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January 9, 2011

David Foster Wallace



I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: It takes every bit as much concentration, dedication, and perspiration for a mediocre writer to churn out a mediocre book as it does for a great writer to produce a great one.

I’ve already used up considerable space on this site fawning over the great, climactic scene in Ed Wood wherein the title character has a random (and presumably fictional) encounter with his idol, Orson Welles. One may be the worst American film director of all time and the other the best, but, both being equally dedicated to their craft, they quickly bond and find themselves nodding in agreement on the frustrations of filmmaking and the difficulty of remaining true to one’s vision.

In much the same way, even a writer of my ilk can find himself identifying powerfully with the musings of, say, a David Foster Wallace. Not in the type of face-to-face encounter depicted in Ed Wood, mind you. That would be rather groty, given that one of us has been dead for over two years. But I experienced the closest thing possible to such an encounter with the author of InfiniteJest recently when Tom Scocca vomited forth the entire transcript of a fascinating telephone interview that he conducted with a very much alive Wallace back in 1998.

A good portion of the questions deal with then-recent forays by Wallace, theretofore purely a fiction writer, into nonfiction magazine writing. Let me share with you some of the thoughts of the Great Writer that had this mediocre one nodding aerobically.

On the Nonfiction-ness of Nonfiction

Discussing his first nonfiction magazine assignment, Wallace said:

“The first one I did was…about playing tennis as a Midwesterner. Where I had some shit that was, like, impressionistic, and I didn’t know, and I’d never dealt with a fact-checker before. And they’re like, ‘We discovered there is no yacht and tennis club in Aurora, Illinois, what are we to do?’ And I was like, oh, God. So after that I just started to take better notes and be willing to back stuff up. The thing is, really…you hire a fiction writer to do nonfiction, there’s going to be the occasional bit of embellishment.”

My reaction: I’ve rambled on and on about the fiction/nonfiction distinction and spent far too much time lambasting certain prominent memoirists for their insistence on labeling as nonfiction works that clearly don’t meet that standard. (And cataloguing my own failings in that regard, too.) But you know what? I can live with Wallace’s attitude. He clearly has a healthy sense of shame about playing fast and loose with facts. And when he speaks of “embellishments,” he evidently means embellishments: fairly innocuous bits of mortar added to hold a story together, as it were, as opposed to, say, a writer claiming that he worked as a volunteer orderly in a mental institution at the age of thirteen when he knows full well that he never did any such thing, or someone claiming that a psychiatrist’s children invited him to play with their dad’s electro-shock therapy machine when he knows full well that nothing like that ever happened

On Writing Dialogue in Nonfiction

“Not to mention the fact that, like, when people tell you stuff, very often it comes out real stilted--if you just write down exactly what they said. And so you sort of have to rewrite it to sound more out-loud, which I think means putting in some ‘likes’ or taking out some punctuation that the person might originally have said. And I really don’t make apologies for that.”

Nor need he, I would think. I wrestled with the same problem right from the get-go of my first book. Nearly all conversations in How To Pick Up Japanese Chicks And Doom Your Immortal Soul involve one person trying to speak a language that he/she has not mastered, so an accurate reproduction of the raw, real dialogue would be quite agonizing for the reader to plow through. In a footnote, I explained early on that I intended to capture the spirit of what I remember people saying rather than the letter. I’ve cited the impossibility of recreating ancient conversations accurately as one of the reasons that I always label my books fiction though they are written essentially as memoirs.

Again, for me, the key point is that Wallace understands that dialogue-alteration is a dodgy issue, one where the writer needs to be honest with his/her readers. Ah, if only everyone in the game felt that way…

On Hurting the People You Portray

With regard to a piece Wallace wrote for Esquire about a cruise ship, Scocca asks, “Have you heard back from the people that you’re writing about? Trudy especially comes to mind, who you described as looking like—”

Here Wallace groans and responds, “That was a very bad scene, because they were really nice to me on the cruise. And actually sent me a couple cards, and were looking forward to the [Esquire article] coming out. And then it came out and, you know, I never heard from them again. I feel—I’m worried that it hurt their feelings… You know, saying that somebody looks like Jackie Gleason in drag, it might not be very nice, but if you just, if you could have seen her, it was true. It was just absolutely true. And so it’s one reason why I don’t do a lot of these, is there’s a real delicate balance between fucking somebody over and telling the truth to the reader… I was going to tell the truth. And I couldn’t just so worry about Trudy’s feelings that I couldn’t say the truth—which is, you know, a terrific, really nice, and not unattractive lady who did happen to look just like Jackie Gleason in drag.”

This is where I began nodding as vigorously as a crash test dummy at the moment of impact. No one who (a) writes autobiographical nonfiction and (b) (unlike certain writers) has a soul can avoid the type of guilt that Wallace describes here. Inevitably, in the course of telling a true story, you are going to describe people in ways that they don’t wish to be described, and perhaps relate incidents from their lives that they do not wish to have recounted—not to themselves in private, and certainly not to the world at large.

As Wallace implies, the choice really comes down to (a) committing occasional acts of cruelty against people who don’t deserve it, or (b) just pulling a Palin and calling it quits. One recalls Lenin’s famous remark on the relationship between omelet-making and egg-breaking. It’s a problem that I wrestle with all the time. In both my currently available books I give intimate details about old paramours that I’m sure they would prefer were left unsaid. I’ve never described anyone as looking like Jackie Gleason in drag, if only because I’m not that good a writer; but I have described an old friend as resembling a desiccated walrus; and in my upcoming book, I recount quite possibly the worst day in the life of one of my high school classmates—when his ineptitude single-handedly torpedoed a drama performance—while describing his face as being “particularly well-suited to masked roles.”

One does what one can to soften the blow. I use fake-naming. (It’s not clear whether or not Wallace did so.) I also fake-name myself, mainly out of general cowardice, but also to afford my subjects an added layer of privacy. While proofing, I try to put myself in the position of the people that I describe in unflattering ways, imagining how I would react if I stumbled upon such a passage about myself. I also try to imagine what that person might write about me if inclined to seek revenge. These exercises can boost a writer's empathy, and yet one can never quite make one's peace with something like this. Small wonder so many of us go off and hang ourselves.

On Persona (or Voice)

Asked to what extent he deliberately crafted the Wallace persona that emerges in his magazine pieces, Wallace said:

“…The first four or five [pieces]… I don’t think there was really any persona there at all… By the end…I began to kind of hear that voice in my head that I thought of as the nonfiction shtick voice. I don’t think I particularly like the idea of having a persona in nonfiction. I think it’s basically the heart of fiction, but I don’t really like that idea in nonfiction… And that might be another reason to cut it out for a while. The natural hope is that if you don’t write any more nonfiction for four or five years, you’ll sort of be a different person, and that voice and sensibility will be different by the time you go back to it. With any luck.”

These remarks, I must admit, left me a little befuddled. My nodding slowed and then stopped here. If I understand Wallace correctly, he is saying that finding a singular voice is a bad thing for a nonfiction writer—an impediment, even. A thing to be decried as “shtick.”

For me, I think the major reason why I've spent so much of my adult life wandering in the unpublished wilderness (ten years between my college newspaper column and my run of magazine pieces; another lost decade between the last magazine feature and my first book) is that it took me so long to find the right voice—or persona—or, if you must, shtick.

Like most writers (or so I imagined until I read this interview), I have a writerly persona that speaks in a somewhat different manner from the way that I talk and write when interacting with people in everyday life. This voice isn’t an affectation or artificial creation, but rather an enlargement of one aspect of my personality. When I sit down to work on a book, or on most of these blog posts, I consciously push myself into what I call “Josh mode.” [Note: I’m not in that mode at the moment.]

Wallace seems to believe that the nonfiction writer shouldn’t have this sort of single, consistent mode. I’ve re-read this part of the interview four times now, hoping that I’ll understand just why he thinks so, but frankly, I still can’t quite get it. Pity that there will never be an opportunity to ask him to clarify, for he comes across in this long interview as the type of chap who, if you caught him on an up day, would be as happy to exchange views with an inferior talent as the Orson Welles of Ed Wood.