David Foster Wallace, RIP

Suicide is aways sad to me, sadder still when it involves someone with a big public persona. People are angry and confused, searching for meaning and otherwise unclear how to respond. I’ve mentioned David Foster Wallace a few times in the past few days and figured I’d drop a note here too after reading Steve Lawson’s memorial piece and Rochelle’s reflections.

I took a writing workshop with DFW at Amherst College (the school both our fathers went to) in the late eighties. He was a last minute stand in for a poet that couldn’t get out of Poland, or so I’d heard. He had only graduated from Amherst in the past few years and was about my age. He’d recently published The Broom of the System which I read at some point during that semester. The class was small, made up of mostly Amherst students and I learned a lot. One of the things I learned was that I didn’t really want to be a writer and I shifted my academic focus to linguistics and later librarianship. Before I did that though, I also learned to write. The class would always start with a grammar lesson. Wallace wanted to make sure we didn’t make common writerly mistakes and so he’d drill things into our heads like the difference between further and farther, or between and among.

I don’t remember much from the class except that he always wore that bandana that made us assume, erroneously, that he was losing his hair. His big mantra, the one that I remember was “Just because it really happened, doesn’t make it good fiction” and he told it to us a lot. He was clearly blindingly smart and yet trying to be understood by us, to help us. A few people have contacted me trying to get information about him for articles they’re writing; apparently very few people in the plugged in web world knew him. I told them all that he was kind and had a big heart. I’d go talk to him during his office hours and he’d warn me about being too angry in my writing, something I still struggle with.

Since I was a Hampshire student, I asked him if he could write me an evaluation in addition to my letter grade and he agreed. I’ve been digging through my files this weekend trying to find it; I know I kept it.

Years after this, I saw him give a reading for Infinite Jest at Eliot Bay Books in Seattle, I had brought my copy of the Pushcart Prize XVIII book that had his excellent story about the guy who is preparing for a Total Weed Orgy (update: misremembered, it was Broom of the System). After waiting in line, I handed the book to him and said “Can you sign it ‘to Jessamyn, my favorite student’?” He looked up, seemingly tired out from all the attention, and peered at me and said “Jessamyn West? From Hampshire? I always wondered what happened to you.” He signed the book “To my favorite student of all time.”

I don’t think I was necessarily any more favorite than any of his other students, just that he wanted the best for all of us. He had an unstoppable brain that could do anything it wanted and yet at the same time reminded him constantly just how much his brain couldn’t save him from. I’m sad to see him go.

17 thoughts on “David Foster Wallace, RIP

  1. What a nice remembrance. I don’t know why I feel so sad about him. Its not just that his writing was so awesome and I remember every time I first read something I love by him, like little stepping stones through my literary memory. But also because he’s our age and its just really really sad how much we’re losing. We need more super smart, clear thinking people and its so sad when they have a horrible sickness too. thanks.

  2. “Favorite student of all time.” That explains the “FSOAT” in the MetaFilter thread.

    I have been feeling sad about his death since I heard about it, but the personal reminiscences from you and from Rochelle are the first to bring me to tears. Sincere, unironic thanks for that.

  3. Made misty-eyed as well, and I didn’t know the man. But, like you, suicide always saddens me – I felt the same way when I heard that Spaulding Gray had died – like, “Aww, man, they couldn’t beat it.” Very sad indeed.

  4. Lovely story. Thanks so much for sharing.

  5. I have no personal connection to DFW and thus can’t explain my sadness about his death but reading your tribute makes me feel better.

  6. Like Steve, the full realization hit me last night, when I saw that people I already care about are having the same reactions and have had the same lovely experiences with Dave as I have. Makes me even more glad to be part of our community.

  7. Thanks for the sharing. For some strange reason I find myself affected by his passing – similar to the day John Lennon died. I ask why it is affecting me.

    I am familiar with his writing but saddened that he seemed all to distracted by being self-conscious about the depth of his own originality. More than original he was unique, in particular in seeing the nub of an issue that to mere mortals (which we truly are now that he is gone) there wasn’t really an issue until he pointed it out. I guess that is the mathematical precision of his thinking, going to the root of the equation yet appreciating the different formulaic routings on the way.
    Too bad he couldn’t just enjoy it.
    Best regards.

  8. If you are like me, a librarian who enjoys both David Foster Wallace and the idea of a Total Weed Orgy, you might like to know that his story “Three Protrusions” is actually in The Pushcart Prize XVIII: 1993-1994. Thanks for the personal remembrance.

  9. Thank you for sharing your story. The loss is devastating.

  10. I can remember reading pieces written by him with my highlighter in hand. My good friend and I would call each other to discuss the best passages… What a shame…what a loss for all of us.

  11. Great remembrance, Jessamyn. Really reinforces what I’ve read about his humanism (in his work and stuff about him). I’m still in shock and saddened. He was in a lot of pain.

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