David Foster Wallace on Writing & an old Chinese Tale

“I keep remembering this strange little story I heard in Sunday school when I was about the size of a fire hydrant. It takes place in China or Korea or someplace like that. It seems there was this old farmer outside a village in the hill country who worked his farm with only his son and his beloved horse. One day the horse, who was not only beloved but vital to the labor-intensive work on the farm, picked the lock on his corral or whatever and ran off into the hills. All the old farmer’s friends came around to exclaim what bad luck this was. The farmer only shrugged and said, “Good luck, bad luck, who knows?”

A couple days later the beloved horse returned from the hills in the company of a whole priceless herd of wild horses, and the farmer’s friends all come around to congratulate him on what good luck the horse’s escape turned out to be. “Good luck, bad luck, who knows?” is all the farmer says in reply, shrugging. The farmer now strikes me as a bit Yiddish-sounding for an old Chinese farmer, but this is how I remember it.

But so the farmer and his son set about breaking the wild horses, and one of the horses bucks the son off his back with such wild force that the son breaks his leg. And here come the friends to commiserate with the farmer and curse the bad luck that had ever brought these accursed horses onto the farm. The old farmer just shrugs and says, “Good luck, bad luck, who knows?”

A few days later the Imperial Sino-Korean Army or something like that comes marching through the village, conscripting every able-bodied male between like 10 and 60 for cannon-fodder for some hideously bloody conflict that’s apparently brewing, but when they see the son’s broken leg, they let him off on some sort of feudal 4F, and instead of getting shanghaied the son stays on the farm with the old farmer. Good luck? Bad luck?

This is the sort of parabolic straw you cling to as you struggle with the issue of fun, as a writer. In the beginning, when you first start out trying to write fiction, the whole endeavor’s about fun. You don’t expect anybody else to read it. You’re writing almost wholly to get yourself off. To enable your own fantasies and deviant logics and to escape or transform parts of yourself you don’t like. And it works – and it’s terrific fun.

Then, if you have good luck and people seem to like what you do, and you actually start to get paid for it, and get to see your stuff professionally typeset and bound and blurbed and reviewed and even (once) being read on the a.m. subway by a pretty girl you don’t even know it seems to make it even more fun. For a while.

Then things start to get complicated and confusing, not to mention scary. Now you feel like you’re writing for other people, or at least you hope so. You’re no longer writing just to get yourself off, which – since any kind of masturbation is lonely and hollow – is probably good. But what replaces the onanistic motive? You’ve found you very much enjoy having your writing liked by people, and you find you’re extremely keen to have people like the new stuff you’re doing. The motive of pure personal starts to get supplanted by the motive of being liked, of having pretty people you don’t know like you and admire you and think you’re a good writer. Onanism gives way to attempted seduction, as a motive.

Now, attempted seduction is hard work, and its fun is offset by a terrible fear of rejection. Whatever “ego” means, your ego has now gotten into the game. Or maybe “vanity” is a better word. Because you notice that a good deal of your writing has now become basically showing off, trying to get people to think you’re good. This is understandable. You have a great deal of yourself on the line, writing – your vanity is at stake. You discover a tricky thing about fiction writing; a certain amount of vanity is necessary to be able to do it all, but any vanity above that certain amount is lethal. At some point you find that 90% of the stuff you’re writing is motivated and informed by an overwhelming need to be liked.

This results in shitty fiction. And the shitty work must get fed to the wastebasket, less because of any sort of artistic integrity than simply because shitty work will cause you to be disliked. At this point in the evolution of writerly fun, the very thing that’s always motivated you to write is now also what’s motivating you to feed your writing to the wastebasket. This is a paradox and a kind of double-bind, and it can keep you stuck inside yourself for months or even years, during which period you wail and gnash and rue your bad luck and wonder bitterly where all the fun of the thing could have gone.


Remember to have fun

The smart thing to say, I think, is that the way out of this bind is to work your way somehow back to your original motivation – fun. And, if you can find your way back to fun, you will find that the hideously unfortunate double-bind of the late vain period turns out really to have been good luck for you. Because the fun you work back to has been transfigured by the extreme unpleasantness of vanity and fear, an unpleasantness you’re now so anxious to avoid that the fun you rediscover is a way fuller and more large-hearted kind of fun.

It has something to do with Work as Play. Or with the discovery that disciplined fun is more than impulsive or hedonistic fun. Or with figuring out that not all paradoxes have to be paralyzing. Under fun’s new administration, writing fiction becomes a way to go deep inside yourself and illuminate precisely the stuff you don’t want to see or let anyone else see, and this stuff usually turns out (paradoxically) to be precisely the stuff all writers and readers everywhere share and respond to, feel. Fiction becomes a weird way to countenance yourself and to tell the truth instead of being a way to escape yourself or present yourself in a way you figure you will be maximally likable. This process is complicated and confusing and scary, and also hard work, but it turns out to be the best fun there is.”

>This is an extract of a longer essay. You can read the whole thing here: The Nature of the Fun

Image: Wiki Commons

7 thoughts on “David Foster Wallace on Writing & an old Chinese Tale

  1. A shame DFW never really learned to take his own advice.
    I had him in mind when I made an earlier comment speculating that some people kill themselves on the verge of awakening.
    I also had myself in mind, but I guess I’m luckier than he was.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. … as are the cemeteries.

        Maybe you should cover the cost of fame in your writing tutorials. Fun can’t be easy when everyone’s watching. And expecting.

        One of the big eye-openers to me when I started blogging was how many people from different backgrounds and cultures seemed to be struggling with similar experiences and questions as I. The big disappointment was how many of them were happy to have their spiritual quest medicalised and drugged away. But I guess with examples like DFW and Robin Williams …

        Here’s an interesting Vimeo for ya.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Thanks for the video link – I’ll check it out later…

          The cost of fame? Thankfully, I don’t have any experience of that so I’m not sure I have anything constructive to say about it. But I can imagine. Which is worse: people having too many expectations of you or nobody having any expectations of you? In the end I suppose you have to drop all expectations. Easier said than done… and the drugs are so easy to come by.


        2. But I can imagine. Which is worse: people having too many expectations of you or nobody having any expectations of you?

          Interesting question.

          I guess my own (aspie) experience has been of the pressure of expectations from others. First child, straight A student, that sort of thing. When I was doing a fair bit of TV and getting recognised by strangers I was horrified, even though the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. When I finally melted down (again) it felt like a betrayal of people I’d never even met. My own ‘fame’ was virtually non-existent compared to someone like DFW but just that tiny taste was more than enough for me.

          OTOH there’s at least one member of my family (a second child but not my sib) who attributes many of his problems to not being recognised for what he does. He’s currently flat out trying to turn himself into a famous writer and claims to have harbored that ambition since he was 10 years old.

          While I’ve gotta concede the validity of his experience intellectually I just can’t empathise with it. I also can’t help thinking that if he ever attains his goal it will be a catastrophe for him. But maybe if I’d gone through life feeling I was never noticed I’d have a very different perspective.

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