That one time I almost studied with David Foster Wallace

“Selfish bastard,” I thought. 

People lined up for a candlelit vigil. His wife and kids had already gone, but students and deans put sad flowers on their porch just the same. The school paper called it a tragedy, which it was. A real-life Shakespearean drama lived out, in part through his rambling, incendiary prose, in part through the comparisons to Hemingway and Fitzgerald others made while he was still alive, while he was still alive; a slow-motion trainwreck over dozens of years and thousands of pages, of which I was nearly a passenger.

The summer before, in between coaching the nine-ten age group of the Denver Country Club’s swim team, getting stoned, and chasing girls, I had devoured Consider the Lobster and Oblivion. During August, I toed up to Infinite Jest, but every sitting ended with me furiously writing novel starts in my own notebook, bookmark only moved two or three pages towards the distant appendices at the back of the sky blue tome. The son of a bitch inspired me like I’d never been inspired.

School started. My sophomore year at Pomona College. I buried the book deep in my bag, afraid of fitting the Every Guy Ever cliché, who placed those two universally ambiguous words printed in neon green at eye-level on their dorm room bookshelf, trying to appeal to girls as interesting, sensitive, brilliant. 

But I was going to write like that one day and it was going to happen because he himself, DFW, was teaching a creative nonfiction seminar during spring semester that I, myself, could be one-eighth of, if only, if only I could write an application essay interesting, sensitive, brilliant enough to catch his attention. Others were already writing theirs. The juniors and seniors taking his seminar at the time walked around in smug. They’d seen the inner sanctum. Photocopies of the syllabus circulated on the underground.

I think, though I don’t quite recall, my essay started on a train. I stayed up late on the floor in the part of the library stacks where no one ever goes, listening to some interesting, sensitive, brilliant Steve Reich piece in my headphones, Nietzsche demanding I pay attention to his bullshit because it was true, although, he claimed, no one would understand it for a hundred and fifty years, geology homework weighing on my mind. But I still had my secret copy of Infinite Jest buried deep in my bag and no one would see if I brought it out now.

Five pages went by. Goddamn, he could write. Another two pages and then it was my turn to write: a sentence so long it took up a page. Was this the coup that would get me into his class? I finished the sentence and packed up.

Next morning the news hit like an earthquake whose shockwaves reverberated across the front page of the New York Times but whose epicenter was my own tiny, little campus, just a few miles northwest of the San Andreas Fault. 

He hung himself in his closet while his wife and kids were out. No one could believe it. I knew a girl who was in his fall seminar. No one saw her for a week. The president spoke at the Smith Campus Center. Not a dry eye, just like the saying goes, but it was actually true.

And so I thought to myself, saddened for his wife and kids, but saddened even more for my now-more-distant career as a novelist, “Selfish bastard. Couldn’t he have borne the cross another eight months? Passed the torch?” 

I gave up on writing and never took another English class, wrote a novel, nor even finished Infinite Jest, and it wasn’t until years later, after the cold floor of life showed me that I wasn’t as interesting, sensitive, brilliant as I’d hoped everyone would think I was, that I finally stopped trying to write to impress everyone else, and started trying to write just because being a writer is a thing that happens to some of us, and if it does, if it truly does, it can be more curse than gift, but you do it and keep doing it because the world is suffering and we need to wake each other up, like bodhisattvas with bells in one hand and vajras in the other, and you keep writing, even if, in cases of outstandingly rare and interesting sensitivity and brilliance, it ends up tormenting you so much you kill yourself while your wife and kids are out, which I don’t foresee for myself but the realization of which I think – though I’m not sure – would have finally impressed DFW far more than even the longest run-on sentence. 

But I’m hedging my bet.