There's an excerpt from D.T. Max's biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, over at Newsweek Book Beast, David Foster Wallace on the Brink of ‘Infinite Jest’:
In 1990, David Foster Wallace, only 28, had already lived a chaotic life: he’d been a literary star, a teacher, and a depressive, had attempted to take his own life and then found his way into drug and alcohol rehab. After a month in a facility, he had entered a halfway house in Brighton, Mass. His collapse had taught him that the things that had once mattered most to him—cleverness, facility, pyrotechnics—were no longer enough to sustain him. But if he wasn’t supposed to light up the page with his brilliance, how was he supposed to write?
The only thing Wallace knew for sure was that he desperately wanted to be a novelist again but some piece of him still felt too fragile to attempt an effort so key to his well-being. The problem, he felt, was not really the words on the page; he had lost confidence not in his ability to write so much as the need to have written. Jonathan Franzen, with whom he had struck up an epistolary friendship, offered to get together that April when he was in Boston. Wallace said fine but stood him up after they made plans. But because one tenet of recovery is to make amends to those you have wronged, he wrote to his friend explaining his behavior. “The bald fact is that I’m a little afraid of you right now,” he wrote. He begged to be allowed to bow out of their embryonic competition, to declare a truce against this writer who was so “irked by my stuff,” because Wallace was no longer “a worthy opponent in some kind of theoretical chess-by-mail game from which we can both profit by combat.”
He went on: “Right now I am a pathetic and very confused young man, a failed writer at 28, who is so jealous, so sickly searingly envious of you and Vollmann and Mark Leyner and even David F--kwad Leavitt and any young man who is right now producing pages with which he can live ... that I consider suicide a reasonable—if not at this point a desirable—option with respect to the whole wretched problem.”
His avoidance of his only literary friend made him mad at himself, but to be sitting at a table discussing how to create art would be an inherently false gesture, he felt, because, as he explained to Franzen, he was no longer really an artist: “The problem’s details are at once shameful to me and boring to anyone else. I always had great contempt for people who bitched and moaned about how ‘hard’ writing was, and how ‘blockage’ was a constant and looming threat. When I discovered writing in 1983 I discovered a thing that gave me a combination of fulfillment (moral/aesthetic/existential/etc.) and near-genital pleasure I’d not dared hope for from anything.”
Franzen quickly wrote to reassure him there were no hard feelings. He had only been hoping for “some laffs and companionship from a late afternoon with you in Cambridge.” He too had felt “joyless” in his writing lately. Wallace, though, like a cancer patient having to explain himself to a headache sufferer, did not think their discomfort was equivalent. His anguish, he wrote, had multiple sources, from a fear of fame to a fear of failure. Behind the ordinary fears lurked the fear of being ordinary.
Even as Wallace was complaining that he had lost his old reason for writing, Franzen in his letters was quietly suggesting a replacement. He would remind Wallace of the pleasure Franzen took in creating characters he loved and how the stories he had liked in Girl With Curious Hair, Wallace’s story collection, had given him the same satisfaction; both were part of “the humble, unpaid work an author does in the service of emotion and the human image.” A year before when Franzen had suggested something similar, Wallace had dismissed it as twaddle. Back then—in a letter in which he said for all he cared readers frustrated by his writing were welcome to think he was an asshole—he had made clear that “[f]iction for me is a conversation for me between me and something that May Not Be Named—God, the Cosmos, the Unified Field, my own psychoanalitic cathexes, Roqoq’oqu, whomever. I do not feel even the hint of an obligation to an entity called READER—do not regard it as his favor, rather as his choice, that, duly warned, he is expended capital/time/retinal energy on what I’ve done.”
But now he wondered if his resistance toward a more supportive idea of the writer’s relationship with the reader wasn’t the cause of his blockage. He responded to Franzen: “I’d love to hear more on what ‘humble, unpaid work an author does in the service of emotion and human image’ is ... And how, as a vastly overselfconscious writer, might one still go on having faith and hope in literature and some kind of pleasure ... ? I admit it: I want to know. I have no clue. I’m a blank slate right now. Tabula rasa or whatever.”
Wallace stayed in the halfway house for six months. After, he faced the ordinary expenses of a Boston-area resident. He was back against a problem he knew well—that if he taught he might not write, but if he didn’t teach he would not eat.
Continue reading over at Newsweek Book Beast.
Pre-order Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace from Amazon now.
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