David Foster Wallace


He was someone I thought it would be great to meet sometime. Had I known he was living and working only a stone’s throw away, it might have been arranged.

Unfortunately, that won’t be possible. David Foster Wallace hanged himself and was found by his wife when she returned home Friday night, September 12, 2008. He was 46.

Wallace was clever with words. He was inventive. He employed extensive footnotes in his fiction. And he was candid. He went naked onto the page and exposed his soul in ways few novelists do.

His parents were university professors, his father in the department of philosophy at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign). David Foster Wallace himself majored in English and philosophy at Amherst College. And it shows in his writings.

His writings reveal something else, too. In his tribute to Wallace, David Gates writes that “we’ll surely be spotting more and more of these clues in his work,” clues of his long-standing depression and contemplation of suicide. I find it hard to believe that Wallace’s readers didn’t suspect it already, because the clues are littered everywhere.

While reading Wallace myself, I would recall the thesis that genius and great art are often accompanied by threatened madness, that great talent and erudition can only be managed with a colossal effort of self-possession that no one else but the artist can know.

In her book, The Midnight Disease, neurologist Alice Flaherty examines the mental disorders that frequently haunt the most creative writers. She develops an illuminating theory of “manic hypergraphia.” Kay Redfield Jamison, whose work I’ve recommended on this blog, explores the culverts of this condition in a wonderful book called Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. The treasure of a gifted man’s labor is more precious when understood in the light of this fire.

***

As it happens, David Foster Wallace travelled with John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2000. He wrote a book about it that came out this past summer. It’s hailed as a journalistic tour de force by someone other than your typical political journalist. It’s called:

McCain’s Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express with John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking about Hope.

Kindle edition

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Get with the Flow


You may have trouble pronouncing his name, but Mihaly Csikszentmihaly is the guru when it comes to “the psychology of optimal experience.” FLOW is one of those books you might want to read once every year or so and dip into periodically for the juicy bits that you’ve marked.

Flow is that state of consciousness when you are contentedly living in the moment, experiencing that energizing balance of three factors: a worthwhile task, significant challenge in performing the task, and the capacity and resources to complete the task.

The book is Csikszentmihaly’s answer to the question, “When do people feel most happy?” He answers:

. . . the best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. (p. 3)

The message is that we don’t have to wait for the best moments in life to come to us. We can arrange for their occurrence and increase their frequency. This involves calculated risk. It begins with the identification of some task-related goal that we care about. The task must be challenging; it must tax our physical or mental resources (or both). But achieving our goal must be within reach. Ideally, this goal will be attainable along a growth curve, with stages of challenge representing significant accomplishments toward the realization of the ultimate objective.

I’ve experienced this with downhill skiing, sea kayaking, sailing, and motorcycling. These are physical activities that involve a definite mental component. Foreign travel produces a similar effect for me as I navigate the challenges of unfamiliar languages, foreign currency, and methods of transportation. Public speaking is another arena for the experience of flow, since each engagement is unique, and each form of presentation presents special challenges. For example, public debate on the question of God’s existence is different that a radio interview about the Academy Awards.

Csikszentmihaly is especially good on how to create flow in the ordinary activities of work and family life. At one point he writes,

People are the most flexible, the most changeable aspect of the environment we have to deal with. The same person can make the morning wonderful and the evening miserable. (pp. 166-67)

The principles developed in this book also apply to our experiences of adversity. Even tragic events can be seen as positive. Csikszentmihaly distinguishes between positive and negative responses to stress, between “transformational coping” and “regressive coping,” and develops strategies for “cheating chaos” through transformational coping. Would you like to know how to “transform adversity into an enjoyable challenge”? See Chapter 9 of Flow.

In his more recent book, Csikszentmihaly has focused on the relationship between flow and creativity.

If you’ve read Csikszentmihaly, share what you think of his work. Do you have any favorite passages? When have you experienced “flow”? Have you discovered ways to experience adversity as meaningful opportunity?

Quotes: On Art


“. . . there is a tremendous social responsibility that comes with any public act we do, and that includes creative acts, as well.” —Charles Johnson, in his interview with Diane Osen for The Book That Changed My Life

“. . . Mozart sits down at the pianoforte/And composes music which had been ready/Before he himself was born in Salzburg.” —From Czeslaw Milosz’s poem, “Creating the World,” in New and Collected Poems, 1931-2001

“Form is an integral part of any art because art affirms order . . . .” —Ted Kooser, The Poetry Home Repair Manual

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