Five Years and Counting

A couple of months ago, I downloaded the Time Hop app, which provides a daily trip down memory lane. I get to relive so many good days, as well as some bad ones. It’s so interesting to see where life has taken me through the past five years.

Perhaps some of my fondest memories are of this blog and the many incredible opportunities it has opened up for me. Since first being introduced to the writings of David Foster Wallace and beginning this blog, I have experienced the following:

I have published over 100 posts in response to DFW’s stories and essays.

This blog has been visited over 47,000 times.

I was introduced to the Wallace-l community, finding friends and collaborators within the group.

I travelled over 7000 miles to present a paper at the Work in Process conference hosted by the University of Antwerp.

I got my first tattoo while on that trip to Belgium.

I published a collection of footnote-laden essays inspired the creative nonfiction of DFW.

I presented two works at the first annual DFW Conference at Illinois State University.

One of those works, “Reimagining Wallace” was selected as a Featured Presentation.

Both of those works will be featured in an anthology of presentations to be published by ISU.

After my “Reimagining Wallace” presentation, I started my “Infinite Legos” project, creating scenes from IJ in Lego.

I am in awe of all that has taken place over these five years, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store.

Thanks, Dave, for opening my eyes and for opening up so many doors. I owe you one.

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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.

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.

Is this the end?

Several months ago, I decided to take a hiatus from this blog to focus on several other projects: I had a book to finish writing. I had to wrap up the school year and prepare my students for their AP exams. I had a brand new online creative writing class to maintain. And I had to look for a new full-time job. The last seven months have been incredibly busy, so I simply have not had the time to devote to this blog.

Well, that was January and now it is August. I finished my book and will be publishing it very soon. The school year is over, AP scores are in, and I have enjoyed a wonderful summer vacation with my family. The creative writing class finished well and I am looking forward to teaching it again in the fall. And I am very excited about starting my new teaching job in a little over a week.

So, in the midst of taking care of these time-consuming yet very fruitful endeavors, I have had the time to reflect on things. I have thought about what to do with this blog. I began this blog three years ago to give me some much-needed discipline in my writing and to try to find my voice. And to read and learn from one of the most incredible writers I have ever encountered, Mr. David Foster Wallace.

Over these years, I have grown so much as a writer. I have learned the discipline of setting goals and working toward those goals even when it isn’t fun or exciting or sexy. I have found my voice and learned the glorious art of footnotes. And I have enjoyed reading some of the most wonderfully beautiful and difficult literature I’ve ever read.

So, I guess you could say that even though I have not completed the task of reading and blogging my way through DFW’s entire canon, I have gained so much from this experience. It has opened up worlds to me that I never knew existed. It has introduced me to amazing people that I would have never met otherwise. Hell, it got me all the way to Antwerp and back. In-freakin’-credible.

But I also feel it is time to move on to other things. I will finish reading the rest of Wallace’s books and uncollected works. I will continue to participate in the discussion on Wallace-l and in other places. I will keep teaching Wallace’s works in my classes. But I think I need to do other things with my writing. I have ideas for three or four books simmering, one of them being the “Gospel according to DFW” that I have wanted to write ever since returning from Antwerp. So for the foreseeable future I will be devoting my time to those projects and put this one on hold indefinitely.

So thanks, Dave, for all that you’ve taught me and for all the opportunities your writing has given me. It’s been great.

Some Thoughts on Reading and Writing Fiction

Blogger Here. I recently began teaching an online creative writing class. In the first unit I share my philosophy of fiction with my students. Below is that “lecture” I posted to the class website:

Why do we tell stories?

Storytelling has been a part of the human experience for as long as men and women have walked this planet. From the earliest of civilizations to today, we have related to each other by telling each other stories. But why?

American author David Foster Wallace once said, “Fiction is about what it means to be a f***ing human being.”

Writer and Professor Thomas C Foster said, “I suppose what the one story, the ur-story, is about is ourselves, about what it means to be human.  I mean, what else is there?”

Tom Clancy said this: “The difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.”

Author and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.”

And Francis Bacon once said, “Truth is so hard to tell, it sometimes needs fiction to make it plausible.”

Fiction helps us make sense of the human experience.

As these writers have articulated so well, storytelling helps us better understand the world around us. It always has. Ancient societies used stories to explain natural phenomena that they witnessed on a daily or even yearly basis. They saw a large, bright light come up in the east every morning and go down in the west each evening. To explain this, they attributed what they observed to some god or divine being. If their crops failed one year, they concocted a story about how they had upset one of their gods. All these stories they told themselves, over time, were codified as myths and legends that are now only told in ancient history or classical literature courses.

Additionally, storytelling is an essential component to our religious experiences. Every major religion’s holy texts are based around stories of how men on earth relate to their gods in heaven. These narratives explain how we got here, how we are to live our lives, and how the world will one day end.

Stories make the abstract concrete.

Just as stories help us make sense of that which we can’t comprehend – like unexplainable natural phenomena or religious principles – they also help us better grasp the abstract and theoretical aspects of life. Love. Betrayal. Jealousy. Grief. How do you explain these feelings to those who have never experienced them? Through a story. A well-told story gives flesh and blood – so to speak – to these otherwise intangible concepts.

Fiction gives us a safe, vicarious experience of feelings that are foreign to us. We can fall in love, be a hero, or grieve a loss without actually risking anything, without running the risk of actually getting hurt. Fiction provides us a safe, sterile laboratory for probing the depths of the human experience.

Stories help us relate to others.

British scholar and author CS Lewis said, “We read to know we’re not alone.”

David Foster Wallace once said, “I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a ‘generalization’ of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might also then more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside.”

There is no way we can truly understand or experience the feelings of another person. And the opposite is true: no one else will ever truly understand what we feel. We can imagine another’s feelings, or assume their feelings are similar to our own, but as Wallace says, “true empathy’s impossible.”

But in the words of a story, we can see a character’s emotions, his suffering and pain or joy and elation. We experience what he experiences. And if we can understand the experiences of this character – even though he is the figment of a writer’s imagination – we can imagine that someone somewhere understands our emotions and experiences as well.

What will your verse be?

The great American poet, Walt Whitman, in a poem that asks the daunting question of what is the purpose and meaning of our existence, wrote, “The powerful play [this life] goes on and you will contribute a verse.”

As readers, we attempt to better understand ourselves and those around us by reading and experiencing the fictional lives of those who inhabit the pages of our favorite books. We read the verses they contribute to the powerful human drama.

As writers, we contribute to the great human story, in the words of Thomas C Foster, the “ur-story.” Through the writing process, we gain insight into the human condition and then share that with our readers, allowing them another glimpse into “what it means to be a f***ing human being.”

So what will you contribute? What will your verse be?

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, Letter 1

Dear Dave,

After reading Every Love Story is a Ghost Story,[1] I thought I would go back and blog my way through each chapter. But it was the quote from ‘Good Old Neon’ before the start of chapter 1 that caught my attention, begging me to respond. It reads:

“What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant.”

I’ve studied and taught language and literature for quite awhile now, and the more I do so, the more I am convinced that – as this quote alludes to – language simply fails to take us into the deepest depths of the human experience. The inner turmoil, the hurt feelings, the confusion. But also the joy, the elation, the rapture. So much of what we experience – whether physically or mentally or emotionally – goes beyond our ability to articulate those experiences. Our vocabulary can only take us so far; can only scratch the surface at best.

In the introduction to his Holocaust memoir, Nobel Laureate Elie Weisel recounts how language failed him in writing the horrors and atrocities of his story. He explains:

“I also knew that, while I had many things to say, I did not have the words to say them. Painfully aware of my limitations, I watched helplessly as language became an obstacle… All the dictionary had to offer seemed meager, pale, lifeless” (Night, ix).

Don’t get me wrong; I believe that language can be a powerful tool for expression. Like paint on a canvas or notes from an instrument, words can evoke strong feelings and passions.[2] No matter the form – narrative, poetry, whatever – there are incredible examples of what language is capable of. There are poets and novelists who can weave a wonderful tapestry to words that when we hear or read them, we proclaim, “I know exactly what that feels like.” There are those who can give words to thoughts and feelings when words escape us regular folk. They help us better understand “what it means to be a f***ing human being.”

But their words can only take us so far, “barely sketch[ing] the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given moment.” They bring us closer to understanding ourselves, but so much still remains an unknown mystery.


[1] It was a very fast and frantic read. DT Max agreed to do an interview here on Letters to DFW, and I needed to finish the book before we spoke. I’m working on writing up the interview and hope to post it soon.

By the way, we had a wonderful conversation. Max was extremely gracious and a pleasure to talk to. I only wish I had more time to ask him more questions.

[2] It wasn’t until after I started reading Wallace that I truly understood the meaning of the term “language arts.” In the introduction to a reading that he did at the Hammer Museum, he was called, “America’s most radical language artist,” and it just clicked.

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.