Guest Post by Laurie Steed
2012 marks my ten-year anniversary of being a writer. When I began I had many idols, including Peter Goldsworthy, Lorrie Moore, Roald Dahl and Nick Hornby. I also craved a mentor, someone to show me how. I craved it so much I befriended an established writer more insecure than I was. I craved it enough to send Peter Goldsworthy an email asking him to help me take my writing to the next level.
Really, it has been a mostly lonely journey. Thankfully, I’ve found friends (mostly other writers) to make it less lonely. Some are already on their way to literary greatness; some are now teachers, travel agents and retail managers; the rest are toiling away, writing and reading, learning every day and hoping for the big break that might make them into a literary superstar.
Having recently resigned myself to the fact that the pursuit of literary excellence would be a lifelong journey, I received David Lipsky’s Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself as a Christmas present. The book recounts five days Lipsky spent with David Foster Wallace during the latter’s Infinite Jest tour in 1996. At the time, Infinite Jest was a huge literary success. Lipsky had visited Wallace to interview him for Rolling Stone, but in the end the story was never published. Perhaps the editors realised they’d sell far more copies if they talked to Madonna or Bob Dylan instead.
Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself follows a writer at the height of his fame. And yet, we find not an ill-tempered egotist, but a good-humoured, surprisingly passionate lover of life, books and his two dogs. All up, the interviews run for more than 300 pages. At no point do they become even remotely boring, with topics including fame, idealism, John Updike and the music of Alanis Morissette. They talk in airports, while driving, at launches, in cafés and even back at Wallace’s home in Bloomington, Illinois.
Lipsky is inquisitive throughout, at times suspiciously so, as if it’s impossible to believe that such a successful person could also be so down-to-earth. And yet it’s also clear that Lipsky admired Wallace a great deal; for Lipsky, Wallace’s Harper’s articles in the early ’90s were ‘like hearing for the first time the brain voice of everybody I knew: Here was how we all talked, experienced, thought. It was like smelling the damp in the air, seeing the first flash from a storm a mile away. You knew something gigantic was coming.’ And although Lipsky is clearly a man on a mission (to uncover the real David Foster Wallace), by tour’s end, they genuinely seem to like each other.
What endures is a fascinating portrait of two writers at different stages of their development. Both of them would go on to further success: Lipsky’s 2003 non fiction book Absolute American was a New York Times bestseller, while Foster Wallace wrote two short story collections and Everything and More, a book about the history of infinity, all of which were well received. And yet, despite this, only one would be deemed worthy of such a close and detailed examination. In the final wash-up it was Wallace who found his each and every word pored over for its weight and implicit meaning.
As a writer, I’ve often been told my profession doesn’t matter, that my most important words will be read – if at all – years after my death, and that it’s unlikely these words will serve any real purpose.
I cannot tell you if this is true of the work of David Foster Wallace, who sadly killed himself in September 2008. It’s too soon to say if his words mattered in the same way that Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech mattered, or Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye mattered.
I can tell you that his life mattered. And Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself is, if nothing else, a loving testament to a man who is alarmingly wise, surprisingly funny and extremely affable. Reading it is akin to spending a week with an old friend, all the while pretending you’re researching something critically important together.
And in reading Lipsky’s book, maybe you are researching something that, if not critically important, is at the very least fundamental to an appreciation of life, that is, the pursuit of compassion when dealing with yourself, your dreams and the many people you’ll come across in your life. While reading the book, I stopped numerous times to underline thoughts, such were their clarity of expression. At other times I had to stop reading altogether, because although I had never met the man, I was deeply sad that he was no longer with us.
But then David Foster Wallace can have that effect. Read his books and you might find some serious paradigm shifts occurring. Listen to his speech to the graduates of Kenyon College in 2005 and you hear not a guru, but an older brother hoping to save you from the pain he so often had to face. And when, having grieved over his loss, you turn the page to that frozen image, you ultimately find framed not a literary canon but a single person, and a good person at that.
Is it fair to discuss an author’s thoughts as separate from his writing? I would argue that it’s not only fair, but also necessary. In writing, we’re often so quick to attribute literary genius to a precious few. We’re so ready to see perfection as gifted to only the lucky ones, and yet so quick to judge ourselves as somehow not worthy of such luck.
Wallace taught me something that for most of my writing life felt unfathomable: that in fact we are all giants, but at different stages of our journey. More profoundly, he taught me that this ‘thing’, this search for literary greatness, will most likely give me little or none of what I’m really searching for: a sense of connection, companionship; a sense of achievement; a group of people who understand how incredibly awful, and funny, and sad, and exciting it is to be human at any given point in time.
Wallace taught me my community is around me. He taught me that the magic is in writing, in persistently setting yourself goals and to damn others’ expectations. He taught me to think twice about literary superstardom, too. While reaching a larger audience may be the best thing that could ever happen to me, it’s equally possible I’d only feel lonely when faced with so many strangers.
It’s ten years since I started writing. Am I a better writer than when I started? Absolutely. Am I a better person? I’m not sure, but I’m trying. The plan is to be a published, respected writer, and maybe an editor, too, all the while remembering where I came from; the plan is to hold on to that feeling, a time when the only people that ever cared about my words were other writers, each of us trying to make a difference in the only way we knew.
It’s possible I’ll return here in ten years time with so much wisdom to impart. Maybe I’ll return with all the answers I’ve been missing all this time. Although it’s far more likely that I’ll write, love and make a mess, as I edge ever closer to becoming myself.
Laurie Steed is a writer, editor and PhD student based in Perth, Western Australia. He reviews fiction for the Australian Book Review and Readings Monthly and is a books and Australian writing columnist at Kill Your Darlings. You can visit him at lauriesteed.com
— David Lipsky’s Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself is available through Broadway Books.