The Burden of Geniusocity Part Deux: DFW Edition

There was a brilliant article in the New Yorker from March 9th about David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max titled “The Unfinished.” It’s hella long, but intensely interesting, and if you want to read it online, you can do so here. Anyway, the point of it is essentially that DFW was handicapped by the breadth and epic goals of his 1100 page second novel Infinite Jest, and his unfulfilled desire to top that with a new novel centered around a bunch of people working at the IRS, and the idea of boringness. To master these ideas, Wallace “took accounting classes. He studied I.R.S. publications. He enjoyed mastering the
technicalities of the I.R.S. bureaucracy—its lore, mind-set,
vocabulary. He assembled hundreds of pages of research on boredom,
trying to understand it at an almost neurological level. He studied the
word’s etymology and was intrigued to find that “bore” appeared in the
language in 1766, two years before “interesting” came to mean ‘absorbing.'”

Point being, Wallace got crazy into it. He immersed himself in this stuff– and that’s what is so cool and dedicated about him, and why some people are just born to be willing to do that sort of epic research that can push a cool fictional idea into amazing, realistic fiction and other people are going to write books that are pretty much about their college friends, save some serious stuff about sexual assault, and some over-extended stuff about the intense strategy sessions dans Electronic Battleship.  

But the hyper-geniusing undercut a severe depression. Dude was conflicted in intense ways, and couldn’t, obviously ever shake free of the weights of intense sadness that would hold him down and eventually kill him. There is a particular portion in the article when he write a letter to Jonathan Franzen that, from a writer’s standpoint, is frighteningly illuminating and illustrative of this point:
“In May, 1990, he wrote to Jonathan Franzen, with whom he had recently
become friends, “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 [William] Vollmann and Mark Leyner and even David
f*ckwad Leavitt and any young man who is right now producing pages with
which he can live, and even approving them off some base clause of
conviction about the enterprise’s meaning and end.”

It’s sad, obviously, but it’s also noteworthy to see that this man, this genius, who not only can casually confess areas of severe insecurity to Jonathan Franzen of all people, but actually won a MacArthur Genuis Grant, which officially labels him a genius, was crippled by some of the very same things that plague all writers: a lack of confidence, and a lack of happiness in being able to produce quality pages of work.

This kind of begs the nearly-philosophical question of whether you’d rather be less smart and self-aware but hella (NorCal shout out numero dos!) productive or mo’ smart but possibly in a way that cripples your ability to feel like anything you’re doing is significant. Hmmm, I probably phrased that in a way that pre-biases, but screw it: I’m in NorCal this week, and NorCal is a land devoid of biases, unless they happen to be about Sean Penn films, or burritos from anywhere but the Mission.

I await your thoughts with an enthusiasm that knows three bounds and several Joe Walsh songs.

Life’s Been,
Good

Joe Walsh

You might also like:

  • No Related Posts

11 thoughts on “The Burden of Geniusocity Part Deux: DFW Edition

  1. Pat Marinelli

    Olivia, I’m with you on this. Just delete the movies and give me a cat insteadof the dog.

    I just want to be me and be happy with my writing. A little money would help a lot.

  2. Miriam Hall

    I’d vote neither as well. My mom was hella brill and warned me when I was young that "You will have the same curse of intelligence that I had". Did I mention she was also dangerously depressed?

    None of this has to be a curse. Get help, find ways of working with it, harness it, don’t let it harness you. I hate to "blame the victim" but I sincerely don’t believe anymore that any situation is impossible in the absolute sense (though money/resources/social angst and sincere personal blocks make seem to make it as such). We can learn from this to use our powers for good rather than taking ourselves down, which serves no one in the ultimate sense (since we die alone or f-ed up).

  3. Stephanie Allen

    I can completely understand what he was saying. There are days when all I can focus on is writing. Then there are the days that I wonder why I even bothered learning my ABC’s. One day the pen feels great. The next it feels heavy. And to top this all off I’m in the middle of a Hemingway I can’t put down.

  4. Olivia

    I could watch Joe Walsh play guitar all day long. Cracks. Me. Up. He was also a nice addition to the Drew Carey Show back in the day.

    That letter from Wallace to Franzen pretty much summed up my feelings lately. Almost word for word, except with gender switches, an age difference, and extensive name changes throughout. Point being, I feel like I should be able to "produce pages off which I can live", but it’s just not happening, and I’m starting to think that anyone who is able to, has to be doing something shady to beat the system.

    To answer your question, I wouldn’t want to be either of those. I just want to do what I love, and be able to earn a living from it. Neither fame nor fortune is pursued, but a pet dog would be nice, and some amped up surround sound for movie night.

  5. Christine DePetrillo

    I say mad geniuses rule. They’re the ones that change the world, set it on fire (sometimes literally–that’s why it’s good to have Spiderman or some such friendly neighborhood superhero nearby). Think about the things that would never had been invented if not for the super-academics who asked the "what if" questions the rest of us are too busy updating our Facebook pages to ask. Sure, they may be fantastically depressed, but what’s a little mood swing if it benefits the human population as a whole?

  6. Erin

    Well-said in your second paragraph, Tom! That’s pretty much exactly what I wanted to say here. Although, I’m not mad genius enough to have come up with basilisk of "self-doubt"!

  7. Tom

    I didn’t get a chance to do more than read this yesterday, but I did wonder why no one had responded. Teh intarwebz, they are confuzed.

    Pursuit of creative endeavors is marked long and well by basilisk of self-doubt (I could have said "spectre" or "demon," but everyone uses those phrases, so I had to change it up a bit.). Some deal with it better than others. I think everyone who enters into a project or undertaking of their own design or making is bound to have doubts about it sooner or later. As Genevieve said, some of us are just better at dealing with it than others.

    I wouldn’t want to be anything other than what I am, and I have no clue whether I’m less smart and more productive, or if I’m hella-aware and plagued by negativity. Since I’m now being hella-productive, however, and I sure as hell didn’t get any smarter in the last two or three years, I’m not sure where that puts me. Was I more aware three years ago, and now I know less? Or is the whole question a moot point, and the real question is, how would you rather look at your accomplishments?

  8. Genevieve

    Interesting. A message from "The Internet." It reminds me of that scene in Real Genius when Kent hears a mysterious voice that tells him, "This is Jesus, Kent." When in fact it’s not Jesus, it’s Val Kilmer and his friends…Val Milmer? Is that you pretending to be The Internet?

    So to your question. Would I rather be a mad genuis or a functional, averagely intelligent writer? I don’t know. I think right now I’m a decent, semi-functional writer. Would I want to go lower than my already dark lows if it meant that I also produced mind boggling work? (thinks a moment) No. I love the way Wallace wrote, but (even though I didn’t know him) I would rather have spared him the pain of mental anguish. I know that highly intelligent people are prone to bouts of depression, but there must be some of them out there who manage.

    What surprised me was finding out that Lucy Maude Montgomery (the author of Anne of Green Gables) killed herself. It’s only recently come out from the family that she suffered from severe depression. Yet her writing always had such a blythesome spirit.

    Also, Kevin, I know that mad genuis works of creative fiction are impressive, but only for a select few. Your book about college kids will connect with a much larger audience, and isn’t that what true storytelling is about? Gathering a group of listeners around you and entertaining them? Try gethering some people around you and talk about boredom for a half an hour.

    I know what you mean, though. Gathering around a group of highly intelligent people and managing to entertain THEM is quite an accomplishment.

  9. The Internet

    Apologies if anyone commented and it got bumped or frozen or it just didn’t work– the Internet has been having trouble loading, and uploading, and downloading, and, really, doing anything today, and when the Internet doesn’t feel like writing down what you said, there’s not much else you can do. But allegedly, we should be okay now.

COMMENT