I don't enjoy this war one bit

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In 1995, at 33 years of age, David Foster Wallace wrote the following fascinating letter to Don DeLillo — an award-winning author and playwright for whom he held a great deal of respect. With Infinite Jest written and soon to be published (to huge acclaim), Wallace was faced with a problem: although the quality of his writing was improving, he was having less fun in the process.

The following letter was his request for advice.

(Also from David Foster Wallace: A letter to his college's newspaper, aged 23; His attempted fax cover sheet; His word lists.)

(Source: Harry Ransom Center; Image: David Foster Wallace, via Salon.)

10-10-95

Dear Don,

Since it's clear from your letters that you're a person nice, and since it's well-known that an overkeen sense of obligation tends to afflict the congenitally nice, I again want to implore you not to feel any obligation to read the BM any faster¹ than your own schedule and inclinations permit. If Little/Brown's Pietsch put blurb-pressure on you or something, I implore you to ignore it. I did not have the BM sent to you because I hoped for a blurb. I sent it to you because your own fiction is important to me and because I think you're smart and because, if you do end up reading it and end up saying anything to me about it, I stand a decent chance of learning something.

Your note of 9/19 was heartening and inspiring and also made me curious about several things. I would love to know what changes in yourself account for "And discipline is never an issue (as it was in earlier years)." I would love to know how this education of the will took place -- would that you could assure that it was nothing but a matter of time natural attritive/osmotic action, but I have a grim suspicion there's rather more to it. I'd love to know how the sentence quoted above stands in relation to "The novel is a fucking killer. I try to show it every respect."

As I understand your terms "discipline," "respect," "dedication," your thoughts have confirmed my belief that what usually presents in me as a problem with Discipline is actually probably more a problem with Dedication. I struggle very hard with my desires both to have Fun when writing and to be Serious when writing. I know that my first book was the most Fun I've ever had writing, but I know also that the only remotely Serious thing about it was that I very Seriously wanted the world to think I was a really good fiction-writer. I cringe, now, to look at how so much of my first stuff seems so excruciatingly obviously exhibitionistic and so Seriously approval-hungry.

I have no idea whether this will make any sense to you, or whether this stuff is too personal to me to make sense about, or whether in fact it's actually so banal and mill-run that seeming tormented about it or thinking I'm uniquely afflicted will seem to you grotesque. Fuck it -- an advantage to proofreading page-proofs (PP's) is that I'm too tired to care.

I think a certain amount of time and experience and pain have helped me -- somewhat -- with respect to the immature and selfish stuff. I think IJ is less self-indulgent and show-offy than anything I'd done before it, and that the stuff I've done since finishing IJ is even less ego-hobbled. Part of the improvement inside me, too, I think, is starting truly to "Respect" fiction and realize how very much bigger than I the art and enterprise are, to be able not just to countenance but live with how very very small a part of any Big Picture I am. Because I tend both to think I'm uniquely afflicted and to idealize people I admire, I tend to imagine you never having had to struggle with any of this narcissism or indulgence stuff, to imagine that the great gouts of Americana hurled daily at the page in the stoveless apartment of wherever you wrote it were as natively Disciplined and Respectful and humility-nourished as Libra or The Day Room. But now I rather hope that isn't so. I hope that in the course of your decades writing you've done and been subject to stuff that's helped make you a more Respectful writer. I would like to be a Respectful writer, I believe...though I know I'd far prefer finding out some way to become that w/o time and pain and the war of LOOK AT ME v. RESPECT A FUCKING KILLER.

Maybe what I want to hear is that this prenominate war is natural and necessary and a sign of Towering Intellect: maybe I want a pep-talk, because I have to tell you I don't enjoy this war one bit. I think my fiction is better than it was, but writing is also less Fun than it was. I have a lot of dread and terror and inadequacy-shit, now, when I'm trying to write. I didn't used to. Maybe the terror is part of the necessary reverence, and maybe it's an inescapable part of the growing-up-as-a-writer-or-whatever process; but it can't -- cannot -- be the goal and terminus of that process. In other words there must be some way to turn terror into Respect and dread into a kind of stolidly productive humility.

I have a hard time understanding how Fun fits into the Dedication-Discipline-Respect schema. I know that I had less fun doing IJ than I did doing earlier stuff, even though I know in my tummy that it's better fiction. I think I understand that part of getting older and better as a writer means putting away many of my more childish self-gratifying notions of Fun, etc. But Fun is still the whole point, somehow, no? Fun on both sides of the writer/reader exchange? A kind of pleasure -- more rarified, doubtless, than M&M's or a good wank, but nevertheless pleasure. How do I allow myself to have Fun when writing without sacrificing Respect and Seriousness, i.e. going back to the exhibitionism and show-offery and pointless technical acrobatics? I think one reason why I ask you this (though I know you not at all as a person, of course) is that your own fiction seems to me to marry Fun and Seriousness in a profound way, somehow -- a sense of Play that's somehow even Funner because it's not sophomoric or self-aggrandizing or childish or even childlike. This is not coming across like I want it to; I can't make this clear. Maybe your work is this form of profound marriage only to and for me; maybe it's some weird subjective misprision that has to do with me and not your fiction; maybe you have no thoughts on how you've come to make (apparent) Respect and Dedication seem so fuck-all much (apparent) Fun. If you do have any thoughts -- together with a couple minutes to rub together -- I'd be grateful for them. I'm about as professionally flummoxed as I've ever been.

All Best Wishes,

Dave Wallace

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¹(or at all, actually)