David Foster Wallace

Recently the Wall Street Journal published a commencement speech Wallace gave to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College on life and work.  

Wallace and I had some things in common. He was 46, a professor, and his mind rarely rested.  He writes in great detail about his internal dialogue that I touched upon in my first post in early January.

One significant difference, he was a literary heavyweight who burst onto the scene with his first novel in 1987. To quote the Journal, he became known for “blending inventive language, intellect, humor, philosophy and cultural references in his writing.” And he was prolific. I’d like to read Infinite Jest, but at 1,100 pages, I’ll probably have to wait until my next sabbatical in three years.

Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement address is unlike any other I’ve ever heard or read.  How to describe it?  Authentic, naked, wonderfully explicit, insightful.  

Here’s a sentence from his speech that stopped me in my tracks.

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.”

As a husband, father, educator, human being, that sentence resonates with me more than any I’ve read in a long, long time.

Wallace committed suicide on September 12th.  

In the speech he alludes to how difficult daily life was for him when couldn’t reign in his mind, but I’m struggling to wrap my head around how someone with such a keen insight into what it means to live life most fully, would pull the plug.

I acknowledge I don’t understand what it’s like to fight depression. Nearly everything I’ve learned about depression I’ve learned from some of my first year writing students who have courageously described their struggles. One of those students once told me he didn’t have the energy to turn off his ringing alarm clock in the morning even though it was easily within reach.

Students loved Wallace’s classes at Pomona College.  

Think of the classes he would have taught and the books he would have written.

Life is fragile.

1 thought on “David Foster Wallace

  1. Ron…
    Just finished reading this post.
    I stumbled upon David Foster Wallace as a seventeen-year-old. It was an article in Time magazine, about his book, Infinite Jest . In the picture I remember noting that he was surrounded by filled bookcases, and his crooked blue-jeaned knee had a black lab resting on it. He was in his early thirties at the time, and I remember thinking I’d like to have an interesting novel out when I was around that age, and he might be someone to emulate, plus he obviously liked dogs. I only heard of his death on This Week with George Stephanopoulos and I knew just like that without being told that he’d committed suicide; don’t know how I knew…

    Ah…the plague of the blackdogs barking. I’ve experienced it too unfortunately—and sometimes it ran unfettered like an ugly scar through the days of my twenties.

    One reason I am amazed so much by albatrosses; they actually enjoy riding storms, and they do this endlessly, Ron.


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