are uncomfortably unable to look away from the reality of what’s been pulled apart and laid before them (the best example of this is his essay “Consider the Lobster”).
I began considering that maybe a teacher’s love for their students isn’t that different from a writer’s love for their readers–and maybe simply for humanity, in general. I recalled a Wallace quote I’d read (while browsing Maria Popova’s brilliant Brain Pickings website) in which he discussed the desperate need for vulnerability in art:
“The reader walks away from real art heavier than she came to it. Fuller. All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can’t be for your benefit; it’s got to be for hers. What’s poisonous about the cultural environment today is that it makes this so scary to try to carry out. Really good work probably comes out of a willingness to disclose yourself, open yourself up in spiritual and emotional ways that risk making you look banal or melodramatic or naive or unhip or sappy, and to ask the reader really to feel something. To be willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow. Even now I’m scared about how sappy this’ll look in print, saying this. And the effort actually to do it, not just talk about it, requires a kind of courage I don’t seem to have yet. … Maybe it’s as simple as trying to make the writing more generous and less ego-driven.”
And suddenly it became clear as to why I was mourning the death of a man I’d never met.
We are currently living in a time in which fear (and loathing) drives a great deal of expression, and those who are truly willing to take risks and make themselves vulnerable—in any arena—are often attacked, ridiculed and written off as naive and/or unrealistic. Yet despite attempts to suppress these voices, those who are intent on finding ways to remind us that we are all deeply connected, refuse to be silenced.
I mourn the death of David Foster Wallace because, as I struggle to create a world that reflects more kindness, understanding, and human connections, his silence is deafening.