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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    “Author’s life evoked love of literature, purpose of writing”

    Some may see it as a Master of Fine Arts and a chance for a professorship and a paycheck, but to UA’s most prominent creative writing graduate and an internationally acclaimed writer, it was more akin to a fart joke.

    The life and death of David Foster Wallace raises questions about the validity of university-level creative writing programs. While on the one hand he served as a poster-boy to attract students, Wallace was publicly indignant about the MFA program and dubbed it a Master of Flatulent Arts.

    Many could chalk his sentiment up to Wallace’s humorous and often cynical writing style and worldview, a cynicism that perhaps overtook him in the end when he commited suicide Friday – but there is a more complicated truth underlying the issue.

    Throughout the evolution of his public interviews, the reflective and often guarded author of the 1,079-page magnum opus “”Infinite Jest”” and other books, essays and humor pieces, expressed a varying dislike to the concept of teaching writing. Wallace himself is a product of academia – his parents were professors, and he has pursued degrees in English and philosophy (from Amherst, Harvard and the UA) and then went on to teaching writing at Pomona College.

    But like many frustrated students, the novelist considered creative writing workshops a matter of balancing egos. “”I was hired to teach creative writing, which I don’t like to teach,”” Wallace said in a 1996 interview with Salon. “”There’s two weeks of stuff you can teach someone who hasn’t written 50 things yet and is still kind of learning. Then it becomes more a matter of managing various people’s subjective impressions about how to tell the truth versus obliterating someone’s ego.””

    Wallace eventually gave up teaching higher-level programs and switched over to teaching freshman English, which he considered more valuable because he was actually turning young people on to literature.

    In a separate interview with Gus Van Sant, he told a story of the best writing student he ever had: an 18-year-old girl with a three-year-old son who read novels on the bus she took to go pick up welfare checks. It was a somewhat contrived description, possibly in half-jest, but one indicative of his views on the education of writing. He admired this girl because she was self-taught, and different from the “”superstar student who was admitted through a highly selective process.””

    As an undergraduate creative writing student, I can understand many of the complaints Wallace had. No matter how hard a professor tries to understand your individual writing style, they’ll never be able to see all of your motivations. Creative writing classes are mostly an attempt to formulate individual expression into a prescribed method. Depending on who is looking at it, the method will either improve the original product according to the product’s own style, or it will ruin its uniqueness. Either way, the method is still a method: a piece’s resignation to other opinions, whether they be solely a teacher’s or classmates’.. At the end of the semester, students are usually instructed to submit revisions based on other people’s comments, whether or not they considered the piece to be perfect in the first place.

    As we are discussing the restructuring of our university to eliminate or combine programs, it is almost needless to say that creative writing studies are somewhat of a faÇõade. But for some reason they continue to attract many of the writers who criticize them so vocally. It is not just an opportunity to earn credits or a stipend for doing what you love, but it is a chance to present your work to a potentially unbiased third party and, more importantly, to interact with other writers.

    Even though Wallace continued to deride the university system, he was still involved in it up until a year before his death. The 18-year-old student he praised so highly for being an outsider actually went on to become a fiction student at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (“”the MIT of writing programs,”” he said.) And in his interview, he seemed proud of that.

    The university world holds a number of dualities for would-be writers, but even some of the most fervent individualists have trouble separating themselves.

    In the wake of his suicide, when we look back at Wallace’s body of work and public comments, we can’t help but factor in his death when we study his disposition.

    “”And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about,”” he said at Kenyon University’s graduation ceremony in 2005, right after delivering a parable about a man shooting himself in the head. “”How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead: unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.””

    We are all left a little more alone after Wallace’s sad departure, but on a personal and university level, we should seek to keep his ideas with us as we continue on with the struggle.

    – Andi Berlin is a journalism senior. She can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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