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Text comes from text

March 10, 2010

More often than not, when I interview a musician, I’m wont to ask about influences, and I’ve always been a bit surprised at how much they bristle about these sorts of questions. Now, though, as I am asked about who influences my writing, I understand where they’re coming from.

When I mention that I try to draw from folks like Vladimir Nabokov or Chuck Klosterman, I do so with trepidation and insecurity. I’m proud to say I look up to them (and not Dan Brown or, say, literally anyone who writes about sports for a living), but I don’t want to suggest I think I’m quite on the same level as either. I merely know what I like most about their work and try to impart some of those things into my own writing.

With that disclaimed, I’ll add another name to the list: David Foster Wallace. Only in Nabokov’s work have I felt the same sense of awe while reading. So I got a little excited when I read today that the Ransom Center at the University of Texas has acquired DFW’s archives.

The archive contains manuscript materials for Wallace’s books, stories and essays; research materials; Wallace’s college and graduate school writings; juvenilia, including poems, stories and letters; teaching materials and books.

Highlights include handwritten notes and drafts of his critically acclaimed “Infinite Jest,” the earliest appearance of his signature “David Foster Wallace” on “Viking Poem,” written when he was six or seven years old, a copy of his dictionary with words circled throughout and his heavily annotated books by Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, John Updike and more than 40 other authors.

There is a lot I admire about Wallace’s writing — his playfulness, his perceptiveness, his sincerity, his broad-minded openness — but from a technical standpoint, I’m inspired by his discipline to almost always compose by hand, including the nearly 2,000-page original draft of Infinite Jest.

Writing by hand, as opposed to on a computer, is more than merely a romantic gesture. When writing on a computer, one gets quickly lost in the infinite regression of hypertextual resources (thesauri, encyclopedia, etc.), and the backspace key makes irresistible the temptation to revise and compose simultaneously, a rarely fruitful juggling act   (as John Cage once wrote, “Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes.”). The linearity of composing with just a pen and lined paper forces a writer to just write. Get it down, and fix it later. One’s brain just thinks differently while writing with different media.

(To that end, I’ve been looking for a mechanical typewriter, but they’re not cheap. My birthday is September 3, if you’re wondering.)

Computers, the internet, et al have made bad writing much more pervasive than it ever was (see: 99% of the blogosphere, to say nothing of Facebook and Twitter), but they have also made the top tier a little better, or at least easier to reach. This project would be categorically impossible without a computer. But when the time comes to start drafting this book, I will do my best to make sure I compose as much of it by hand as I can.

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