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.


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?

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:


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.


I reached the last page of DT Max’s biography of Wallace today, and a number of friends posted favorite pictures or quotes in memory of his passing four years ago today. I’ve posted an elegiac piece each of the last three years, but I feel like I’ve run out of things to say.

So instead I decided to post a picture that I think best captures my feelings on this 12th of September: my daughter’s ninth birthday and the anniversary of the death of a friend I’ve never actually met.

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]