Ghost of David Foster Wallace

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“Your proofreading is an affront to writerly conscience, human decency, and much of what we hold dear as Americans. If you want to know how serious I am about this, know that I’d give this draft a B+, but because of what appears to be complete disregard for the impression that missing punctuation, hyphens, ‘your’ spelled as ‘you’re’, etc. make, what I’m putting in my grade book for this is a C+/B-. If you get a C in this class, you can essentially wave a white Farewell-hankie at getting a C.W. Master’s here; and buddy, turn in another piece of prose this full of errors without even one measly pen mark to indicate even the casualest attempt to correct even one jr. high error and I will bend every effort to justify giving you a C in this class. Your talent and my nervous system deserve better than this.

Grimly,
The Angel of Death
David Foster Wallace”

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Now, you might be thinking at this point, “Uh, dude, that’s not something you want to lead with on your homepage. Or any page. Because that’s sort of an author anti-blurb. Which is pretty anti-smart. Just what kind of jackass are you?”


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OK. A little harsh. But a fair question. So if you’d like to know just what kind of jackass I am, in no uncertain terms, I invite you to keep reading. Seriously. It’s good stuff in here. I promise.

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Maybe you’re curious about what makes me tick. Or maybe you just stumbled here on accident because I managed to trick the search engines into thinking there was midget porn here. Either way–welcome!

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First, a couple of caveats. He actually signed the anti-blurb “Dave Wallace”—he wasn’t pretentious enough to go with the formal byline reserved for his books—I just figured I’d include it for clarity’s sake. In his class, he was just Dave. And lest I give off a false impression, while I had the pleasure of being in a couple of his classes, Dave was hardly a personal mentor. I can’t pretend to have received any greatness by extended association or special tutorials. I wasn’t under his wing. Or near his wing.

In fact, as evidenced by his commentary, I’m pretty sure I pissed him off more than anything. And he whacked me with his wing in a vicious fly-by.

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The anti-blurb was a response to my third story submitted that semester, and it was the damning coup de grâce to a two-page typed letter. What came before was the standard creative writing workshop fare: notes on too many florid verbs; a herd of adverbs that needed to be culled; nice dialogue here, but corny at the tail-end, etc.

And then, blam, the blistering indictment.

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I read it, reread it, reread it again. And then I took a deep breath. And laughed. Loud enough to freak some people out in the coffee shop, given that I was sitting alone. Not because his response was inherently hilarious (although, to be fair, it kind of is), but I mostly laughed at myself. For being such a complete jackass and not even realizing the extent of it until then. (I’m man enough to own it; or dumb enough; whatever.)

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This was right around the time Dave published Infinite Jest, won the MacArthur Fellowship (a.k.a., “Genius Grant”), and was the darling of both populist rags like People and every intelligentsia outlet on earth. He was as close to a rock star as an English department ever gets. So I clearly knew whose class I was in. I can’t even try to blame registrar mishap here or blissful ignorance. I chose a class with a professor who was a known militant grammarian, as exacting in his critique of students’ fiction as he was in producing his own precise prose. And I essentially taunted and disrespected him by my half-assed efforts, for reasons that still remain a little murky to me.

Now, in my (admittedly meager) defense, this was during my first semester in grad school. So I could claim I was overwhelmed trying to balance other intense classes and my workload as a teaching assistant. And there’s some validity to that. Or would be, except that this is me we’re talking about. I had a history of underachieving, doing just enough last-minute Herculean heroics during ridiculous Mountain Dew/NoDoz fueled all-nighters to skate by. I’d routinely win back the trust of professors before turning into a lazy slacker again. It was a horrendous cycle. This wasn’t a one-off, but the last episode in a history of egregious underperforming.

I’m not positive, but I think I thought Dave would be so blown away by my unadulterated talent he would overlook the fact that I was sloppy, negligent, and cavalier.

Clearly, I was a colossal idiot.

He beat me with a rubber hose, rolled me in a wet carpet, rolled me downhill, and then glared at me as I untangled myself, got to my wobbly feet, and then fell in the mud, dizzy, bruised, dripping, bloodied. And I utterly deserved it.

So, this begs the question again, why am I not only including his commentary here, but showcasing it front and center in what could arguably be anti-smart fashion? Two reasons.

First, this literary smackdown was, if not catalyst of an outright epiphany for me, at least as big a learning moment as I’ve ever had. I realized (not for the first time, maybe, but certainly with the most clarity), that the opportunity for playing the “potential” card was over. If I wanted to really be a writer, I not only had to strap my ass in the chair and write, but I had to force myself back there after a first draft was complete (instead of congratulating myself on a job well done, as I was wont to do) and viciously revise, kill the darlings, prune, cull, strip away (uh oh, florid verb alert), until I really reworked the writing.

Wanting to be a writer is easy and fun. Actually committing yourself to writing, forcing yourself to do the work, treating the craft seriously, that takes discipline. And some masochism or madness, too. But definitely discipline.

I still fail at this from time to time, beset by bouts of procrastination and high moments of jackassery, and I don’t imagine I’ll ever master myself enough to eliminate them entirely. But now, I often have a decent chance of catching it before it gets too far along, kicking myself in the ass, and doing better. And almost without fail, every time I force myself back to the prose to give it another once over, to give it the attention it deserves instead of succumbing to the limitless distractions or my own limitations, it’s because I hear Dave’s voice calling me out on my shit, or catch a glimpse of that anti-blurb seared onto the backs of my eyelids.

But, just on the off-chance I’m able to convince myself that episode never happened, I’m slapping it on here as a reminder.

The second reason I included his diatribe so prominently is that I owe Dave an enormous debt of gratitude. Which I can’t ever hope to repay. Which is probably good, because it’s enormous. But the least I can do is give him the proper shout out on my website for redirecting me.

He wasn’t the first person to impact me that way, but hopefully he’ll be the last, at least as far as delivering the message about treating craft seriously. I’m sure there will be countless other knucklehead things I do throughout my life, and if I fail to recognize them and adjust accordingly on my own, hopefully my lovely wife, some dear friend, or a conscientious colleague will slap me in the side of the head and say, “Hey, dingleberry, how about you remove your head from your ass, huh? Stuff going on out here you might want to check out.”

Oh, and if you came here for midget porn, my apologies for my deception. But I’m very glad you stayed, just the same. And you never can tell what might show up on these pages. So stick around.

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7 Responses to “Ghost of David Foster Wallace”

  1. LegalEagle March 16, 2012 at 11:54 pm # Reply

    A reminder to us all regarding the hard work and jackassery that goes into making it with our God-given talents.

  2. Richard August 15, 2012 at 6:01 am # Reply

    My god, that post really spoke to me, as my academic career was the embodiment of the cyclical-betrayal-of-renewed-trust you mentioned. In fact, I’d say it should be required reading for any interested writers who think their brilliance will somehow eclipse laziness and meticulous self-editing.

    Anyway, I’m glad you kept at it- fantastic novel!

    • jeffsalyards August 17, 2012 at 4:18 am # Reply

      Many thanks for the kind words. I’m nothing if not stubborn. :)

  3. Cynthia McGarvie February 11, 2013 at 7:50 pm # Reply

    Just as you were about to stick the dismount, I notice you tripped on an inelegant (and completely inappropriate) use of “beg the question.” Please refer to pg. 75 of The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus for some beyond-the-grave ass-kicking.

    • jeffsalyards February 14, 2013 at 11:31 pm # Reply

      Well-deserved ass-kicking at that. I never stick the dismount. Not ever.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Troglodyte Shuffle | Jeff Salyards - December 17, 2013

    [...] Ghost of David Foster Wallace [...]

  2. Everybody On The Arc! Interview With Jeff Salyards - February 8, 2016

    [...] of asking you to tell us a bit about the man behind the words, I’m recommending everyone read this. After the interview, of course. Then stay to poke around and glance at the other pages and links. [...]

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