I usually don’t think too hard about why I do this. Writing feels familiar and comfortable. It’s not that is feels natural, like breathing, but that it feels routine and “normal”, like brushing your teeth before going to bed. Like brushing your teeth, it’s become sort of a habit. It would feel strange not to do it, because that’s what you’ve always done.
But it wasn’t always like this. This weekend, author and essayist David Foster Wallace hanged himself at 46. It is incredibly sad, for a multitude of reasons. I felt a little lurch inside me when I heard the news. I have always loved reading, but it wasn’t until high school that I started reading authors that made me not just want to consume words, but create them myself. David Foster Wallace was one of those writers.
Unlike many of the books I read for class, DFW was a modern American author. He was still alive; in fact, at the time, he was in his mid-thirties. So, I wrote him a fan letter. It was several pages long, typed. I told him all about how his book made me want to write, but that I also felt paralyzed by my own fear and perfectionism. Later, I read over it and became a bit embarrassed by my boundless enthusiasm and precocious rambling. I consoled myself with the fact that he’d probably never read it, that the publisher would never actually route the letter to the right place, and it was probably sitting in some mail room in New York gathering dust this very minute…
He wrote me a thank you note. When my mother handed me the letter, I just stared at it for several minutes, too terrified to open it. What could he possibly have to say to me? I felt about as insignificant as a dust mote, and this man was heralded as one of the greatest authors of modern time. In slanted, blocky script, David Foster Wallace told me that letters like mine helped him and that he too struggled with a harsh inner critic. The note was deeply humbling, encouraging, and personal. He signed it with a funny smiley face doodle. I was utterly delirious.
I still have the note, nearly ten years after I received it. I kept it tucked away in my bedroom and would reread it on occasion, still stunned that David Foster Wallace had sent me a handwritten thank you note. I briefly considered applying to Pomona, just so I could take a creative writing class with him. In the end, practicality won the day, and I went to college close to home. I still continued to read him over the years, but had forgotten all about this little exchange.
Today, I feel like I am inundated with words. Every morning, I read the newspaper on the subway; my Outlook inbox at work is constantly overflowing; and I get agitated just looking at the unread post count on my Google Reader. Amidst all this incoming data, it’s easy to forget that words can do more than convey the most basic of information.
When I first read David Foster Wallace, I knew I wasn’t grasping the entire depth of the work. But I could tell that he was blisteringly talented, and that his moments of brilliance were often heartbreakingly beautiful. What also struck me about Wallace was his ability to observe and understand other people (both real and fictional). As Laura Miller describes in her Salon article, he had a singular way of connecting the reader to the most unlikely of characters. I never had any illusions that I could write using language and vocabulary at such a high level. I did, however, cling to a sliver of hope that I could aspire to capture human experiences in a humorous and perceptive way. I still do, and I guess that’s why I’m still here writing this.