When I was in graduate school at Illinois State University (and I was much younger and cockier than I am now), I had David Foster Wallace as a professor for a contemporary literature class, which he very much taught as a modern lit class. He also adamantly refused discussing his own fiction in the class, which I, and several of my fellow students, thought was absurd. The closest he ever came to doing so was one time when he started telling us about the condition that is one of the plot points for Broom of the System, where someone loses the ability to self-regulate body temperature and must therefore keep his/her surroundings at 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. He didn’t actually connect the anecdote with Broom of the System in the lecture, but he did get all excited about the idea while discussing it.
I didn’t really like Dave. He also was younger and cocky at the time, wearing a do-rag all the time, and often dipping tobacco in class, spitting it out into a cup he had with him as he taught, which I thought was disgusting, and he was very combatant in his arguments. He and I often disagreed in class and on several occasions he said things like “Okay, C.K., one last point on this and then no more discussion of this, because we’re wasting everyone’s time.” He also thought my friend Lee was making fun of him once by referring to him as “Professor” (Lee wasn’t; Lee called all the professors “Professor.”), asked him to step outside the classroom and chest-butted him.
These are just some quick sketches of why I really didn’t like Dave. However, I respected him and knew that he had a bit of the magic in writing that I wanted. I never took one of his creative writing classes, but I did ask him once if he thought I should. I met with him in his office and discussed it for about half an hour and he said that if I was actively writing it wasn’t really necessary. He also agreed to read over the fiction I had currently been writing and give me some feedback. So I gave him the first three chapters of the book I was working on and waited. I waited for about
a year and a half for a responseseven months (evidently I misremembered the length of time; I found a letter, which mentions actual dates), and he would often in the hallway spot me and make some half-apology and say he would be getting it to me soon.
As I said, I was cocky and young at the time, so I got sick of waiting. In possibly the most staggering feat of unprofessionalism of my life, I rewrote two of the three chapters I’d given to him as a
vignette short story and submitted it to Harper’s Magazine (where Dave was one of the contributing editors) with a cover letter that name-dropped Dave throughout (UPDATE: I found the letter, scanned it in, and posted it on Flickr). None of the letter I wrote to them was a lie. It said I went to schoolwas a lecturer at ISU, that Dave was one of my professors, and that he was supposed to be critiquing my fiction for me, but had not had the chance as of yet as he was so frightfully busy working on Hideous Men. This was all true. It was just very gauche of me to use his name like this, but I was frankly pissed off that he’d been sitting on my writing for a year and a halfseven months.
In any case, the piece was off for about a month and then I received a rejection letter (of course) from Harper’s, but it wasn’t one of the standard short form letters that one normally receives from such publications. It was actually a nice and thorough critique of the fiction and why it wasn’t quite fitting for publication in Harper’s.
A week later, I received the following memo attached to the three chapters I’d originally given to Dave in my mailbox at the school (where I was no longer a student, but now an Adjunct Instructor of English teaching 4 classes per semester):
I was especially pleased that he misspelled explicit as explict in the memo, at the time, and I was also pleased that I had angered him enough where he would misspell something.
I am currently spring cleaning my office and going through old files and I found this note, which brought all this back to mind so I thought I’d scan the memo in and share. I was sad to hear that Dave killed himself. I may not have liked him when I knew him, but current me wouldn’t like the me that from then much either. I was a bit of an asshole, as I’m sure many of my friends will attest to in the comments of this post. Some would say I still am.
In any case, Dave, wherever you are now, sorry about being a cocky bastard at ISU. Also, that time that someone yelled “AND SWIIIING!!!” at you from a passing car as you were serving on the tennis courts, prompting you to throw down your racket in anger… that was me. Sorry about that, too.