Monthly Archives: December 2012

Literary Heroes, Continued: David Foster Wallace

It would be a fair assessment to say that I’m an odd individual.  Since I’m a writer, I suppose that’s a good thing.  In fact, it may even be part of the reason I started writing in the first place.  However, life is not always user-friendly for the odd people of the world.  Because of this, I always appreciate stumbling across a particularly off-beat writer.

I can’t say with any authority that David Foster Wallace was an odd person.  I do think, though, that his writing was, and continues to be, refreshingly bizarre.  I first came across his work about eight years ago, when I picked up a copy of Infinite Jest at Building 19.  (For the record, that book takes the cake for coolest thing I’ve ever found at Building 19.)  Despite the fact that the book contained about a hundred pages of footnotes and was so gargantuan that I had to read it sitting at a table, I was hooked right away.  It wasn’t only the unusual style that appealed to me, but also the mastery of craft he displayed in his writing.  His work often contradicts every craft book I’ve ever read, but he was skilled enough to pull it off.  Genius and bravery is a potent combination when it comes to writing.

Knowing that David Foster Wallace was out in the world, writing, made me feel less alone.  There are times when I question my “starving artist” lifestyle.  I know that some people in my life who would rather I settle down with a house and some kids, or start earning a six-figure salary.  Reading books like Infinite Jest makes me brave enough to just be me.

On the night that David Foster Wallace hung himself, I was returning from a slam poetry event with some friends.  It was early morning by the time we got home, and one of the people I was with came across the article on an internet news feed.  I cried like he was someone I knew.  It felt strange to be so devastated by the death of a stranger, but I guess that’s the thing with heroes.  It isn’t about whether we affect them, it’s about how they affect us.

I was unprepared for David Foster Wallace to die so young, with so many stories left untold.  However, I’m grateful for the ones that made it into print.  I was reading my copy of Infinite Jest at a bar one night, and a guy came up to me and said that he could tell which book I was reading by the number of times I flipped back to the footnotes.  The thing about David Foster Wallace is that he’s kind of a cult classic.  Not everyone I meet knows who he is, but when I meet someone who does, I feel connected.  I am an odd individual.  But I’m not the only one.


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Literary Heroes Continued: Thank You, Jonathan Larson

I’ve spent the past few weeks frantically grading essays and final exams.  However, I’m not immune to the charms of the holiday season, and as a writer, I have a number of favorite holiday stories.  A Christmas Carol by Dickens is certainly at the top of the list, followed by O’Henry’s The Gift of the Magi.  Strangely enough, though, one of the Christmas stories I cherish the most isn’t really a Christmas story at all; it just happens to begin and end there.

I was a teenager when I first discovered Rent.  At the time, I was living in a conservative mill town where the population rounded up to ten thousand people.  I had notebooks filled with stories and poems that no one had ever read and, as teenage girls often are, I was miserable.  Enter Jonathan Larson’s edgy update of Puccini’s La Boheme.

I was utterly seduced by the storyline.  How could any artist not be?  Larson created an urban family of artists struggling against the harsh reality of life in New York during the advent of the AIDS epidemic.  What appealed to me so much was the sincerity and integrity of the characters.  As a writer, I find it easy to feel alone and misguided.  I find it easy to get discouraged.  In modern society, many people consider art a frivolous hobby.  The characters in Rent would riot in the face of such blasphemy.  What I find inspiring is the passion behind their pursuits and the raw honesty in everything they do, from Roger’s tortured guitar solos to Collins’ heartbreaking refrain at Angel’s funeral.

It’s not just the musical itself that keeps me hopeful when faced with a mainstream culture that would rather read Facebook updates than poetry.  Jonathan Larson is an inspiration all on his own.  He didn’t just write Rent, he lived it.  ‘Life Support’ was modeled after an AIDS support group he attended with friends of his who were living with the virus.  He toiled as a waiter at a diner, making just enough money to keep a roof over his head while he composed.  His tenacity ultimately resulted in the creation of a musical that would run on Broadway for over ten years.  Of course, the fact that Rent is so phenomenal makes it all the more soul crushing that Larson died on the night before it opened.

Every time I watch Rent, I mourn the loss of so brilliant an artist so early in his career.  I mourn the stories that he didn’t live to tell.  More than that, though, I give thanks for the fact that he existed at all.  Although New York city is not the Bohemian mecca it once was, AIDS is no longer a death sentence, and tape-recorded answering machine messages are woefully obsolete, what remains is the fact that the world is full of artists.  What is true is that I am never as alone as I feel, that people still read poetry, and that there are still brilliant composers writing musicals that will change people’s lives the way Rent changed mine.  Sometimes, I need to be reminded, and for that, thank you, Jonathan Larson.


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Literary Heroes, Continued: James O’Barr

Well, it appears that I’ve once again fallen off the blogging wagon.  My apologies!  There has been quite a bit of excitement lately, starting with an additional teaching job that I picked up at the beginning of November.  I’m also in the process of applying to a couple of Ph.D programs. However, now that I seem to have balanced my work load, I thought I’d pick up where I left off with my list of literary heroes.

James O’Barr was not originally going to be on this list.  It’s not that I don’t adore him, it just didn’t occur to me to include a graphic novelist.  I’m not sure why, considering how much of a comic fiend I am.  Nevertheless, I knew my next blog would have to be about Mr. O’Barr after I read a special edition copy of The Crow that I received as  gift.  This particular version contains an introduction in which James O’Barr reveals that the storyline of the book was partly inspired by the death of an old girlfriend.  Apparently, said girlfriend was run down by a drunk driver on her way to pick him up.  Talk about survivor’s guilt.

This introduction provided a new perspective as I reread one of the most intense and emotionally raw graphic novels I’ve ever come across.  Reading that book makes my guts hurt.  That’s part of why I love it, and part of why I believe it’s well done.  Beyond that, though, I was encouraged by O’Barr’s ability to translate a traumatic experience into such a distinct and brilliant story.  I, too, have dealt with my own survivor’s guilt, and used it to fuel my creativity.  When I was twenty, I was involved in a drowning accident.  Clearly, I survived.  My boyfriend, however, did not.  When I started writing my first novel. I crafted the story around a protagonist whose boyfriend is killed in a car crash.  Although my novel bears little else in common with The Crow, I can relate to the authenticity behind the experiences.  Many things in literature can be deftly recreated with research and field work.  However, in my opinion, death is something that always seems more genuine when it’s based in reality.  Small details, like picking out burial clothes and watching the undertaker crank and latch the casket are details that might escape a writer who hasn’t experienced these things.

Knowing that someone I admire as much as JamesO’Barr was able to build such a beautifully haunting story on a foundation of truth made me feel closer to his work, and allowed me to view my own work from a fresh perspective.  I think that all writers have books that they love with reckless abandon.  The Crow   is one of those books for me.  What are yours?

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