On Writing, Form, Dave Eggers, and David Foster Wallace

There’s comfort in a crowd, an easy ennui and unthinking urge, a lazy Brownian motion that one could easily mistake for purpose. Waking up from this cozy haze can be as bracing as a cold shower, as electric as a dancable guitar line.  I started this blog a year(ish) ago because I missed writing. A dedicated forum, it seemed, with the public shame of not writing, would help. In many ways it has, but I underestimated how the form affects the style of the actual work. My long prose has always been diffuse, wandering, and in many ways indirectly soft. This blog is necessarily faster, pointed. This has helped my longer fiction, and I’m constantly looking for ways to get better.

Take, for example, this exchange from 2003 between Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace. The two Davids cover a lot of ground relevant to our focus here, like the role of ideas, ideology, and writing in politics:

DFW: The reason why doing political writing is so hard right now is probably also the reason why more young (am I included in the range of this predicate anymore?) fiction writers ought to be doing it. As of 2003, the rhetoric of the enterprise is fucked. 95 percent of political commentary, whether spoken or written, is now polluted by the very politics it’s supposed to be about. Meaning it’s become totally ideological and reductive: The writer/speaker has certain political convictions or affiliations, and proceeds to filter all reality and spin all assertion according to those convictions and loyalties. Everybody’s pissed off and exasperated and impervious to argument from any other side. Opposing viewpoints are not just incorrect but contemptible, corrupt, evil. […] (Editor: Much more after the jump. Watch me nerd out of writing forms.)[…] Conservative thinkers are balder about this kind of attitude: Limbaugh, Hannity, that horrific O’Reilly person. Coulter, Kristol, etc. But the Left’s been infected, too. Have you read this new Al Franken book? Parts of it are funny, but it’s totally venomous (like, what possible response can rightist pundits have to Franken’s broadsides but further rage and return-venom?). Or see also e.g. Lapham’s latest Harper’s columns, or most of the stuff in the Nation, or even Rolling Stone. It’s all become like Zinn and Chomsky but without the immense bodies of hard data these older guys use to back up their screeds. There’s no more complex, messy, community-wide argument (or “dialogue”); political discourse is now a formulaic matter of preaching to one’s own choir and demonizing the opposition. Everything’s relentlessly black-and-whitened. Since the truth is way, way more gray and complicated than any one ideology can capture, the whole thing seems to me not just stupid but stupefying. Watching O’Reilly v. Franken is watching bloodsport. How can any of this possibly help me, the average citizen, deliberate about whom to choose to decide my country’s macroeconomic policy, or how even to conceive for myself what that policy’s outlines should be, or how to minimize the chances of North Korea nuking the DMZ and pulling us into a ghastly foreign war, or how to balance domestic security concerns with civil liberties? Questions like these are all massively complicated, and much of the complication is not sexy, and well over 90 percent of political commentary now simply abets the uncomplicatedly sexy delusion that one side is Right and Just and the other Wrong and Dangerous. Which is of course a pleasant delusion, in a way—as is the belief that every last person you’re in conflict with is an asshole—but it’s childish, and totally unconducive to hard thought, give and take, compromise, or the ability of grown-ups to function as any kind of community.

My own belief, perhaps starry-eyed, is that since fictionists or literary-type writers are supposed to have some special interest in empathy, in trying to imagine what it’s like to be the other guy, they might have some useful part to play in a political conversation that’s having the problems ours is. Failing that, maybe at least we can help elevate some professional political journalists who are (1) polite, and (2) willing to entertain the possibility that intelligent, well-meaning people can disagree, and (3) able to countenance the fact that some problems are simply beyond the ability of a single ideology to represent accurately.

Implicit in this brief, shrill answer, though, is obviously the idea that at least some political writing should be Platonically disinterested, should rise above the fray, etc.; and in my own present case this is impossible (and so I am a hypocrite, an ideological opponent could say). In doing the McCain piece you mentioned, I saw some stuff (more accurately: I believe that I saw some stuff) about our current president, his inner circle, and the primary campaign they ran that prompted certain reactions inside me that make it impossible to rise above the fray. I am, at present, partisan. Worse than that: I feel such deep, visceral antipathy that I can’t seem to think or speak or write in any kind of fair or nuanced way about the current administration. Writing-wise, I think this kind of interior state is dangerous. It is when one feels most strongly, most personally, that it’s most tempting to speak up (“speak out” is the current verb phrase of choice, rhetorically freighted as it is). But it’s also when it’s the least productive, or at any rate it seems that way to me—there are plenty of writers and journalists “speaking out” and writing pieces about oligarchy and neofascism and mendacity and appalling short-sightedness in definitions of “national security” and “national interest,” etc., and very few of these writers seem to me to be generating helpful or powerful pieces, or really even being persuasive to anyone who doesn’t already share the writer’s views.

The whole (very, very long) article is a great read. There’s also this great exchange about their respective writing processes, which has inspired/reminded me to focus on my own.

DFW: Maybe you could talk briefly about your own work processes first. Why? (a) Because people’d be at least as interested in yours as mine. (b) Because you always have so much going on, both writing-wise and administration-wise. (c) So that I’d have a better idea of what you mean by “work processes.”

BLVR (ed: Eggers): Right now I’m writing from a tiny library outside of San Francisco, in a carrel deep in their fiction stacks. I change my routine every four months or so, when my natural need to distract myself overcomes whatever routine-strategy I’ve been using to allow myself to work undistracted. This is my new thing, just begun last week and so far successful. After writing at home, in my brother’s bedroom, for six months, now I go here. I have a small desk at 826 Valencia, but I can’t do any actual writing there—it’s in the middle of the office, so that’s just for teaching, talking with staff and volunteers, meeting with people, etc. Given the different things going on at McSwys/826, it gets hard—as it does, I’m sure, for anyone who teaches—to carve out the uninterrupted blocks of time you need to get quality work done. I taught (high schoolers) last night until 9:30 p.m., and was supposed to teach (fifth graders) this morning at 10 a.m., and I had to give today’s field trip to another McSwys staffer/826 teacher, because I teach again tonight and I was just feeling too squeezed, given that I’ve got four deadlines this week. I’m a wuss, though. I’m sure there are tons of writers who teach a hell of a lot more than I do. But I guess like a lot of writers I need to isolate myself to the degree that I can’t use the phone or email or lawn mower or bike, even if I need to—you have to distance yourself from distractions.

Anyway, I remember you once actually answering your phone by saying not “Hello” but “Distract me,” which struck me as the truest way to put it—when you pick up the phone, you’re leaving the submersion of good writerly concentration. You’ve also said that you work on various things concurrently. Can you talk about finding the time you need, whether you write at night or by day, every day or in binges, do you work on a PC/laptop/Commodore 64, how often you teach, etc.?

DFW: I’m still not sure I’ve got much to relate. I know I never work in whatever gets called an office, e.g., a school office I use only for meeting students and storing books I know I’m not going to read anytime soon. I know I used to work mostly in restaurants, which chewing tobacco rendered impractical in ways that are not hard to imagine. Then for a while I worked mostly in libraries. (By “working” I mean doing the first few drafts and revisions, which I do longhand. I’ve always typed at home, and I don’t consider typing working, really.) Anyway, but then I started to have dogs. If you live by yourself and have dogs, things get strange. I know I’m not the only person who projects skewed parental neuroses onto his pets or companion-animals or whatever. But I have it pretty bad; it’s a source of some amusement to friends. First, I began to get this strong feeling that it was traumatic for them to be left alone more than a couple hours. This is not quite as psycho as it may seem, because most of the dogs I’ve ended up with have had shall we say hard puppyhoods, including one past owner who went to jail… but that’s neither here nor there. The point is that I got reluctant to leave them alone for very long, and then after a while I got so I actually needed one or more dogs around in order to be comfortable enough to feel like working. And all that put a crimp in outside-the-home writing, a change that in retrospect was not all that good for me because (a) I have agoraphobic tendencies anyway, and (b) home is obviously full of all kinds of distractions that library carrels aren’t. The point being that I mostly work at home now, although I know I’d work better, faster, more concentratedly if I went someplace else. If work is going shitty, I try to make sure that at least a couple hours in the morning are carved out for this disciplined thing called Work. If it’s going well, I often work in the p.m. too, although of course if it’s going well it doesn’t feel disciplined or like uppercase Work because it’s what I want to be doing anyway. What often happens is that when work goes well all my routines and disciplines go out the window simply because I don’t need them, and then when it starts not going well I flounder around trying to reconstruct disciplines I can enforce and habits I can stick to. Which is part of what I meant by saying that my way of doing it seems chaotic, at least compared to the writing processes of other people I know about (which now includes you).


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