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 instance. (“Good Old Neon”)
Things I learned from this book:
- DFW was a David Lynch fan (Blue Velvet especially), loved The Matrix, hated Magnolia.
- Success, no matter in what amount, can never, ever, ever make you happy. Someone who seems like the most incredible person on paper (straight A’s in university, countless awards and fellowships, prestigious teaching posts with lots of time to write, a freaking GENIUS GRANT), can actually STILL feel as though this isn’t good enough.
- On that same note, what may or seem very productive to others will never seem or feel very productive to you. There is always someone else to compare yourself to. And relentless, merciless self-criticism is, like, best avoided if possible. So is paralyzing fear of failure. It’s just… not worth it. It’s not a happy way to live life. Why is it so easy to tell someone else “you’re being too hard on yourself!” (a message that Jonathan Franzen apparently frequently conveyed to DFW), and so difficult to tell that to yourself? Why can’t we be our own cheerleaders? What is it about our brains or cultures that makes this tricky? One passage that stood out to me about this theme was about how DFW never could fully commit to meditation, because it was so hard for him not to see it as just another class that he had to get an ‘A’ in. There’s a nice lesson there for us all…
- Even someone as successful as DFW had to teach in order to make money, and struggle with time management and erratic productivity. His short stories got rejected by publications a LOT (to be fair, they were publications like Atlantic, New Yorker, Paris Review, but still, he kept submitting). Other jobs he had to resort to in order to support himself (in the early ’90s, so after Broom of the System and Girl With Curious Hair): security guard, front desk person at gym (one time, this prestigious writer he met at Yaddo came in, and DFW ducked under the desk in shame). In terms of time management, here’s a sample schedule he once scribbled out:
What Balance Would Look Like
2-3 hours a day in writing
Up at 8-9
Only a couple late nights a week
Minimum time spent teaching
2 nights/week spent with other friends
5 [recovery meetings a] week
Doesn’t sound too bad, no?
Here’s another quote from a letter to Don DeLilo (mind you, this is at the height of his “success”):
Do you have like a daily writing routine? Do you set off certain intervals as all and only time for fiction writing? More important, do you then honor that daily obligation, day after day? Do you have difficulties with procrastination/avoidance/lack of discipline? If so, how do you overcome then? I ask because I’m frustrated not just with the slowness of my work but with the erratic pace I work at. And I ask you only because you seem at least on this end of the books, to be so steady… [I struggle with] the strain of daily self-starting and self-discipline and daily temptations to dick around and abandon the discipline. Any words or tips would be appreciated and kept in confidence.
DeLilo’s advice is that it gets easier but never easy: The novel is a fucking killer. I try to show it every respect. Thanks Don!
- Do not fuck around with your antidepressant medication.
- Elizabeth Wurtzel and DFW had a potential affair? (The book claims she changed her mind about sleeping with him at the last second.) And apparently the short story “The Depressed Person” was intended as a scathing attack on Wurtzel’s perceived narcissism?
- DFW’s addiction to TV was apparently a constant issue throughout his life. It makes you wonder if what TV was then (in the 80’s and 90’s) is what the Internet is now. Like, I don’t know anyone anymore who would watch TV for six hours a day (the national average that is quoted several times in the book), but I think the majority of people EASILY spend that much time on their computers. Would DFW have ever written about the Internet? At one point, after buying a new piece of computer equipment, DFW told his wife “Thank God I wasn’t raised in this era.” This was probably the most interesting section in the book to me, where the author discusses the Internet’s influence on Infinite Jest’s reception: “Paradoxically the Web made Infinite Jest an easier read. The cognitive jumps in its pages felt less extreme after a generation of Internet surfing and blogging than they had when the book was first published.” The fragmentary, jumpy nature of the book, the juxtaposition of random stories alongside each other, the feeling of jumping back and forth between different stories (which you can also physically do with the footnotes), its focus on our never-ending desire for ENTERTAIN ME ENTERTAIN ME FILL ME HELP ME AVOID THE VOID WITHIN–yup, Infinite Jest is totes prophetic.
- Books he was a fan of: Omensetter’s Luck, Jerzy Kosinski’s Steps, Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree. In terms of his own work, for a long time he was convinced that the long story in Girl With Curious Hair, “Westward the Course of the Empire Takes its Way,” was the best thing he’d ever written, and was extremely hurt when Jonathan Franzen didn’t agree.
- I was surprised by how much of his non-fiction essays were embellished/exaggerated for writerly effect, and yet were still “okay’d” by the magazines that published them.
- He liked teaching very simple undergraduate creative writing classes: the simpler the class, the lower the impact on his own creativity.
- The section about editing/rewriting Infinite Jest was fascinating. Apparently going over the copy-editor’s notes (who kept correcting grammar DFW had intended to be purposefully bad) was a hellish experience (yeah, imagine having to reread your own 1,100 page book OVER AND OVER again for grammar mistakes!). In terms of Jest’s unsatisfying ending that resolves absolutely nothing (a huge concern for his editor and agent), he struggled often between caring about the reader and caring that the reader cared about him: The crux, for me, is how to love the reader without believing that my art or worth depends on his (her) loving me. It’s just about that simple in the abstract. In practice it’s a daily fucking war. (203)
- What is up with the comparison to Kurt Cobain? (221) Specifically in terms of their similar dress code? That’s kind of weird. That’s the one thing that kind of bothered me about this book–when it got all hyperbolic and made all these sweeping generalizing statements (most uncomfortably in the introduction).
Overall, if DFW were still around I would point him in the direction of what I’m sure will be THE sing-along anthem at CTY this summer, the song beloved by painfully precocious perfectionist anxious depressed Gifted Children everywhere. And then I would give him a popsicle.