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Working on how to be a human being

Howling Fantods has published an old interview of David Foster Wallace from 1993. The interview was conducted by Hugh Kennedy and Geoffrey Polk and ran in The Whiskey Island Magazine. A generous excerpt appears below:

Wallace: […] The writers I know, there’s a certain self-consciousness about them, and a critical awareness of themselves and other people that helps their work. But that sort of sensibility makes it very hard to be with people, and not sort of be hovering near the ceiling, watching what’s going on. One of the things you two will discover, in the years after you get out of school, is that managing to really be an alive human being, and also do good work and be as obsessive as you have to be, is really tricky. It’s not an accident when you see writers either become obsessed with the whole pop stardom thing or get into drugs or alcohol, or have terrible marriages. Or they simply disappear from the whole scene in their thirties or forties. It’s very tricky.

Geoffrey Polk: I think you have to sacrifice a lot.

Wallace: I don’t know if it’s that voluntary or a conscious decision. In most of the writers I know, there’s a self-centeredness, not in terms of preening in front of the mirror, but a tendency not only toward introspection but toward a terrible self-consciousness. Writing, you’re having to worry about your effect on an audience all the time. Are you being too subtle or not subtle enough? You’re always trying to communicate in a unique way, and so it makes it very hard, at least for me, to communicate in a way that I see ordinary, apple-cheeked Clevelanders communicating with each other on street corners.

My answer for myself would be no; it’s not a sacrifice; it’s simply the way that I am, and I don’t think I’d be happy doing anything else. I think people who congenitally drawn to this sort of profession are savants in certain ways and sort of retarded in certain other ways. Go to a writers’ conference sometime and you’ll see. People go to meet people who on paper are just gorgeous, and they’re absolute geeks in person. They have no idea what to say or do. Everything they say is edited and undercut by some sort of editor in themselves. That’s been true of my experience. I’ve spent a lot more of my energy teaching the last two years, really sort of working on how to be a human being.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk shares a kinship with what Wallace is getting at here.