“He never failed us.” A story about David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace

“I do things like get in a taxi and say, ‘The library, and step on it.'”
 
– David Foster Wallace, writer of many novels including Infinite Jest and The Pale King.
 
Note: David was also a professor. After he passed away, a former student wrote the following about what he was like as a teacher.
 
“On the first day of class, Dave wore a cut-off Star Wars sweatshirt and a bandana to tie back his greasy hair. His spectacles gleamed. If I had been expecting the wunderkind ofInfinite Jest, my idealized visions crumbled as I watched him spit a stream of black tobacco spittle into a Slurpee cup. He looked less like a militant grammarian than a transient who had accidentally wandered into the English Department. Previous students of Dave Wallace had warned me of his tongue-lashings, his obsessive precision with language, his voluminous footnotes. I had arrived with my armor on, ready for a writerly battle with a giant of literature. But this guy, frankly, looked like a goofball.
 
True, there was something intimidating about Dave. But it was not his obvious genius, his reputation or his awful clothes. He was easy, approachable, often hilarious. It was the work that daunted. His workshops required intensive critical thinking. He demanded allegiance— not to himself, nor to the class, but to the language itself. We served the words. To fail the language, through a half-hearted peer critique or an overlooked comma, was to fail the writers we wished to become.
 
He never failed us. Every week he returned our stories with tomes of comments, meticulously organized and footnoted, each page a bramble of red pen. A five-page story could receive five pages of notes back, single space, 10 pt. font. At first I thought these letters spoke to an obsession with perfection. Later, I began to see that they only reflected the depth of Dave’s heart. To each story he gave the energy that he gave his own writing. His attention stemmed from the profound respect he held for his students.
 
Dave gave this same care to students during office hours, after hours, between hours, when he generously talked us through our paragraphs, our anxiety, and our self-doubt, blinking rapidly from behind a pile of usage dictionaries. The line often ran down the hall.
 
One day I told him, frustrated, that I would stop writing fiction. My stories were not postmodern or hip. I expected a lecture on style. Instead, he told me to relax. Strong writers are not merely good with words, he said; they are deeply aware of themselves. The greats have stopped pretending to write like someone else. ‘You’re best when you trust yourself,’ he said.”
 
Sources: http://www.visitbn.org/visit/6171/david-foster-wallace/, Pomona College Magazine