I just finished reading Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, the biography of David Foster Wallace that came out last year. I read it faster than most any book in recent memory, even though I’m not in love with how it was written. I never read biographies and it was at once too journalistic and too incomplete. Despite the use of footnotes (either common in bios or a nod to the subject matter), the style of the book probably deliberately lacked the sprawling, expansive approach that DFW took to his own material. And as a result, the book has a quality of feeling like it’s laying its subject extremely bare. DFW looks stripped-down, sad, pathetic, even ruinous in this retrospective portrait. It also makes it clear that this was not a particularly likable, or good, man. For a literary hero of mine, he can hardly be considered a hero in other regards. His struggles were human and (to me) relatable, but his behavior was frequently reprehensible and his relationship with life and others seems altogether willfully misanthropic. Perhaps most frustratingly, there was decidedly little on the last couple years of his life, the main thing I sought from said biography, still reeling from the absence of info I lamented four days after his death in 2008.
What the book did do, other than make me feel like DFW is decidedly less deserving of respect than previously hoped, is remind me of the urgency of my own writing life. It’s never far from my mind in general, but the period of time since my divorce has been so devoid of inspiration or motivation to write that it’s been like a thick layer of snow has fallen between myself and the searing parts of my desire to put thoughts into words. It’s explicable and reasonable that this winter has fallen, perhaps even that it’s lasted nearly three full years. And coming after the most productive year of my life in writing is both enabling of self-forgiveness (I can take it easy, I’ve done so much recently), but also extra tragic in the wake of feeling like I’d finally figured out and mastered how to write quickly, frequently, and with energy. And of course this resurrects the same guilt-cycles shared by both my protagonist in American Dream On and, apparently, good old Wallace himself, for not pursuing publication basically at all in the last three years, years during which the relevance of both 2009-2010 novels has, if anything, seemingly increased.
The point is that, facing the two months off I have built into my schedule, I’m at a bit of a crossroads. Part of me wants to buckle down and try to churn out most of a novel – I don’t really believe I could do a whole one in such short order, especially when essentially four of the nine or ten allotted weeks are booked with travel. But the other part of me wants to relax, have fun, take it easy, restore energy for the coming year of debate after the easily most exhausting annum on the personal record in my four at Rutgers. And the best idea seems to split the difference, to dabble on BP projects, sending out the last two novels to prospective publishing opportunities, and maybe wade into what the fourth novel would look like. It’s not going to be Project X (last discussed, sadly, in May 2011) as I’m still way too close to that idea to see it objectively and for what it could be. That novel seems a better candidate for the 2030’s at this point, something to cap a career with if I’m ever so fortunate. I’m much more motivated by an as-yet untitled work (Project X, it’s worth noting, is not a title, but a working codename for something that does have a title, but not that one) which would involve my first-ever foray into overt humor, as opposed to humor against a painfully dark backdrop which seems to be my current modus, or at least was in ADO. It’s been taking shape more and more each day and has distilled into something that seems super-relevant to the current state of things and could easily be made more so. But I am terrified, as always, of writing novels in multiple stretches. The 2-3 month binge-write when all other interests are cast aside still has been the only real successful model. But maybe I could construct a few scenes and map out the plot and come back to it in Summer 2014?
The biggest challenge to all these goals, even, arguably, taking fun seriously, is the need to dry out. Boredom is essential to the writing process. This, I fear, is what DFW never really grasped in his career, being so prone to addiction and distraction and never being able to quiet the nagging voices of self-criticism in his own beleaguered head. You need to force yourself to be bored enough to be truly creative. The problem is that a novel is far too abstract and two-dimensional, especially in its nascent phases, to be as captivating as a full-color Internet, as video games and movies and spending time with friends. And the project is far too extensive to be able to see in the same micro-gratification strategies by which most people of my generation and younger are able to complete any work at all. You can string yourself along for a 10- or 20-page paper with the tantalization of the inevitable satisfaction euphoria that comes from completion, but holding out that carrot across multiple months is unforgiving and ultimately ineffective. Yes, novel-completion euphoria is elating, but even the greatest burst of excitement in your life is hard to hold your attention for half a year of slogging.
So to make the process of writing a novel truly work, at least in my experience, it’s important to enforce a certain quantity of boredom upon oneself. One has to get to the point where the novel is truly the most interesting thing one has access to. Doing so enables the essential infusions of creativity and vibrancy that a novel demands, but failing to do so means that one will just end up distracted. So much of DFW’s bio is about his failure to get over this hump. The entire cascade of his life seems an endless bounce from women to drugs to teaching to TV, all shelving his ability to work as he felt he best could. And he also struggled with what I find to be a very tangible conundrum, namely that even if one knows that undivided focus and boredom is the best for the noveling process, the twin of this mindstate is solipsism, and the spiral of lack of human contact threatens to not only drown a person in self-doubt, but also something a little like going crazy. Withdrawing from life to provide insight into it is just the sort of irony fiction writers adore, but it’s a tightrope wire worthy of some far more entertaining act.
Wallace was doubtless aware of these acrobatics and their seeming impossibilities. Indeed, he wanted to directly tackle the subject not just of boredom, but of how boredom can be blissful and inspiring, in his final work, The Pale King. But he was no more able to effectuate it in his own existence than he was able to finish that piece itself, the mystery of boredom’s power ever dangling out of grasp like so much Gatsbian green light. D.T. Max (Wallace’s biographer) doesn’t put forward that the book killed him, but I still think the evidence is pretty clear. That and the electro-shock (*convulsive in new-speak), feller of writers everywhere.
So where does that leave me? I haven’t achieved sufficient boredom on this, the third day off of work, but then again I still have a couple small work projects to wrap up and even day three feels more like a long weekend that summer break. And the very nature of trying to do twelve small projects is almost antithetical to the long work model. It is precisely because such projects have the hallmarks of micro-gratification that they can string one along into doing things that don’t require a full dose of boredom to really get off the ground. It also makes them more appealing and, perhaps, more compatible with the idea of taking it easy this summer, just a little less easy than the last.
The only real urgency in all this, other than the innate writer’s desire to change the world that keeps seeming to get worse, or at least no better, is the sheer volume of stuff I have to write. It’s not competing with the amount I have to read, yet, but I still have four complete novel plots (by complete I don’t mean fully mapped and plotted, but rather general guidelines including beginnings, endings, characters, and general messages) unwritten, three of them without a word to their name. There are a handful of additional short stories in need of either writing or rewriting, as well as some simmering threads of things that could become novels but aren’t there yet. This, near as I can tell (and not to brag, just to observe), is more total novel notions than good old DFW ever developed in his life. But again, his distractable mind suffered more from the lack of ability to zero in and focus than to create. But one became the other.
And maybe I should stop comparing myself to Wallace at this point. For all the similarities I see between us, the differences have never been more clear than in the wake of reading so much about his life. It could also easily be seen as hubristic or egotistical, but it seems clear he was far more worried about such (mis?)perceptions than I ever will be. Indeed, thinking so much about what people thought of him may have been as much of his undoing as his final work. But for me, the issue has always been a shortage of time rather than a shortage of ideas. Ideas I’ve got, spilling out everywhere. It’s the execution, the patience to grind them out, the not letting the beautiful competing ideas of life and what to fill it with, get in the way. And thus so much relies on having the ultimate certainty that someone will pay for that time, or at least that someone wants to read its results, to justify the expenditure of that kind of time, mindspace and, yes, boredom.
Which of course DFW had in spades. He seemed to spend all of his post-publication life complaining that such early success had skewed his vision and rendered him unable to work sufficiently, despite the fact that it seemingly rendered such things more possible than ever. But then he was more of a ruminator than even myself, being able to think himself into a corner even in a wide-open field. Whereas I have experience with same, but am usually able to keep eyes sufficiently on the prize to find the escape hatch, most of the time. And all the while there’s the urgency of all the things those unwritten novels have to say, bubbling up and demanding their months of sequester, their months of suppression of all the fascinating distractions lurking in today’s world so they can have the stage and pass through the keys to fruition.
“True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care—with no one there to see or cheer. This is the world.”
-David Foster Wallace, The Pale King
He was writing about processing tax returns, but it’s hard to find a better mantra for the process of writing a novel, especially one whose fate is uncertain, whose outcome is not the surefire date with publication and readership that TPK and Wallace himself enjoyed. The inevitability, perhaps, is that such boredom is part of everyone’s structured life. And the key is to make more of it work for something that feels more meaningful. It is perhaps ironic (isn’t everything?) that my current day job is almost entirely devoid of such taken-as-given rote boredom, but what I aspire to be, truly, requires it.