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.

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Interpolation: Why Writers Need to be Good Readers

This post is sponsored by Grammarly. I tried Grammarly’s grammar check free of charge because every time someone splits an infinitive, an angel in heaven sheds a tear.

As a professional educator, there is nothing I enjoy more than sitting around a table with my colleagues analyzing assessment data.  What often happens after about an hour of pouring over numbers and charts and graphs is that I begin to question everything I do as a teacher.  I feel this sense of guilt and failure that, even though I set the school record a few years back for the number of students to pass a single AP exam, a large number of my students still don’t know how to attach a subordinate clause properly to an independent clause.

The Many Hats of an English Teacher

A while back, I once again found myself in the annual ritual of sitting at a table with my fellow English teachers, staring at the latest testing data, which – on the one hand – was very encouraging: we are doing a lot of things really well to prepare our students for college.  But looking at the areas for growth brought up a lot of questions about what we teach and how we teach it.

See, part of the problem is that the job of a high school English teacher is really about eight jobs in one.  We are commissioned to teach critical reading, writing, vocabulary, grammar, literary analysis, public speaking, critical thinking, and rhetoric; so it is a constant juggling act.  How do you focus more time and energy on grammar without cutting out poetry?  Or how do you build students’ vocabulary without sacrificing a classic novel?

It boils down to the never-ending tug-of-war between teaching the art and science of the English language.  Most of us English teachers became English teachers because we love literature and want to inspire that same passion in our students.  But the reality is that we have to equip them with the reading and writing skills they will need to be successful in college and beyond.  Pragmatism would say have them read Huck Finn and Hamlet and a few Emily Dickinson poems, and spend the rest of the time on syllogisms and comma splices.

More than just Pragmatism

But we need to read good literature and we need to teach the next generation to do the same.  Yes, I know that the vast majority of my non-English-teaching colleagues and most of my students won’t ever need to know the symbolism of the great Mississippi River in Huck Finn.  Nor are they likely to engage in an intelligent debate about whether Hamlet actually goes crazy or whether it’s all an act.  And they will probably never be tested on why Miss Dickinson capitalizes seemingly random words throughout her poems.  Outside of an appearance on Jeopardy!, most of this knowledge will have little consequence in their “real world” lives.

Why We Need Good Fiction

But we need to read good literature, for a reason far more important than its “real world” application.  David Foster Wallace, author of the postmodern epic novel Infinite Jest and recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Award, once said, “Fiction is about what it means to be a f***ing human being.”  See, it is through storytelling that we make sense of the human experience.  Ideas like love or heroism or betrayal are too vague and abstract by themselves; they seem just out of reach of our comprehension.  But illustrated through a story, these intangible concepts suddenly become much easier to grab ahold of.

This is nothing new; all throughout history, people of every tribe and nation have told stories to try to understand who we are and why we are here, to give meaning to our otherwise hollow existence.  Ancient civilizations told stories to explain the natural phenomena they witnessed on a daily, seasonally, or yearly basis.  Most all of the world’s major religions use narratives to describe the creation of our world, man’s relationship to his god, and – for many faiths – how it all will one day end.  Even today, we continue to rely on the writing and telling and reading of stories to help us make sense of this thing we call life.

Good Writers Must Be Good Readers

So while reading and discussing the great works of literature may have little bearing on test scores and may not help a young person succeed in college and may have little to do with their careers as adults, these great works of literature are essential to understanding ourselves and the world around us.  They help to provide us with meaning and purpose; they give us a unique lens through which to see ourselves.  They are an indispensable piece of the human experience, one we cannot live without.

It’s not you, it’s me.

Dear Dave,

I think I need a break. I’ve spent the past three years reading your stuff almost exclusively. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved it. Your writing has opened up new worlds to me and allowed me to see things in an entirely new light. I’ll never be the same because of it.

But I need to take a break. Not a long one. Maybe just a month or two or three. I’ve got a huge stack of books people have told me I need to read. And I am pretty backlogged in my own writing.

So I’m going to take a break from my blog. I may post something now or then if the spirit moves me. Or I might open it up to guest posts again (that went really well last time).

This isn’t goodbye; it’s just see you later. It’s not you, it’s me.

I’ll be back… in a little while.

 

And the winner is…

I am so excited to see the response to my earlier post, “An Occasion in which I Give Away My Extra Copy of ‘Conversations with David Foster Wallace.'” I loved reading all the quotes. Many brought back wonderful memories of reading Wallace’s stories and essays and interviews. Others I had never read before, and I can’t wait to read them in context. I know it’s cliche, but it was very difficult to pick a winner.

But alas, a winner must be chosen. The winner of the first Letters to DFW give-away is:

Mike

The winning quote is:

“There on the table, neither frozen nor yet moving, Lane Dean, Jr., sees all this, and is moved with pity, and also with something more, something without any name he knows, that is given to him in the form of a question that never once in all the long week’s thinking and division had even so much as occurred – why is he so sure he doesn’t love her? Why is one kind of love and different? What if he has no earthly idea what love is?”

Congratulations, Mike! I hope you enjoy the book.

An Occasion in which I Give Away My Extra Copy of “Conversations with David Foster Wallace”

Blogger Here. So due to a shipping error, I ended up with two copies of both “Conversations with David Foster Wallace” and “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story.” I gave the extra copy of the biography to a coworker – my first “convert” to Wallace’s writing. Since my bookshelf only allows for one copy of each of Wallace’s books, I thought I would have my first ever give away here on Letters to DFW.

So if you would like a free copy of “Conversations with David Foster Wallace,” a collection of interviews with Wallace edited by Dr. Stephen Burn, here’s what you need to do:

1. Click on the “Subscribe” button on the home page. This will sign you up to receive email notifications whenever I post a new Letter (it will also give me your email address so that I can contact you if you are the winner). Don’t worry, I won’t spam you with Viagra ads and I wouldn’t know how to give your contact info to a third party if I wanted to.

2. In a Comment below, write your favorite DFW quote. It could be a line from your favorite book; it could be from one of his interviews; it could be something recorded in the biography. But his two most famous quotes, “This is Water” and “Fiction is about what it means to be a f***ing human being” are not allowed. The more obscure the better.

3. Next Monday (September 17) I will choose a winner. I will announce it here on Letters, and contact the winner via email to make arrangements for shipping the book to you.

No cost to you, other than your permission to send you email updates when I post each new Letter.

I look forward to reading lots of great quotes, so bring it on.

An interesting article that poses lots of questions

This article was posted today on Wallace-l and really struck a chord with me. This topic of Wallace and religion has been simmering for me for quite awhile. Faith and religion, particularly Christianity, are important themes in much of Wallace’s work; although he seems to ask a lot more questions than he attempts to answer. As I continue to read my way through his canon, and as I anxiously await Max’s biography, it is a topic that I think is an important one and I hope to continue to explore it.

What are your thoughts? What role do you see faith, religion, and Christianity playing in Wallace’s writing? What do we know about the role of faith in his own life?

Follow this link, read the article, then share your thoughts.

Interpolation: “Infinite Boston”

I first saw some chatter about this site on Wallace-l a few weeks ago, but in the busyness of my schedule, I didn’t have a chance to take a look despite my curiosity.  With a few spare moments as my kids watch Disney Channel sit-com reruns, I finally have the chance to check it out.

As I am a couple of months into my own “Infinite Summer,” reading IJ for the first time, I love what Bill Beutler has done here.  It’s a wonderful pictorial companion to many of the Boston-area locations described in the novel.  His written descriptions and analysis easily match the aesthetic beauty of the photos.

I am only about a third of the way through the behemoth novel, so I didn’t want to read Bill’s commentary too closely, but I will certainly visit the site to read more carefully once I’ve finished.  For now, I pass it on to you, my readers.  Enjoy this wonderful pictorial project.

Click Here to visit INFINITE BOSTON.