Thursday, September 18, 2008

Memories of DFW

A small addendum here to my earlier post about David Foster Wallace. (I was going to share excerpts of his work all week, but I figure it's better to just sum it up with: Go read him.) Pomona, where Wallace taught, has put up a page of memories from people who knew him. And McSweeney's has a long list of its own.

It's more than fine to hear his fellow writers share their thoughts, but I find something particularly compelling about his former students, who make him sound like a great teacher in all kinds of ways. These two details, from separate students, made me laugh out loud:
He was obsessed with grammar. He wrote about it some, especially in one published essay, but it’s hard to understand the depth of his obsession without having written and turned in papers to him. Responding to the first essay I ever turned into him, Dave started with the line, “There are a lot of interesting themes you’ve touched on ... but to discuss those themes would be like conversing about the weather over a bloody, mutilated corpse.” Over a few years, Dave learned not only some tact but also that not every person in the world was raised to diagram sentences as a child.
I used to confuse "further" and "farther," and, apparently, I did it quite often. In one of my stories, I'd confused them yet again, and in the margins, he'd written, simply, "I hate you." I've never confused them since.
The Pomona and McSweeney's pages are both filled with personal encounters with Wallace, some of the fleeting variety, some of the rooted variety. I've found reading them deeply sad, but also gratifying. If you were a fan of his, I think you'll find both pages as warm as I have. Here's another detail from a student that I enjoyed:
Sometimes people brought food to class, like for a birthday or to celebrate the last class of the semester. Dave didn't eat sweets, but he would often go on about how good it looked or how delicious it smelled. One time, when someone brought brownies, he held it up to his nose and inhaled deeply for a long time before passing it on. He used to bring plain almonds for himself. If you sat next to him, he'd occasionally place an almond in front of you. He wouldn't ask if you wanted it or not, he'd just put it there. If you ate it, he'd probably give you another one.


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