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: Is “The Entertainment” on the horizon?

Watching TV last night, I was dumbstruck by this commercial for “The Hopper,” a DVR device and service that allows viewers to record up to 2000 hours of programming. 2000 hours! That’s 83 days’ – almost two full months – worth of viewing.

Wallace imagined a video so enthralling that the viewer couldn’t take his/her eyes off of it and would literally die from The Entertainment. With this new device, we don’t need some highly addictive video to keep our eyes glued to the screen. Instead we can watch whatever we want. For 2000 hours.

Are we one step closer to truly entertaining ourselves to death?

I lived Chapter 25, or I served as an AP exam reader

I have a new deeply felt appreciation for the term “mind-numbing boredom.”

About six months ago, I received word that my application to be an AP exam reader had been accepted, and I shortly thereafter booked my flight and hotel for the weeklong reading in Louisville, Kentucky. Then a few weeks ago, as my school year came to an end and before the ink on the diplomas was even dry, I was on a plane to Louisville.

We began at precisely 0800h in an enormous conference room subdivided into three separate reading rooms. Each reading room went through an extensive calibration process: reviewing the essay rubrics, reading and discussing sample essays, reading and discussing more sample essays until all 3000 readers were on the same page, so to speak, capable of giving an accurate score to each essay they would read. Ready for the task of scoring some 440,000 exams.

Approximately forty tables filled each reading room. Five rows of eight tables each. Eight readers and a Table Leader at each table. Several number two pencils and a College Board-approved eraser at each reader’s spot. Three or four candy dishes in the middle of each table filled with M&M’s or Starbursts or Red Vine Licorice. The Question Leader sat alone at a table on an elevated platform at the front of the room.  No clocks anywhere in the entire room.

E– turned a page. A– raised her folder in the air to get the attention of a aide to bring her a new folder. V– stood to stretch her legs while opening a new test booklet. I bubbled in a score. A– reader at another table coughed loudly.  A yawn proceeds across one row by unconscious influence.  T– flagged a booklet with a sticky note for the Table Leader to double check. F– turned a page. E– turned a page. A– grabbed a handful of M&M’s from the bowl in the middle of the table. F– sniffed loudly, attempting to clear her plugged sinuses. T– turned a page. V– bubbled in a score. I turned a page. The Table Leader brought a booklet back to T– to discuss the essay in question.  Ambient room temperature 62° F. F– put on her sweater and zipped it all the way up.  A– turned a page. V– sat back down.  Most sit up straight but lean forward at the waist, which reduces neck fatigue.  A scooting chair echoed through the room.

The Question Leader sounded his duck call to get our attention. “Good work. Enjoy your break. Be back in 15 minutes.”

Long lines formed at the coffee stations and at the restrooms.

The duck call summoned everybody back to the table to work. T– turned a page. F– turned a page. E– reached down for her water bottle on the floor.  The slow squeak of the cart boy’s cart at the back of the room. V– turned a page. I raised my folder in the air to trade with an aide for a new one. V– cleared her throat.  Some with their chin in their hand.  A– turned a page. T– bubbled in a score. E– turned a page. A sneeze could be heard from some far corner of the room. F– raised her folder.  Exterior temperature/humidity 96°/74%.  The Table Leader took an essay booklet to the Question Leader for a second opinion. F– turned a page. I bubbled in a score.

Every love story is a ghost story.

Seven days, eight hours each day. A fifteen minute break in the morning. An hour for lunch. Another fifteen minute break in the afternoon. Fifty-six hours of reading and scoring essays. Some 900+ essays were placed in front of me.

Nearly eight hours in the air and over two hours of layovers to get home. Screaming children on the plane with over-indulging parents. Congested freeways made the drive home longer than it should have been.

And I eagerly await for my invitation to return next year.

2011 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,800 times in 2011. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Two Years and Counting…

It was just over two and a half years ago that my wife first handed me a copy of “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” saying “here, I think you’ll like this.”  I loved it.  And thus, my life has not been the same since.

About this time two years ago my wife and I sat on our couch watching Nora Ephron’s Julie and Julia, the film that inspired me to begin this blog.  And once again, my life took a turn in an unexpected direction.

Two years into this project, I am far from completing my goal of reading and blogging my way through Wallace’s entire canon.  To date, I’ve only finished Consider the Lobster, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, The Pale King, and David Lipsky’s transcription of his week-long interview with Wallace, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.  In addition, I’ve written about a number of uncollected pieces ranging from short stories published in the New Yorker to his syllabus for and Intro to Fiction class.

This writing endeavor has been all I’d hoped for and beyond anything I could have imagined.  I started this blog needing focus and discipline in my writing.  Working toward a tangible goal has helped me gain those things, as well has helped me in shaping and developing my written voice.  In studying Wallace and emulating his style and voice, I have begun to find my own.

But this journey has been so much more.  It has opened up a world to me previously unknown.  Because of this blog I stumbled upon the Wallace-l community, making many friends and engaging in wonderful conversation.  For a time, I helped run the group blog, Supposedly Fun Things…, experiencing the ironies and absurdities of life with some of my fellow writers.  And I was able to meet several listers in person for the first time at The Pale King release party at Skylight Books in Hollywood.

Writing this blog has given me opportunities I never thought I’d be afforded.  Last spring, I was approached about participating in an online tribute to Wallace on Broadcastr.com commemorating the release of The Pale King.  Shortly after this, I saw a post on Wallace-l requesting proposals for an academic conference focusing on The Pale King hosted by the University of Antwerp.  It’s amazing what 500 words can do.  My proposal was accepted, and a couple months later I was on a flight to Belgium to join some of the greatest scholars in the field of Wallace studies as we blazed the trail for discussion and criticism of Wallace’s final novel.

While in Antwerp I was inspired to take my studies of Wallace’s works in a new direction.  A number of the presenters alluded to the religious, and specifically Christian, themes in TPK and others of Wallace’s novels.  This was something I need to pursue further, and thus begins a new direction and focus in my blogging endeavors here.  In order to write about these themes in his writing, I need to read and ponder the rest of his canon.

So with the new year just a few weeks away, I am renewing my commitment to see this project through to its completion.  I want to turn this new train of thought into a book one day – The Gospel According to David Foster Wallace – and I will be diligent to finish this blog with that end in mind.

I still can’t believe where this blog has taken me, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.

… And I invite you to continue this journey with me.

New Essay on Supposedly Fun Things…

Diego Baez wrote a great essay about enduring adjunct faculty new-hire orientation at a local community college. Check it out at:
http://supposedlyfunthings.wordpress.com

New Essays on Supposedly Fun Things…

We have received several new submissions for Supposedly Fun Things… Matt Sorrento Williams wrote a piece about attending his first punk rock show in nearly a decade. Richard Stock wrote about meeting an international dignitary at a Lions Club event in Prague. George Carr offered his thoughts on online gaming. And I wrote my second essay for the blog, this time about serving jury duty.

You can find all these great essays at Supposedly Fun Things…

Although I have been busy writing for and hosting Supposedly Fun Things…, I am not neglecting the Letters project.  I am working on a Letter in response to Brief Interview #42 and should have it posted this weekend.