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It Doesn’t Mean We’re Wasting Our Time

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November 1, 2012

Reflections on a postcard from David Foster Wallace

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It was in April of 1996, just a few weeks shy of my college graduation, that my parents bought me Infinite Jest as a birthday gift. One of several books I received for the occasion, the novel stood apart from the stack of others first for its brick-like heft, then for its at once generic and serenely singular cover, those languorous waves of downy cumulous clouds drifting over an obscured cerulean. This was right about the height of the swirling buildup around both the author and his book, shortly after Newsday’s heroic heralding of “the next heavyweight of American fiction” and Michiko Kakutani’s proclaiming him a virtuoso “who can seemingly do anything,” when you could spot that big blue tome in almost any downtown New York café, when you were bound to see standing straphangers clutching it under arm on their tired ride home or buried in its footnoted depth if they were lucky enough to grab a seat. David Foster Wallace was everywhere, or so it seemed to me.

Though I have always prided myself on resisting the temptation to succumb to the whims and wheels of pop culture’s tastes of the moment, there was something about this book and this writer that drew me in, something more than their ubiquity. A couple of years earlier I had read the stories in his first collection, Girl with Curious Hair, and had found them good, solid pieces of short fiction, but nothing remarkable, nothing worthy of the praise and publicity surrounding his current work. So it was with a kind of reserved and suspicious interest that I approached Infinite Jest, hoping for more than the hype and frankly expecting a little less.

Two novels (and agents) into my writing career, a shoebox of rejection letters already collected, I wrote to Wallace in the fall of 2004, care of Little, Brown, asking him to read the manuscript of my second novel, not sure exactly what I was hoping for.

The experience of reading this novel was nearly mystical for me, as close to epiphany as anything I have encountered. It changed my life, literally, providing me with the final thrust I was waiting for, that extra push toward what I knew I wanted to do since I was old enough to scribble out five-page Dracula “novels” on yellow legal pads in the back room of my father’s Brooklyn law office, a vision that had somehow taken a turn through high school post-punk bands and death metal solo projects, through four years of undergraduate philosophy and through potentially following my father’s jural footsteps. Once I finished reading Infinite Jest, I distinctly remember thinking that the highest achievement of a lifetime would be to produce something so magnificent and awesome and beautiful. And the fact that this epic and accessible book was written by a guy little more than a dozen years my senior, who was speaking to me and my generation in ways few others even attempted to, gave renewed breath to a flagging faith in the power of fiction to be not just relevant but vital. Wallace’s magnum opus connected viscerally with Emerson’s maxim: “The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?” It proved exactly what I needed to convince me to abandon my plans for grad school in philosophy in order to pursue the writing life, in order to become, one day, something resembling David Foster Wallace. Sixteen years later, though I do live a writer’s life of sorts, it is nothing remotely close to the one I’d hoped for when I had finished reading Infinite Jest, described in so many colorful features as the venerated young author being chauffeured from one packed reading to the next, from literary launch party to high-profile interview to signings at bookstores spilling over with adoring fans, several of which I attended. Which brings me to the epicenter of this reflection: my brief correspondence with the man who had borne an unwitting influence on my life.

Two novels (and agents) into my writing career, a shoebox of rejection letters already collected, I wrote to Wallace in the fall of 2004, care of Little, Brown, asking him to read the manuscript of my second novel. At that time I was just getting over the foolish impression that the hardest part of the writing life would be the actual writing, never having imagined how Sisyphean the road to publication would be, daring the buoyant young novelist to persist in his idiot quest so that he may be struck down at every attempt.

My letter began with honest praise, explaining the kind of influence his books exerted over me, how I felt upon reading Infinite Jest and how said experience propelled me into serious fiction writing and thus landed me in the quagmire I now found myself, perhaps in retrospect trying to impart a bit of guilt onto the writer for the unintended impetus that had led me to this impasse. Then I informed him of my situation, letting him in on the awful obstacles to publication I had theretofore encountered, and humbly requesting that he permit me to send him my novel. It seemed like a reasonable request at the time. I didn’t expect him to drop everything, read my book and proclaim it a work of unsurpassable genius; I didn’t expect a close reading with detailed editorial suggestions and lengthy comments. I suppose all I was hoping for was that my writing be read by David Foster Wallace, which, at the risk of hyperbole, was somewhat akin to a zealot’s hope that his prayers find their way into the hands of a worshiped but otherwise uninterested god. Mostly, I was feeling down and desperate, and reaching out to the man who had greatly inspired my failing quest just felt like something I should do, if for nothing else than for having done so.

Several months later I received a postcard in the mail, a slightly tattered 4×6 of Dodger Stadium, with Los Angeles smeared across the top in imposing red capitals and a smoggy scattered skyline in the background. By this time I had all but forgotten my letter. I didn’t know anyone in LA, but figured a friend was traveling and decided to drop a line, so I lowered my eyes past the rows of neatly lined and evenly spaced blue ink print to the signature, which was illegible, next to an adumbrated smiley face.

A couple of lines into the text, I realized I had received a response from David Foster Wallace, and as adolescent as it may sound, my heart rate did quicken. But the excitement was tamped by his declining to read my novel, “but only because when the stack reaches a certain height, I decline to add to it.” (So I was not unique in my request!) By the time I finished, I was somewhere between disappointment and anger; not only had he refused to read my book (the nerve!), but he went on to say how this was “no cause for despair,” and that “lots of us don’t publish… it doesn’t mean we’re wasting our time.” He suggested I send a sample chapter to twenty agents, or, if I already had an agent, maybe I should try a new one, and he finished by promising to think of me “in a supportive, avuncular way.”

I’d never met David Foster Wallace. I’d never talked to him. I’d seen him at a few readings and that was the extent of it. Except that I had a hundred or so words of the millions he had written, that were meant only for me.

I stared at the card, flipping it over to study the empty stadium and surrounding cityscape. Why did he choose to send me a postcard? Simply because it’s a few cents cheaper than mailing a letter in an envelope? Was it just sitting around when he was looking for something to write on? Does he buy stacks of these postcards for the express purpose of responding to random fans? And worse, does he write this same prepared response to every letter? Then I went back and reread the words. That he could callously slap down my heartfelt entreaty—especially when couched in such genuine admiration—and tell me not to be concerned about my failure to publish, was tantamount to declaring my life’s ambition little more than a weekend hobby. That he could compound the insult by suggesting I send a sample chapter to a handful of agents, something any hopeful writer who consults how-to books on publishing knows enough to do (and thus has already learned from painful schooling that getting picked from the slush by a reputable agent is about as likely as hitting the bull’s-eye in a drunken game of darts), felt painfully patronizing. And that he could finish by claiming he’d think of me in such an encouraging manner, as though a man of his philosophical sophistication truly believed that positive thoughts had any practical sway over the course of events (or that he would even think once of our brief correspondence after the card was in the mail), was just plain dishonest. Not to mention infuriating.

It might have been better, I thought, not to have heard back from him at all. Such a disillusioning response from a major influence seemed enough to founder the entire enterprise, to embitter my ambitions. I stuck the card somewhere in the middle of my copy of Infinite Jest and vowed never to look at either again. I might even have made a silent pact with myself never to read any of his work. Though, when Consider the Lobster came out eleven months later, my ire had sufficiently shrunken enough for me to buy the book upon release. But however healed the initial hurt, I would not let go of the fact that I could now add a rejection from David Foster Wallace to my shoebox of form letters from agents and editors.

Time passed, more rejections came (along with a few happy acceptances), and I rarely if ever thought about the postcard. It was not until more than three and a half years later, in September 2008, when the awful news was delivered, that I revisited our correspondence.

Greatness generates a sense of familiarity where there is otherwise alienation, and we cannot help but feel a primal connection with its creator. Still, I’d never met David Foster Wallace. I’d never talked to him. I’d seen him at a few readings and that was the extent of it. Except that I had a hundred or so words of the millions he had written, that were meant only for me.

Let me just say that his death cast a serious pall over my mood for weeks and hindered my writing for the better part of six months. If this man, whose genius was in so many ways unparalleled, could not find enough solace in his work and success to fend off the demons of life, how could I, who had achieved so much less, justify continuance? I realize medical and psychological issues were at play. I understand that clinical depression is a chemical thing that I—a mere melancholic, a chronic depressive, rather than clinically diagnosed—cannot wholly relate to. I realize medication was a factor in his life and death, and that regardless of all this, one can never know the depth of another’s suffering, let alone a public figure with whom my only contact was a long-neglected postcard. Nevertheless, if David Foster Wallace represented everything I wanted to be, and all that wasn’t sufficient to quell his torment at least enough to keep him in the world, what the hell was I trying for? If the adoration of the masses was insufficient, and the respect of his peers and praise of his predecessors was ultimately unfulfilling, if nothing about his extraordinary accomplishments was enough to fend off the demons that were calling him to quit, then what hope was there for someone like me? What succor, even in success? Why bother struggling to reach the peak when the only thing you can do from there is fall?

He was telling me what I already knew but had forgotten over the long years of struggling for acceptance and societal validation, that creation is its own reward, that the project of writing is its own gift, provides its own consolation, which no degree of outward acceptance or rejection can touch, if properly appreciated.

In the wake of his suicide, the postcard took on new significance, and I saw his message to me in a different light, tinted by his departure from the world and particularly by the way he enacted this departure. Rereading his words, they seemed neither condescending nor dismissive, and though I still regret his declining my appeal (even more so now that he will never read my work), the immense outpouring of public sentiment over his death made me realize just how hugely popular he was, and that my request was simply one of many, many similar others. The mere fact that he took the time to personally respond to me was a courtesy I was now ashamed to have not accorded more value. But beyond the surface reevaluations, there is the deeper and more meaningful interpretation of his sentiments, which show a serious compassion for an unknown and struggling writer. There is a sincere gentleness in the way he assured me that his refusal was “no cause for despair—nor is not getting published,” that though my disappointment was one with which he could sympathize (though surely not empathize, with his prodigious record of publication from a relatively early age), it should not cause me much grief; it was not the kind of despair that truly merits the label, the kind that he surely knew, that we all know to degrees. There is frustration. There is suffering. And then there is despair.

Then there is his use of the pronouns we and us “Lots of us don’t publish, though—it doesn’t mean we’re wasting our time.” What I had first taken as aloof and supercilious, an arrogant condescension and insensitive refusal to lower the ladder from one who has reached the dazzling heights to another who is stranded in the depths, I now saw as both an identification with my plight and a coded missive that publication was not the promised land I thought it was. I choose to believe that he was including me in his use of we and us, and that he genuinely drew little distinction between those of us who had found publication, who were graced with the approbation of the world, and we who were still toiling in the darkness.

I think Wallace truly believed that we are not wasting our time, even if our words are never seen by the world at large. The world has never been the best judge. It has never equitably distributed recognition to all those deserving. It sometimes gets it right, as I think it did with Wallace, but more often than not it fails us. So what he was telling me was not that publishing is not a good thing, but that it isn’t everything. It does not bestow value or worth on one’s work or on one’s self. It does not make a published book better or worse than an unpublished one. And while the failure to achieve it may be no cause for despair, its attainment is certainly no cure. He was telling me what I already knew but had forgotten during my struggle for acceptance and societal validation, that creation is its own reward, that the project of writing is its own gift, provides its own consolation. Half a century before in The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus claimed that despite the absurdly futile and hopeless task with which the condemned king was punished by the gods, “the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

I cannot imagine David Foster Wallace happy, but this is less a flaw in the man as in the common human conception of happiness. Surely the idea of happiness as a consistent and lasting state of contentment is as much a myth as our boulder-pushing king. But if there is any shred of truth to the myth, any hint to the real existence of some form of happiness, my letter from Wallace forces me to remember that most meaningful of clues, that for me as a writer, for us as artists, the only hope for any kind of happiness, it is not to be sought in others’ veneration of our work or in the public display of our talents. It is in the act of creation itself, in those ineffable moments of quiet and solitude when we commune with what is most real: ourselves, and the world that exists within. That is the world that matters. “The rest is silence.”

Now almost eight years old, a bit more ragged at the edges and yellow with age, the postcard from David Foster Wallace remains a treasured object. Not only because it came to me from one so near the peak in my pantheon of esteemed figures, but because of how its meaning has changed over the years. I don’t look at it often, but when I hold it between my fingers and read that small scrupulous print, I experience a sad reassurance in both the value and ultimate futility of writing. And yet above all it encourages me to go on, to continue to create. It inspires me to find comfort and, yes, moments of happiness, and helps me to maintain contact with those reasons and feelings that made me want to write in the first place. William H. Gass addressed “the wretched writer” who has felt the weight of the world leaning on his soul, “give up the blue things of this world for the words which say them.” I try to do what these men tell me, to abandon the crude and coarse world at large and inhabit the one of my own words, the one I have created by and for myself. And it feels good. It feels right. I only wish David Foster Wallace, with all his unmatched ability to create such worlds for himself, were still here, somewhere in mine.

G

Born in New York City and raised on Long Island, Frank Cassese finds his writing shaped by the frenetic influence of urban life and the languid reality of the suburbs. After graduating with a degree in philosophy, he lived and worked in France for some time before returning to New York, where he received an MA in creative writing from The City College. He has published a short story in the literary magazine The Body Divided, as well as an article in the French journal Revue de littérature contemporaine et expérimentale, and has collaborated with the conceptual artist Lee Walton on the project Come on Pilgrim. Frank is the author of several novels and is currently at work on a new book on the Bowery.

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22 comments for It Doesn’t Mean We’re Wasting Our Time

  1. Comment by David Biddle on November 1, 2012 at 1:27 pm

    I love this essay. I once had a similar novel reading request turned by down by a respected writer. We went back and forth in email. At one point he told me, “The best writers I know will never be published.” I never developed enough of a sense of anger or dismay over that, but I also never developed such an important set of insights as you have here.

    Quite poignant and an essential message for all writers, especially those still struggling to be heard. I work every day at my desk with Infinite Jest on the shelf in front of me. When I’m stuck and lost in my work, DFW, among a few others, gets me through my own shit…eventually.

    Gotta admit, I got a bit touched and teary at the end here. I think the issues you bring up must have always been very close to Wallace as well (from my readings since that’s all most of us have). Norman Mailer called fiction “a spooky art.” It is in some ways the ultimate act of intellectual absurdity…and then it has its moments…doors open up revealing the secrets in between the words and the grace of the verbal mind trying to make sense of everything. When we’re at our best, demons and spirits come pouring in. At our worst, well, it’s just depressing and frustrating.

    Am Tweeting and Facebooking this as soon as I sign off.

  2. Comment by john guzlowski on November 2, 2012 at 9:09 am

    I once got a postcard from Isaac Asimov after I reviewed a non-fiction book he wrote. He called me terrible things, things I can’t repeat here.

    I’ve treasured that postcard for 30 years.

  3. Comment by Marco I. on November 2, 2012 at 9:59 am

    Frank-
    I mean no disrespect in saying this, but this essay paints you as a monstrously selfish person. To think that one of the (arguably) best writers in the last couple decades found time in between his ground-breaking work and his life-breaking sickness to write you, someone he has never met and owes less than nothing to, a hand-written note, and to think you would react to that with anger and sadness, is almost appalling. I get where it comes from, but it doesn’t excuse it.

    If your novel writing is anything like this essay, it’s not a surprise you haven’t found great success. No one wants to read someone else’s self-indulgence. As someone very smart once told me, “You are not the star of anyone else’s life.”

    You take a lot of words (and therefore a lot of others’ time) here to essentially say you got a postcard from your hero, it hurt your feelings, and then you learned from it. And your language doesn’t redeem the length.

    I take the time to type this because if you really are looking to writing for solace and strength and to help you make sense of things, you might try approaching it more honestly. Do what DFW did with you in the postcard- address your reader(s) (and perhaps yourself) kindly and supportively. Don’t make them sift through paragraph after paragraph just to find out that you’re sad and feel under-appreciated.

    We all are. And we only want to be reminded of it if the prose is glowing.

  4. Comment by kk on November 2, 2012 at 11:42 am

    a tear here, too. thank you for this wonderful essay.

  5. Comment by Jeff C. on November 3, 2012 at 7:20 pm

    This gives me hope, as I’m at work on a 145-page-and-counting novel which structurally resembles The Pale King. Talk about a monumental task, right? Regardless, this is kind of what I’m facing: not so much the terror of publication but of the act of writing as truly “Sisyphean,” never-ending. And even in death, Wallace somehow manages to raise me up by simply being himself.

  6. Comment by Pretty Lady on November 3, 2012 at 11:33 pm

    Marco I.: You’re missing the point. Of course the author is selfish; also narcissistic and self-absorbed–as are most of us, in varying degrees. The only road out of narcissism, personally and artistically, is to start where we are and work our way toward transcendence. That’s what this essay does, and why it was powerful enough to get a link from Andrew Sullivan.

    It always perplexes me when writers are attacked for being honest and vulnerable enough to display their own shortcomings. Those shortcomings are an integral part of any truth they happen to convey, and the writer is to be honored for valuing that truth over presenting an impeccable self-image to the world. Without the first half, this essay might veer perilously close to the saccharine and clichéd. It’s the dirt in the paint that makes the canvas sing.

  7. Comment by luke on November 4, 2012 at 3:59 pm

    This article made me feel cheap and dirty. Just another attention grabber riding on the coat tails of a dead man. Thank you Marco for calling it like it is.

  8. Comment by Myra on November 6, 2012 at 12:06 am

    Fantastic essay. As a fan of both David Foster Wallace and of fine writing, it made me cry. Well done.

  9. Comment by Kelley on November 8, 2012 at 8:44 am

    I agree with Marco I. This is a badly written and unpleasant essay. Just an assembly-line, narcissistic, self-involved writer that would do better to spare us the self-indulgent blather, especially at such length. This author has spent years massaging his ego and wondering why he isn’t popular like DFW. Well, it’s because you just can’t write very well. No one cares about you–you’re not interesting to anyone. Get out out of your own head and your own ass and write about something else. Or perhaps better yet, maybe nothing else, if you can’t graduate from this junior high awkward seriousness. Stop looking in the mirror, for once–look at the actual world. It’s quite an interesting place.

  10. Comment by Eric on November 8, 2012 at 10:20 pm

    This is a heartfelt, insightful, thought-provoking work, a beautiful meditation on the writing life and artistic creation in general. It also gives me a renewed appreciation of Mr. Wallace as a kind of long-distance mentor, not just to one writer, but to all of us struggling scribes. I’ve written to a couple of authors I admire and have received nothing as special as this. It is further evidence of DFW’s uniqueness in the contemporary canon.

    What I don’t quite get is the vitriol in some of the previous comments. The criticism seems wrongheaded and bitter to me, but as long as it keeps the dialogue going…

    An excellent piece. Truly inspiring.

  11. Comment by Morgan Lee on November 10, 2012 at 3:32 pm

    Brilliant, poignant, and moving. Thank you for this reminder from DFW that no, we are not wasting our time.

  12. Comment by Adam on November 10, 2012 at 6:17 pm

    DFW said that good fiction could help readers “become less alone inside”
    I think nasty internet comments are the antithesis of good fiction.

  13. Comment by Patrick on November 12, 2012 at 9:47 pm

    To this author:
    Many writers have asked same question you brooded on: what is in all this? I guess it comes to a point when one realizes that we’re all headed to same “grinding machine,” famous or not. And, I infact see nothing wrong in Wallace suicide. Rather, I praise his courage for taking that route which most likely, both of us lack.

  14. Comment by Lydia on November 12, 2012 at 11:35 pm

    Terrific. Very tender and expressive, tastefully treating Wallace’s life, work, death and legacy with appropriate reverence and respect. This makes me miss him even more. Excellent, excellent essay.

  15. Comment by Steven Augustine on November 25, 2012 at 4:47 pm

    It’s always interesting to read articles about “writing” written by people who can’t write. Where did Frank get his “voice”… from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? And did Frank really write “my heartfelt entreaty”… without suffering an immediate and lethal laughing-fit ? Why didn’t Frank find a way to use the words “o’er” and “ne’er “, too? Is Frank’s ruff too tight?

    “Such a disillusioning response from a major influence seemed enough to founder the entire enterprise, to embitter my ambitions.”

    What kind of quill did Frank use to write that glittering marvel? I must send Jeeves, post-haste, to fetch a gross!

  16. Comment by Martin T. on November 26, 2012 at 4:26 pm

    Loved this! I only know DFW’s nonfiction, but am now encouraged to tackle Infinite Jest. Better late than never. Wonderful and inspired writing. Thanks for this great essay.

  17. Comment by Simon on November 27, 2012 at 7:57 pm

    I stumbled upon this piece shortly after reading D.T. Max’s biography of DFW, after which I was left hungry for more things DFW-related. This is an exceptional essay. I’ve been a serious fan of Wallace for years, and still have trouble accepting the fact that there won’t be any new material forthcoming. I am thankful for this short gem, and only wish I had such a souvenir—both physical and emotional—of the man. First-rate work.

  18. Comment by Jonah on December 3, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    A very moving and beautifully written reflection. The depth and sincerity of your feelings are powerfully transmitted to the reader. I was never a huge fan of DFW, but I am now compelled to reconsider him, both as a writer and as a caring and compassionate human being. Wonderful stuff.

  19. Comment by Chad Sorg on January 23, 2013 at 12:28 am

    Frank,
    just to quickly mention, I have enjoyed your essay and find it superior in writing skill, not that I would know anything about that subject. I’m a novice.

    Anyhoo, I was in just the right mood for this and will be copying your words into my own simple text collection, to help inspire me when writing.

  20. Comment by jayinchicago on April 5, 2013 at 1:47 pm

    I’m surprised by the vitriol in some of the comments. Yes, the piece here had some fancy language and a couple of phrases that made me roll my eyes a little–but I would have had the same haughty and extremely un selfaware response to that postcard’s text that Cassese did at first. And I suspect I would similarly have revisited it after Wallace’s death and had a deeper reading.
    Wallace wasn’t a villain and he wasn’t St Dave. He was a writer with a remarkable eye. His personal down-to-earth affect (whether a put-on or not or possibly a little of both) was what let countless writers and regular fans think they could correspond with him and get writerly tips. But Foster Wallace did Cassese one better–he got philosophical.

  21. Comment by JJ on September 20, 2013 at 6:01 pm

    I’m a little late to the party here, but I knew Dave Wallace, and I’m not surprised he wrote this postcard. He would have loved this essay.

  22. Comment by Jerry Heller on March 18, 2014 at 1:46 pm

    lol look at all these haters

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