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.