Five-Word Weekend: a reflection on the ISU DFW Conference

The morning radio show I listen to on the way to work has a segment every Monday morning called “Three-Word Weekend.” Callers describe their weekend using only three words, and the radio hosts try to guess the details based on the terse, often monosyllabic descriptors the receive. Example: A caller might say, “Rain. Cupcakes. Flat tire.” And the hosts might concoct a story like, “You were driving in the rain to deliver cupcakes to a party when you got a flat tire on the highway. Not only did you have to change the tire in the pouring rain, but you had to eat all the cupcakes for fear of them spoiling because of the delay in your trip.” A bit trite and cheesy, sure, but it is an amusing way to fill the gaps between songs.

Well, I thought I would take a similar approach to describing my experience at the First Annual David Foster Wallace Conference hosted by Illinois State University at Normal. But I don’t know that only three words will do justice to the experience, so I will give it to you in five[1]:

Connections. Creativity. Questions. Confirmation. and Coffee.

Connections. Thursday and Friday felt very much like a college reunion of sorts, except that we had all taken online college classes together and had never actually met in person. I knew many of the presenters by name and by their Facebook profile picture, but had never been in the same room with them. I’d never heard their voice or shook their hand. While I tend to be pretty introverted and socially awkward when meeting new people,[2] I didn’t experience that at all. No sweaty palms or nervous heart palpitations. Just a smile and a handshake and a “it’s so good to finally meet you.”

Casual conversations with Matt Bucher, Jenni Baker, Mike Miley, Bill Lattanzi, even Daniel Max were great, but not nearly long enough. I would have loved an extra day in Normal to just sit around, drink coffee (or perhaps stronger libations), and talk about Wallace,[3] literature, writing, sports, politics… whatever. Doesn’t matter. Just would have loved more time with my friends.

Perhaps the greatest connection I made was in sharing a room with JT Jackson: a mathematical genius, former Marine, poet, friend of Dave, and now a friend of mine. He shared stories and poems and clues to questions we all have about Wallace. Being the generous man that he is, he gave me a signed copy of “Marbles” for my girls and a photocopy of his manuscript of the text with Wallace’s remarks and annotations. I have a feeling I’ve got a new lifelong friend.

Creativity. Unlike previous academic conferences I’ve attended, this one was open to creative submissions as well. Good call, ISU. Good call. I personally appreciated the opportunity to share my creative connections to Dave: his inspiration for my own writing; and the marriage of two of my greatest passions, Wallace’s writing and Legos.[4] But it also allowed me to hear some wonderful presentations by others. Jenni Baker’s “Erasing Infinite” project. Bill Lattanzi’s Infinite Jest tour of Boston. Mike Miley’s personal quest at the HRC, the home of the world’s largest air conditioner. All incredibly moving. It was so great to see others interacting with Dave not just on an intellectual or theoretical level, but also on a very personal one.

Questions. As with previous conferences I have attended, I think I walked away with more questions than I got answers. A few of those questions[5] are:

  • I know it’s been brought up a gazillion times, but who’s next? Wallace was one of the great trailblazers of his generation, who will take up the mantle?
  • During one panel, the analogy came to me: Is Wallace the Moses leading Western literature out of the Egypt of Postmodernism? If so (along the same lines as the previous question), who will be the Joshua to lead us into the Promised Land? What is the Promised Land?
  • Another analogy came to me during the day: I see a bit of a connection between Wallace’s response to Postmodern literature and U2’s response to 1990’s decadence. Both seemed to immerse themselves into their respective… whatevers only to expose their flaws and shortcomings. Thoughts?
  • After the one of the panels focusing on Dave’s nonfiction, I was left wondering what sort of impact he has had on nonfiction writing, particularly on literary journalism?
  • And finally the question that has stuck with me for several years now: where did Dave stand on issues of faith and religion? I have received more and more clues over those years, but I feel there are still more clues to be unearthed.
  • After hearing Matt Bucher’s presentation, I’m still not entirely clear: what exactly is a “turdnagel”?[6]

Confirmation. About two presentations into the “Work in Process” conference two years ago, I felt like a minor leaguer in his first major league game. I hadn’t read the entirety of Wallace’s canon.[7] I only had a master’s degree.[8] And I really only understood about half of what was said in that conference room. I think I presented a pretty damn good paper, but I busted my ass to write it. I honestly think I put more time and effort into that paper than I did my master’s thesis. I certainly consider myself an academic, but I’m not sure I’m cut out to be a scholar.

Since Antwerp, I’ve done a lot of writing. A lot of writing. I finished Supposedly Fun Things and am working on a number of other projects. The point is that I’m a writer, not a scholar. So to have my writing and other creative work validated and appreciated at the ISU conference was a simple, but profound confirmation that I am doing the right thing. I’ll save the theory for the scholars, and I’ll stick to the creative writing.

Coffee.[9] One final note: for mass-produced hotel-conference-room coffee, it was actually quite tasty. I went back for a second cup, not because I needed that extra jolt of 3% caffeine, but because I liked how it tasted.[10]


[1] And don’t worry; I won’t make you try to come up with some cockamamie story based on my words. See, it’s a narrative technique that I am using to make my account more relatable and to draw you in as a reader (I hope it worked).

[2] A common symptom of anxiety disorders; I “came out” as an anxiety disorder sufferer during one of my presentations at the conference. I am expecting calls from all the major late-night talk shows anytime now.

[3] After this conference and many conversations with those who knew him well, I am beginning to feel comfortable calling him, “just Dave.”

[4] I was overwhelmed by the positive response to the pictures of my Lego sculptures. I was nervous to share; worried others might see them as silly or juvenile, having no place at a conference like this. But to have such a large crowd to see the presentation and to see people snapping pictures of the slides and to get so many gracious compliments washed my fears away and made me so glad I made the ballsy move of sending in a seemingly ridiculous presentation proposal.

[5] If you have answers, insights, or “clues” (to use JT’s word), please feel free to share in the comments below.

[6] According to the email records that Matt showed, “turdnagel” was one of Dave’s email handles.

[7] Truth be told, I still haven’t made it all the way through.

[8] From an online (but regionally accredited) program.

[9] I wasn’t going to mention it at first, but I needed a fifth item for my list. A four-word description of the conference just didn’t seem complete.

[10] It tasted good enough to write 64 words about it, plus this 15-word footnote.

No One Ever Says…

Blogger Here. This is a transcript of the reading I did at the DFW conference at ISU this past week:

John Lennon so eloquently sang, ‘Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.’ More often than not, ‘life happens’ despite all my plans and preparations. Such was the case here. I planned to present one paper, life happened, and now I am presenting this paper instead. Perhaps, barring any unusual circumstances, I’ll be able to present the original paper next year.

In a conversation transcribed in the NY Daily News on May 18, 2010, Dave Moore and Bill Manville discuss two reasons why so many artists are drawn into these addicting behaviors. First, art is borne out strong, often negative, emotions. Many artists find illicit substances to be a means of coping and dealing—or escaping from—with those deep-seeded emotions. Second, some artists use those substances as a means of deepening their experience of those strong emotions. Drugs and alcohol can be the catalyst for feeling more deeply and for creating their works of art.

The list of just authors who struggled with addictions is staggeringly long: Stephen King, F Scott Fitzgerald, even our own Saint Dave, to name only a few. But these afflictions are not limited to artistic types, nor are the addictive substances limited to hard drugs and hard drinks. Instances of many media-related addictions have risen in recent years. There are the obvious ones like pornography or online shopping, but there are also less obvious ones like online gaming or social media.

The tangible world, as well as the virtual world, is full of addictive stimuli. And like the artists discussed by Moore and Manville, we find ourselves in the grip of addiction because we are either seeking escape from our world, or a means of enhancing our experience of it.

But to paraphrase what John Lennon sang, ‘Addictions are what sometimes happen when you’re busy making other plans.’ No one drinks that beer or smokes that joint or logs onto the Internet with the intention of becoming addicted. We turn to these things looking for something else, only to find ourselves in the grip of addiction. And such was the case in my story…

I’m sure you remember them, all those “Partnership for a Drug-Free America” commercials from the mid-80s. They were a staple of the afterschool television diet of my entire generation. Who could ever forget those taglines?

“This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?”

“I learned it by watching you!”

“No one ever says, ‘I want to be a junky when I grow up.’”

These words and images were burned into my consciousness at a pretty young age, and they have proven to be quite effective. This – in addition to my extreme fear of getting into trouble – kept me away from any sort of drug, illegal or otherwise. The closest I ever got to any illicit substance as a youngster was when the kid I hung out with in middle school showed me an unsmoked joint someone had given him. None of my childhood friends ever did drugs (at least not to my knowledge). Hell, I don’t think that I would’ve known where to find any drugs even if I wanted to try them.

I made it through my high school and college years unscathed, and continued on the straight and narrow into adulthood as well. And then, if this wasn’t enough, a few years ago I crossed paths with Ken Erdedy at the beginning of Infinite Jest (chapter 2; pages 17-26). Ten anxiety-filled pages of reading about Erdedy waiting for an unknown woman to show up with the marijuana for his one last binge weekend. Erdedy’s plan for quitting is to smoke so much pot that he makes himself so sick that he will never want to touch the stuff again.[1] I don’t know if this experience is what later lands him in rehab, but it certainly worked for me. If ever I had even an ounce of desire to try marijuana or any other illicit drug, those ten pages cured me for good. If that is what the “junky” life is like, then no thank you.

30 September 2009. As I got up from the lunch table in the teachers’ lounge, the room started spinning. It only lasted a fraction of a second, but what followed scared the bejesus out of me. Once back in my classroom for 5th Period, my heart rate quickly accelerated, my blood pressure shot up, and the room continued to spin while I tried to lead my sophomore English class in a discussion of Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, “Harrison Bergeron.” I stumbled over my words and could barely put together a coherent sentence. In a matter of minutes, I went from standing at the whiteboard to sitting on my large wooden stool to sitting at my desk, trying to avoid actually falling over altogether. I was in the middle of what I would realize later was my first real panic attack.

I told my students that I was not feeling well, so they should find something to do quietly while I sat at my desk, freaking out over what was happening to me. When the bell ending the period finally came, I bee-lined it to the nurse’s office as students cleared out of my classroom. The school nurse checked my vitals, then told me to call my wife to pick me up and take me to the doctor, then sent me to lie down while I waited for her to arrive. My pulse and blood pressure were very high, but not high enough to warrant an ambulance ride to the nearest ER. About 40 minutes later, my wife showed up, I got in the passenger seat, and we were on our way home. We stopped at my doctor’s office, where he gave me a pretty thorough once-over. He couldn’t find anything really wrong, so he figured my symptoms were probably stress-related.[2] He said to go home and relax, take the next day off, and try some stress-management techniques to keep my stress levels down. 

16 October 2009. Some two weeks after this incident, as my AP English Language class began after lunch, I once again felt like I had been swept under by a wave of dizziness. I tried to take roll, but struggled to get each name out as my heart rate and blood pressure once again skyrocketed while the room seemed to spin out of control. I could hardly make it through roll call, let alone my scheduled lesson plans in this condition,[3]so I once again told my students to take out homework to work on while I sat at my desk counting the minutes until the bell rang.

Long story short, a few hours later I found myself in urgent care in the midst of yet another panic attack, this one being far more severe than the one two weeks prior. While I was lying on the gurney, the doctor asked me a whole host of questions as the nurse hooked up the EKG and checked my other vitals. One question he asked me repeatedly – confidentially, of course – was whether I had used any drugs recently: cocaine, speed, anything. After his examination, he determined that either I was a closet cocaine user in the midst of an overdose or withdrawals or something, or else there was “something seriously wrong” with me.[4]

Once my vitals dropped down into the normal range, the doctor sent me to get a bunch of blood tests done; the results all came back normal that following Monday.[5] There was nothing physiologically wrong with me, so the doctor figured that my symptoms were most likely anxiety-induced. Despite the doctor’s optimistic prognosis, I still felt horrible most of the time over the next several weeks. Determined to get to the bottom of things, I had a long series of doctors’ appointments with a variety of specialists. The neurologist was the first to put a real label on my condition and diagnosed me with “vertiginous migraines”; and prescribed an anti-anxiety medication for me that is also supposed to help prevent migraines.[6] The drug was marginally successful at the beginning, but I saw very little real improvement over the next couple of years. For the most part, I suffered migraines almost once a week and lived in constant fear of another panic attack.

Fast-forward about three years. My employer switched insurance carriers, forcing me to once again switch doctors. As my new doctor reviewed medications during my initial consultation with him, he asked me about the anti-anxiety medication my previous doctor had prescribed. He said this medication was for symptomatic treatment, not for prevention. Basically, it would be like taking an aspirin for the pain of a broken arm without setting or casting the broken arm. And since this medication was essentially a sedative, he said it was likely interfering with my sleep and actually worsening my sleep apnea as a result; he said it was likely putting me into too deep of a sleep, so my body probably wasn’t waking itself up when I stopped breathing, so my brain wasn’t getting enough oxygen and my body wasn’t getting enough rest. And it was a highly addictive narcotic.[7] In other words, I’d been taking the wrong medication for three years. He then prescribed a new medication for me and told me to wean myself off the old one.

That weekend, I began the “detox” process, which would last almost a month. I tried to go off of it gradually at first, but then decided to just go cold turkey. I wanted to get it out of my system as quickly as possible rather than dragging out the process.

The first two weeks were filled of nausea, dizziness, insomnia, tremors… it was pure hell. I lost over ten pounds from not eating. I couldn’t focus on my work, or anything else happening around me. I missed roughly three days of work. I slept a lot. I was stuck in a fog, disconnected from reality around me.

These initial symptoms began to subside after about two weeks; then the insomnia took over. I guess this makes sense since I had been taking a sedative every night for over three years. I had no trouble falling asleep; it was staying asleep that was difficult. I’d wake up every morning at about 4:00am – sometimes even earlier than that – and just lie there tossing and turning, trying not to wake up my wife until it was time to get up for work. I averaged maybe four hours of sleep each night, not nearly enough to get me through a full day of teaching. And the worst part was spending those early morning hours tossing and turning with Taylor Swift songs playing over and over and over in my head.

After the fog lifted and I was able to rejoin the land of the living, I began to reflect on this experience. I was – I am – a recovering drug addict. Me, Mr. Vanilla.[8] I was one of those kids who never, ever said, “I want to be a junky when I grow up.” And yet, here I was on the tail end of my recovery from a three-year addiction to a prescription narcotic. I am a recovering junky. Sure, mine wasn’t your run-of-the-mill drug-addict story: I wasn’t offered pot in the locker room. I didn’t fall in with the wrong crowd in high school, nor was I pressured into trying some pills at a party. I didn’t lose my house and job and family to my drug addiction. I was simply a young man desperate for relief from nearly debilitating anxiety that manifested itself in excruciating migraine headaches. And because of that desperation, I took the first pills offered to me by a neurologist who seemed to have little regard for the long-term consequences.

I never thought this would be a chapter in my white-as-Wonder-Bread story. I never imagined when I was younger that I’d be missing days of work, curled up in bed in fetal position, trying to sleep off the withdrawal symptoms of a full-blown detox. Likewise, I’m sure that in his younger years Ken Erdedy never thought he would be paralyzed by the sounds of the phone and doorbell ringing at the same time, unable to decide which one to answer for fear that the one he doesn’t answer is going to be the woman bringing him his drugs. I’m sure Don Gately never thought he’d be reduced to burglary to support his drug habit, or that he’d end up the victim of a gun battle outside a halfway house. And Tiny Ewell and Kate Gompert and Randy Lenz and Poor Tony Krause. I imagine none of them planned to end up where they did. No one plans this sort of thing. No one thinks it will happen to them. No one ever says… well, you know the rest.

And yet, here they… here we are. Recovering addicts taking it one day at a time.

[1] David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, 22.

[2] Even though we were less than a month into the new school year, I was already having a tough time. My teaching load was very demanding, and on the home front, my family and I had been relocated to an extended-stay hotel for a couple of weeks. We had to have work done on the stairwell and landing to our second-floor condo, making our unit inaccessible. So, yeah, I was under a little more stress than normal at the time.

[3] In addition to a second round of these physical symptoms, I was scared out of my skull.

[4] Looking back, I’ve realized that that is the worst thing a doctor could tell someone in the middle of a panic attack.

[5] The doctor didn’t tell me all of what he was testing for, which in hindsight was probably for the best. They were testing for some pretty scary shit, and I was already scared out of my mind. So telling me about the potentially life-threatening conditions he was testing for probably would have sent me completely over the edge.

[6] The stuff he prescribed was the one medication that a relative with anxiety issues warned me not to let my doctor put me on. Against my better judgment, I accepted the prescription any way. I was desperate for some sort of relief and was willing to try just about anything.

[7] My wife pointed out the irony that at the start of this, the doctor thought I was a drug addict based on my symptoms. But then to treat my symptoms, the doctors turned me into a drug addict.

[8] I don’t smoke or drink or chew, and I don’t go with girls that do.

Guest Post: W/R/T DFW

Blogger Here. Andrew Harrell shares his first encounter with David Foster Wallace, reading David Lipsky’s piece in Rolling Stone Magazine, “The Lost Years and Last Days of David Foster Wallace.”

Mr. Wallace,

I don’t know how the magazine made the trip, but Greg and I got from the Piedmont to the mountains in his brother’s tiny black Honda two-door. The drive was almost perfect.

Out of the eight or so times we thought we were lost, only once had we actually gone the wrong way, ending up in a cramped town with narrow, wavering streets and a terrible pervading smell coming from the paper mill. For half an hour we drove in circles, looking for someone to ask for directions, only to find the town deserted. Eventually we were attracted by bright lights in the distance, and found the entire town leaving a high school football game. At another point in the journey, while searching for a grocery store to purchase s’mores supplies, an Ingles Market seemed to materialize in front of us out of nothing.

We drove in shifts of about two hours. The little thing handled like a dream. Or, at least, it handled like a dream compared to my car, which has inches of dead space to push through if you want to apply the brakes.

As a driver, Greg scared the shit out of me. His mind is never fully on the road, and he always leans on the gas too much, to the tune of, like, 20 mph too much. So I turned the tables while I could, ignoring the decreasing visibility and increasingly winding roads, taking turns too fast and throwing Greg against the passenger side door.

It was October or November and I was a sophomore in college. Greg was a freshman and for fall break we were headed to a family friend’s cabin, where my girlfriend and half a dozen or so others were already playing beer pong and flip cup. Greg and I listened to the new Keane album off of my iPod and edited a speech he had to give for some student organization or another when he returned. When it came to language and writing, this was an insanely exciting and formative time in both our lives. We’d both heard from teachers and peers that we were good with words. But now we were realizing that we wanted to be better. We were realizing that there is power behind words, that they are something you can be passionate about. The speech probably suffered from severe over-editing.

Unmarked from the road, the secluded cabin was nestled at the bottom of a steep hill and accessible only through a subtle gap in the guardrail. Even with all our cars, the front lawn was huge—acceptable ultimate Frisbee space, if that gives you any sense. A trail led to a nearby stream.

The drive there turned out to be the best part of the trip.

I was not much of a partier. At this point in my life I was able to count on my fingers the times I’d been drunk or high. I normally had trouble interacting with others, let alone when one or both of us in an altered state of mind. So when the weed and the booze came out, I was a little uncomfortable. The feeling was compounded over the next few days by cramped living quarters and too little food. I had a fight with my girlfriend, and she went off to get high with some of the others. I was left alone—at least, I felt alone, there might have been others half asleep in armchairs nearby—in the cabin.

A magazine was on the wooden coffee table.

Soon-to-be-president Barack Obama was on the cover, his tie the same red as the Rolling Stone logo. The headline level with Obama’s smiling eyes read: “DEATH OF A GENIUS: The Tragic Last Days Of David Foster Wallace.” I was in the mood for death and tragedy.

Not to mention my curiosity was piqued; what made you such a genius? I’d never heard of you. I expected an article dominated by technical explanations of the work done by a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. Maybe some small, amateur pictures of guys with pocket protectors in their garage laboratory.

The first picture took up an entire page. You didn’t look like a physicist. You looked like a college slacker. Bangs in your eyes. And is that a Basquiat shirt?[1]

The opposite page called you “the greatest writer of his generation—and also its most tormented.” I was in the mood for torment.

Being in the mood for death, tragedy and torment does not always leave one in the mood for close reading, however. I only skimmed the article, reading enough to glean that you were a great writer, that you liked tennis and you loved dogs, that you committed suicide and that I had never heard of you or your work. The pictures, though, I examined closely.
There was something endearing about your rugged figure that reached out of those glossy pages. The long hair, the stubble with a lopsided shot of gray, the silly bandanna, the kind eyes. Glasses. Full lips like mine. How different you looked from picture to picture, which makes sense now but didn’t right then—it seemed like I was looking at different men, and maybe in a small way I was. You didn’t look like a fiction writer; you looked like a fiction character. It was the fall of 2008, so maybe in a not so small way you already were.

What I did read start to finish was a sidebar about a movie adaptation of one of your books. The blurb caught my eye because it said the actor John Krasinski was directing and producing the film.[2]  I was intrigued, and eventually I bought a paperback copy of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. It wasn’t until summer 2009 that I read the book of short stories at the beach.[3]  It was difficult, funny and strange. And, for the most part, way over my head. I enjoyed the style and I recognized the writing as brilliant. But sometimes I didn’t really know what was going on. And I definitely struggled with the fact that I didn’t know what it meant. Krasinski’s adaptation turned out to be a great thing for me, because it spelled things out with Hollywood simplicity—or, at least, spelled out one interpretation of the stories.

Overall, though, your collection left me impressed but uninspired. The paperback made it onto my shelf of favorite books, partly out of respect and partly because of that cool cover,[4] but, largely, you were put out of my mind. I probably went and reread Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close for the fourth time.

Months later, I was in the bookstore with a gift card burning a hole in my pocket. At the time I had no author or book I was itching to read. I was just browsing. A beautiful cover caught my eye, which is enough to make me want a book, even if I know I won’t like it. It was white and textured, with an illustration of a yellow cockatiel reflected upside down in an ornate hand mirror. The name David Foster Wallace was on the cover. I remembered my mixed reaction to reading you the last time, but it was a beautiful book, and the name recognition justified the purchase.

I began reading The Broom of the System as soon as I got home, and even though I knew nothing about Wittgenstein or postmodernism, it made perfect sense. Words had never felt so real to me. I realized you might not be as dead as Rolling Stone claimed.

In some sick way, did your leaving bring you closer to more people than ever before? I guess so.

Did your private struggle turn you into a public figure you didn’t want to be? I don’t know. Would I even be aware of you if you hadn’t ended things on your own terms? I don’t know.

What I do know, Mr. Wallace, is that you wrote and read at least in part to be a little less lonely. Evidently, for you the battle against loneliness didn’t only play out between covers.

The important thing to me isn’t if you won or lost that battle with loneliness. What’s important to me is that you were the only one who figured out what we’re fighting against.

Thanks for letting us know. Thanks for the company.


Andrew Harrell is from North Carolina and has written for sites such as Thought Catalog, Knews Corp and The Daily Heel. He is building a wiki to serve as a reference guide for The Broom of the System.

[1] Do they even make Basquiat shirts? Is it some kind statement on or counter piece to Keith Haring’s commercial stuff?[back]

[2] I had recently watched the entire first four seasons of The Office—which stars Krasinski—in the span of a week. My grades suffered appropriately.[back]

[3] At the beach, in a house looking out onto the sound, not literally on the beach. The combination of suntan lotion and folding chairs and David Foster Wallace is a little absurd.[back]

[4] To me, those black and burgundy horizontal stripes look damn good on a bookshelf.[back]