Although of Course You End up Becoming Yourself : A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace
"If you can think of times in your life that you've treated people with extraordinary decency and love, and pure uninterested concern, just because they were valuable as human beings. The ability to do that with ourselves. To treat ourselves the way we would treat a really good, precious friend. Or a tiny child of ours that we absolutely loved more than life itself. And I think it's probably possible to achieve that. I think part of the job we're here for is to learn how to do it. I know that sounds a little pious."
-- David Foster Wallace
An indelible portrait of David Foster Wallace, by turns funny and inspiring, based on a five-day trip with award-winning writer David Lipsky during Wallace's Infinite Jest tour
In David Lipsky's view, David Foster Wallace was the best young writer in America. Wallace's pieces for Harper's magazine in the '90s were, according to Lipsky, "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."
Then Rolling Stone sent Lipsky to join Wallace on the last leg of his book tour for Infinite Jest, the novel that made him internationally famous. They lose to each other at chess. They get iced-in at an airport. They dash to Chicago to catch a make-up flight. They endure a terrible reader's escort in Minneapolis. Wallace does a reading, a signing, an NPR appearance. Wallace gives in and imbibes titanic amounts of hotel television (what he calls an "orgy of spectation"). They fly back to Illinois, drive home, walk Wallace's dogs. Amid these everyday events, Wallace tells Lipsky remarkable things--everything he can about his life, how he feels, what he thinks, what terrifies and fascinates and confounds him--in the writing voice Lipsky had come to love. Lipsky took notes, stopped envying him, and came to feel about him--that grateful, awake feeling--the same way he felt about Infinite Jest. Then Lipsky heads to the airport, and Wallace goes to a dance at a Baptist church.
A biography in five days, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself is David Foster Wallace as few experienced this great American writer. Told in his own words, here is Wallace's own story, and his astonishing, humane, alert way of looking at the world; here are stories of being a young writer--of being young generally--trying to knit together your ideas of who you should be and who other people expect you to be, and of being young in March of 1996. And of what it was like to be with and--as he tells it--what it was like to become David Foster Wallace.
David Lipsky is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Magazine Writing, The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, and many other publications. He contributes as an essayist to NPR's All Things Considered, and is the recipient of a Lambert Fellowship, a Media Award from GLAAD, and a National Magazine Award. He's the author of the novel The Art Fair, a collection of stories, Three Thousand Dollars, and the bestselling nonfiction book Absolutely American, which was a Time magazine Best Book of the Year.
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April 13, 2010
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Excerpt from Although of Course You End up Becoming Yourself by David Lipsky
tuesday before class
in the living room, playing chess
his dogs slinking back and forth over carpet
You were saying about the tour that while we travel, "I need to know that
anything that I ask you fi ve minutes later to not put in, you won't put in."
Given my level of fatigue and fuck- up quotient lately, it's the only
way I can see doin' it and not going crazy.
[Drone--he's got two dogs--is chewing on the chair David sits in.
He now has an unlisted phone number, because of fans.]
I don't know if "fan" would be the right word . . .
[Looking at bookcases . . . He had a board out, and is eager to play.
So we are playing chess.]
I think when I was twenty- five this was what I wanted. But . . . I
don't mind it now. I mean, I'm proud of the book, I'm glad the
book is getting attention. Stuff about me is (a) makes me uncomfortable
and (b) is bad for me, because it makes me self- conscious
when I write. And I do not need to be more self- conscious. Oh,
fuck me! It takes a while for me to get in a groove. I honestly don't
know what's gonna sort of eventuate here. Well, fuck! (Looking at
Little, Brown bought both the hardcover and the softcover rights
at the same time. I think I could make a lot if I took an advance for
the next thing, but I can't do that, so . . .
[He's not interested in money for next novels, which friends have
said is the wisest course. I talk about my own friends--people
he knows too--who arranged deals while touring for successful
That's incredible. I've got this thing where I just can't take money
for something till it's done. So I'm sort of screwed about that stuff.
(Slow, Southernish voice) I've been burnt on this before, I just can't
I had no choice on this book, it was sort of under way. There was
so much research I had to do, that I literally could not teach and do
it at the same time. So I decided to eat it, and do it. But it would have
been a lot more fun if I hadn't taken any money for it.
[He's playing pop radio, the local college station. I haven't heard this
song in so much time: INXS, "It's the One Thing." David nods, says
he loves their song "Don't Change."]
You know, I went through such a bad time in my twenties. Thinking
like, Oh no, I'm this genius writer, everything I do's gotta be ingenious,
blah blah blah blah, and bein' so shut down and miserable for
three or four years. That it's worth any amount of money to me, not
to go there again. And I'm aware that that sounds maybe Pollyannaish
or sound- bitish. But it's actually just the truth.
I was twenty- eight years old, and that means not taking an ad-
vance for stuff before it's done. And it's money well spent as far as
Aware of your fame here?
The grad students are vaguely aware I think.
They must follow it?
I think kids in the Midwest are different than kids on the East Coast.
I think Time and Newsweek are fairly inescapable. So I think they
kinda know. I'm sort of so nasty when they start talking about that
stuff in class that I think I've scared them into just leaving it alone.
Because it's toxic to them and it's toxic to me. That class is my
uh--I'm there to learn, not to talk about my own stuff. And I'm
there . . . when I'm teaching, I'm there as a reader, not a writer. And
the more--it's extremely unpleasant, the more, uh, the more I'm
there in a kind of writerly persona . . .
There's this weird scam in creative writing workshops that
somehow the teacher's gonna teach you how--they're gonna be
able to teach you how to do exactly what it is they do. Which is why
these programs try to pack themselves with the best- known and
most- respected writers. ("Wraters") As if how good a writer you
are and how good a teacher you are have anything to do with each
other. I don't think so. I know too many really good writers who are
shitty teachers, and vice versa, to think that. I think that the teaching
. . . well, the teaching has helped my own writing a lot . . . So
maybe I don't think that anymore. But the writers are often interested
in preserving as much of their own time as they can.
[Hums while he plays chess: not tremendously good at chess; strong,
however, at humming.]
Well, that really didn't do a whole heck of a lot for me, did it?
Shit. All right, we've got time for one more move each and then
we have to leave. I've got to brush my teeth.
I took the job for the health insurance. [Illinois State University]
[Bathroom cabinet: lots of tubes of Topol. (He's a smoker.)
Dogs: Drone is "A provisional dog, he just showed up once while
we were jogging," they took him on.]
Some kind of weird, "I've made a terrible mistake with my life, I
need to be selling insurance in Oshkosh" sort of feeling. [We're talking
about John Barth, and other writers who've gotten in trouble. A
sudden in- the- wrong- place sense. An anxiety he felt before Infi nite
Jest.] I think that happens to a lot of writers.
[Went to Arizona State University. Edward Abbey was there . . . Robert
Boswell helped him more than anybody . . . ]
I was so in thrall to Barth I just knew it would be sort of a grotesque
thing. [Why he couldn't and didn't go to Hopkins. He patterned the
longest part of his second book after Barth.]
* * *
in car, my rented grand am
en route to class
This is the thing--you're gonna have to sit around, you can't even be
in the office, because I'm gonna have to yell at a lot of people. I have
to cut it short: just because we've gotta get up at five in the morning.
This is what's fucked: it's that, these poor kids, I haven't been
around for two weeks. And they all are gonna have various deals to
discuss. [So sensitive about all performance] I'm usually a much
better teacher than this. I swear to God.
Like doing readings?
You were good.
Thanks. Tower Books--that's not one I was particularly pleased with.
I get so nervous beforehand, and the nervousness is so unpleasant,
that that's what I dislike. And I don't think my stuff reads out loud
very well. And I think I come off looking like a maniac. Mainly I'm
doing what they blew up to larger type size. I give like one or two
readings in colleges a year. I gave 'em ten things and they blew up
five of them.
I read something ("sumpin' ") different at Tower just because
this unbelievably cute girl from Spin magazine was there, and she
didn't want to hear the same thing twice, so I totally trashed the
plan. (He laughs.) And I never saw her again.
[The writer Elizabeth Wurtzel was at David's KGB reading--a kind
of Brezhnev- and- Pravda- themed bar in Lower Manhattan. She was
standing right up front. We turn out to both know Elizabeth.]
I don't know how Elizabeth--Liz got like the best seat in the house,
using skills I think only Elizabeth has. Ah, she's real nice. She's a
good egg. Good egg.
When you're eighteen, you realize that--there's also a part of us
that wants to be the president. And there's also a part that wants to
fuck every attractive person of the gender of our choice. I mean, you
know . . . Just, I think she's gotta be more--it's not an accident that
she's depressed all the time. I don't know. Maybe I just project all
kinds of weird stuff onto her . . .
* * *
class: "advanced prose"
[Doesn't want a tape. Is comfortable with note- taking.]
Fluorescents, desks, steel wastepaper cans, boot smell, sweater
smell, clock on wall, big table that David doesn't sit much behind.
Fifteen students. Women sit, as at an old- line synagogue, slightly
apart from men. David wearing Fryes, blue bandanna. Carrying Diet
Dave has noticed some surprising student errors this week.
Dave: Before we start, let's do a moment of Grammar Rock.
They laugh. He's the ideal, the professor you hope for: lightning
writer, modern references, charming and funny and firm.
The students know another thing: he's become, their
bandanna- wearing teacher, during these past three weeks a suddenly
celebrated man. And they want somehow to acknowledge it.
Student 1: Done being famous yet?
Dave: (Blush smile) Two more minutes.
Kid from back, suddenly: I knew him well, Horatio--a man of
Infinite Jest . . .
Dave: OK, you're allowed one reference.
Quick chatter about his media appearances. It's exciting; a piece of
their private life--this room and class--has gone suddenly public.
Student 2, female: I love the way the Trib described your office.
Student 3, female: Did you wind up, like, next to Dick Vitale and
Dave says he got real nervous on the fl ights, kept picturing grave
etc., from tour.
Student 4: Just put pepperoni and mushrooms on my Tombstone.
(A take- out, grocery pizza sort of joke.)
Dave: The words "pop quiz" is what's good about that.
They talk about his magazine photos. Dave blushes more.
Dave: I didn't think, I didn't think--you can see my smiling maw. I
thought, "Really? Is that me?"
Dave fishes out a Styrofoam cup after pawing through two wastebaskets,
for someplace to put his chewing tobacco. Is also drinking
a Diet Pepsi.
Class begins with a jump from celebrity into the supernormal,
Dave: Office hours next week. Bring light reading material, if you
have to wait in the hallway.
Begins work on student stories.
Dave: (Offering Very Sensible advice. Lots of jobs for fiction, you
have to keep track of twelve different things--characters, plot,
sound, speed.) But the job of the first eight pages is not to have
the reader want to throw the book at the wall, during the first
He paces around the classroom. Happy, energetic. At one point,
thinking, he even drops into a quick knee bend. Class laughs; they
really like him.
Dave: I know--I get real excited, and now I'm squatting.
First story: by pretty student with a Rosanna Arquette mouth. Dave
on story, always using TV: "I submit, it's kinda like a Sam and Diane
thing. Or When Harry Met Sally."
Classroom fluorescents flicker on and off, quiet fl ashes. Dave
Another story he likes: it's very open, but needs to be controlled.
"This is just a head kinda vomiting at us . . ."
Less likable story: "This is just a campus romance story.
And to the average civilian, I've gotta tell you, this is not that
interesting . . ."
Now at desk. Craning up and down when discussion and story
get him excited.
The student being workshopped is a punkish guy: mohawk,
silver- and- yellow collar.
Dave: It's really hard to create a narrator who's alive. Take it from me.
Dave's advice is a kind of comedy, and makes them laugh.
Dave: To have the narrator be funny and smart, have him say funny,
smart things some of the time.
He makes a flub, says quickly, "Brain fart."
He stops for a second. Holds steady. "Excuse me, I'm about to
His delivery is darting and graceful: the Astaire quality of good
On the campus romance story. "The great dread of creative writing
professors: 'Their eyes met over the keg . . . ' "
The key to writing is learning to differentiate private interest
from public entertainment. One aid is, you're supposed to get less
self- interested as you age. But, "I think I am more self- absorbed
at thirty- four than twenty- three. Because if it's interesting to me, I
automatically imagine it's interesting to you. I could spend a half
hour telling you about my trip to the store, but that might not be as
interesting to you as it is to me."
Reminds the class, as it breaks. Notebooks closing, bookbags rising
from floor to desktop. Ruckle noises, kids standing. The week's
Dave: Never--don't go there: "Their eyes met across the keg . . . "
And "What's interesting to me may not be to you."
Still in good, buzzed- up mood after. Brings me a water to drink.
Dave: Where would you be without me?
I hope it's not that same tobacco- Styrofoam cup.
* * *
talking to colleagues after class
"Was it a success?" [Colleagues ask about Infinite Jest tour.]
No vegetables were thrown, so I consider it a success.
I just made enough money to live off it for a couple of years, so