Recent talk of the correspondence bias (here) reminded me of possibly the best commencement speech that I’ve not yet written about (and I’ve written about quite a few): David Foster Wallace’s commencement address to the graduates of Kenyon College in 2005.
The speech, often cited as Wallace’s only public talk concerning his worldview,Â was adapted following his death into a book titled This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, About Living a Compassionate Life and is essential reading for anyone interested in personal choice: the choice of thinking and acting in a way contrary to our self-centered “default” worldview.
Actually, scrap that, it’s just essential reading for everyone.
Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is. [â€¦]
If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.
To read the speech I recommend the version from More Intelligent Life linked above as it is true to the speech as it was given. If you prefer a slightly more edited read, The Wall Street Journal’s copy and The Guardian’s copy may be more to your taste.
Jason points to a 10-question grammar challenge given to the students of a non-fiction workshop held by David Foster Wallace.
It’s not a particularly easy challenge, made worse by the fact that my non-native English speaking girlfriend just beat my score comprehensively (this wasn’t a difficult feat, however). The answers are provided, and I particularly like the method Wallace used to teach correct adverb use:
You have been entrusted to feed for your neighbor’s dog for a week while he (the neighbor) is out of town. The neighbor returns home; something has gone awry; you are questioned.
“I fed the dog.”
“Did you feed the parakeet?”
“I fed only the dog.”
“Did anyone else feed the dog?”
“Only I fed the dog.”
“Did you fondle/molest the dog?”
“I onlyÂ fed the dog!” [Here Wallace’s voice cracked funnily.]
The excellent Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage (David Foster Wallace) and Politics and the English Language (George Orwell) essays are mentioned in the answers section and are well worth your time if you haven’t read them before and have even a passing interest in grammar.
Another useful resource for those who fall into that category: the After Deadline posts from The New York Times (“Notes from the newsroom on grammar, usage and style”).
Marie Mundaca on her art direction for a number of David Foster Wallace’s books:
It’s a little odd to design interiors for fiction and literary non-fiction. It’s just textâ€”what is there to do? There are the obvious things, like leaving enough space at the margins. Basically, the designer’s job is to pick a font that enhances what she thinks the book conveys, make all the text fit in the amount of pages editorial thinks it will take up, and decide what to do with the chapter openers and any strange elements, like lists and subheads. Designing Oblivion was easy: I picked a classic font that fit a lot of words on the page but was still easy to read. I wanted to emphasize the density of the thoughts, but still allow the reader the opportunity to linger on the page. I decided on generous gutter and outer margins, and a slightly longer than average lines-per-page count to highlight the structural aspects of the book. Oblivion opens and closes with stories that feature giant, imposing women. They reminded me of caryatids â€”the columns in female form that stand outside ancient Greek temples. The pages are the columns of that temple. The words are what readers come to worship, meditate, ponder.
Consider the Lobster was a little different. Most of the book was very typical, but there was one particular essay called HostÂ that required some special treatment.
Mundaca talks passionately about the design of Wallace’s Host and how well the essay was presented in The Atlantic.
I found this quote particularly affecting:
I always knew we would work on another book together. I didn’t know that he’d be dead when that happened.
How to develope sentences in the style of David Foster Wallace (visit Jason’s post to see an example of how powerful this can be for prose):
- Begin with an idea, a string of ideas.
- Use them in a compound sentence.
- Add rhythm with a dependent clause.
- Elaborate using a complete sentence as interrupting modifier.
- Append an absolute construction or two.
- Paralell-o-rize your structure (turn one noun into two).
STOP HERE IF YOU ARE A MINIMALIST, WRITING COACH, OR JAMES WOOD
- Adjectival phrases: lots of them. (Note: apprx. 50% will include the word ‘little’).
- Throw in an adverb or two (never more than one third the number of adjectives).
- Elaboration â€” mostly unnecessary. Here you’ll turn nouns phrases into longer noun phrases; verbs phrases into longer verb phrases. This is largely a matter of synonyms and prepositions. Don’t be afraid to be vague! Ideally, these elaborations will contribute to voice â€” for example, ‘had a hand in’ is longer than ‘helped’, but still kinda voice‑y â€” but that’s just gravy. The goal here is word count.
STOP HERE IF YOU ARE NOT WRITING PARODY
- Give it that Wallace shine. Replace common words with their oddly specific, scientific‑y counterparts. (Ex: ‘curved fingers’ into ‘falcate digits’). If you can turn a noun into a brand name, do it. (Ex: ‘shoes’ into ‘Hush Puppies,’ ‘camera’ into ‘Bolex’). Finally, go crazy with the possessives. Who wants a tripod when they could have a ‘tunnel’s locked lab’s tripod’? Ahem.
- Practice. Take one sentence â€” any sentence â€” and Wallacize it. Turn ten boring words into a hundred good ones.
I suppose you could say that this technique is almost the antithesis of William Zinsser’s style.