The Non-Binding Paradox (of How David Foster Wallace Had Fun)

Tomorrow marks the release of The End of the Tour, the dramatization of David Lipsky’s […]

David Zahl / 7.30.15

Tomorrow marks the release of The End of the Tour, the dramatization of David Lipsky’s book-length interview with author David Foster Wallace, (a number of portions of which we’ve posted over the years). As much as I admire Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg, I’m in the camp of those who are ambivalent about the film’s production. Just feels too soon, and as his estate has made abundantly clear, there is no way the man himself would have wanted this to happen. The initial images from the set looked dubious, but then the first trailer appeared (below), and it was far from the disaster that many were anticipating. Now the reviews are streaming in and they’re surprisingly strong (with the exception of this remarkable one from CT). For Segel in particular, who was profiled in the NY Times this past week and really seems to have taken his role to heart. The closing quote stopped me in my tracks:

The-End-of-the-Tour-poster-courtesy-A24“That there’s something about the American promise that x, y and z are going to satisfy this itch that you’re not enough, that a whole generation found to be a false promise. No achievement or pleasure or entertainment or consuming is going to be the thing that makes you feel like everything’s O.K. And it really hit home with me. Because you really are still you when you go back home at night. No matter what award you’ve gotten or how much money is in your bank account, you feel the same going to sleep.”

That’ll preach. Anyway, I’ve yet to decide whether or not to partake, which probably means I will. Whatever the case, the time seems right to post a DFW quote I’ve been saving. This comes from his short essay about writing, “The Nature of the Fun”, which I wish we could’ve included in our Work and Play issue, as it says pretty much everything that needs to be said about the creative process – the dynamic between inspiration and ego, of expression vs. validation, of grace getting hijacked by law, the strange logic of abreaction, etc. To take Wallace at his word, it would appear that the same thing that happens to readers when they encounter a certain caliber of (subversive) art–i.e., in trying to escape the world they are returned to it afresh–applies to the writer as well. The first paragraph is a doozie, but well worth it:

In the beginning, when you first start out trying to write fiction, the whole endeavor’s about fun. You don’t expect anybody else to read it. You’re writing almost wholly to get yourself off. To enable your own fantasies and deviant logics and to escape or transform parts of yourself you don’t like. And it works – and it’s terrific fun. Then, if you have good luck and people seem to like what you do, and you actually start to get paid for it, and get to see your stuff professionally typeset and bound and blurbed and reviewed and even (once) being read on the AM subway by a pretty girl you don’t even know it seems to make it even more fun. For a while. la-et-jc-the-david-foster-wallace-estate-comes-out-against-end-of-the-tour-20140421Then things start to get complicated and confusing, not to mention scary. Now you feel like you’re writing for other people, or at least you hope so. You’re no longer writing just to get yourself off, which – since any kind of masturbation is lonely and hollow – is probably good. But what replaces the onanistic motive? You’ve found you very much enjoy having your writing liked by people, and you find you’re extremely keen to have people like the new stuff you’re doing. The motive of pure personal starts to get supplanted by the motive of being liked, of having pretty people you don’t know like you and admire you and think you’re a good writer. Onanism gives way to attempted seduction, as a motive. Now, attempted seduction is hard work, and its fun is offset by a terrible fear of rejection. Whatever “ego” means, your ego has now gotten into the game. Or maybe “vanity” is a better word. Because you notice that a good deal of your writing has now become basically showing off, trying to get people to think you’re good. This is understandable. You have a great deal of yourself on the line, writing – your vanity is at stake. You discover a tricky thing about fiction writing; a certain amount of vanity is necessary to be able to do it all, but any vanity above that certain amount is lethal. At some point you find that 90% of the stuff you’re writing is motivated and informed by an overwhelming need to be liked. This results in shitty fiction. And the shitty work must get fed to the wastebasket, less because of any sort of artistic integrity than simply because shitty work will cause you to be disliked. At this point in the evolution of writerly fun, the very thing that’s always motivated you to write is now also what’s motivating you to feed your writing to the wastebasket. This is a paradox and a kind of double-bind, and it can keep you stuck inside yourself for months or even years, during which period you wail and gnash and rue your bad luck and wonder bitterly where all the fun of the thing could have gone.


The smart thing to say, I think, is that the way out of this bind is to work your way somehow back to your original motivation – fun. And, if you can find your way back to fun, you will find that the hideously unfortunate double-bind of the late vain period turns out really to have been good luck for you. Because the fun you work back to has been transfigured by the extreme unpleasantness of vanity and fear, an unpleasantness you’re now so anxious to avoid that the fun you rediscover is a way fuller and more large-hearted kind of fun. It has something to do with Work as Play. Or with the discovery that disciplined fun is more than impulsive or hedonistic fun. Or with figuring out that not all paradoxes have to be paralyzing. Under fun’s new administration, writing fiction becomes a way to go deep inside yourself and illuminate precisely the stuff you don’t want to see or let anyone else see, and this stuff usually turns out (paradoxically) to be precisely the stuff all writers and readers everywhere share and respond to, feel. Fiction becomes a weird way to countenance yourself and to tell the truth instead of being a way to escape yourself or present yourself in a way you figure you will be maximally likable. This process is complicated and confusing and scary, and also hard work, but it turns out to be the best fun there is.

The fact that you can now sustain the fun of writing only by confronting the very same unfun parts of yourself you’d first used writing to avoid or disguise is another paradox, but this one isn’t any kind of bind at all. What it is is a gift, a kind of miracle, and compared to it the rewards of strangers’ affection is as dust, lint.