David Foster Wallace means a lot to me — not just as a writer but as a human being. I never met him, never spoke to or corresponded with him, but I miss him as though we were dear friends.
He was born 8 months after I was. He went to a prestigious Liberal Arts University in the NE where he met people who would remain his friends for his entire life at the same time that I was going to a less prestigious Liberal Arts University in the SW where I was blessed with friends who still brighten my heart and life thirty years later. David was writing professionally at the same time I was trying to. Obviously he was much more successful at it than I. We were also writing at the same time as Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney with whom neither of us were at all impressed. And all his life, David Foster Wallace fought Depression. The deep, dark kind of depression that so few ever know or recognize, much less understand. The bone-black melancholia of Lincoln and Poe and my mother. The depression that finally won out when he hung himself at the age of 46.
I remember vividly reading his first novel — The Broom of the System. My then husband brought home a publisher’s preview copy (I am ashamed to say that the only thing I miss about being married to that man is the access to books he had via his job with Barnes and Noble). The copy looked almost like galleys and I read and read and read and read. Many times, I’d have to close it and jump up out of my chair to pace — it was like reading myself only so so SO much better — and I was at once inspired, elated, deflated and overwhelmingly jealous.
A few years later, the same man brought home Wallace’s second novel — Infinite Jest. It was HUGE — truly a tome — and he went on and on about how he would never be able to sell it, blah blah blah. I remember holding it in my hands for a long time, just looking at the cover, which was this blue sky with fluffy clouds that so reminded me of my home in the Texas Panhandle. (We were living in Houston at the time, downtown, which I loved, but where I could never see the sky).
When I did open it, it took weeks — literally — and amazingly for me — to read it. I had to work at reading it. Not because it was bad — the exact opposite — it was AMAZING — but so completely unlike anything I’d ever read (except maybe Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury) that I literally had to process almost every page.
I had begun to quit writing by then. I was still doing voice-over work, but only because we needed the money. I never auditioned for anything. And I had completely stopped singing. I refused to sing. This was the beginning of the Dark Years. And I remember thinking, Well, I’m right to give up, because I could never be David Foster Wallace and how could I settle for being anything less?
Of course all this is clear to me now, at almost 52. Back then, through all those somewhat parallel years, David Foster Wallace and I were both just living. To the best of our ability. At times, brilliantly (he) and often pathetically (me).
We were just living.
The day he took his life, 12 September, 2008, I felt as though I’d lost, not even just a dear friend, but a brother — someone of my blood — a brother who loved and ate and breathed words the way I do — and I cried as though I had. I’m crying now just thinking of the loss of him — of his talent, of his heart, of HIM.
This speech, This is Water, is something I wish I’d written, something I think I might have been able to come close to at one point in my life. I have been, at one time or another, both the student listening to him and David himself, reading this amazing speech and all the while thinking inside, What the fuck am I doing and Who the fuck do I think I am?
All this is by way of saying: Listen to this speech. And I mean really, really LISTEN to it. Actively, deeply, fully. Listen not just to the words, but to David’s inflection, feel the nervousness that never quite leaves him and yet almost does. Hear his heart.
In the end, we have, as Raymond Carver said, “only the words… so they better be the right ones…”. David Foster Wallace worked harder than many writers at coming up with the right words. And he succeeded more brilliantly than most ever will.