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"The archives are a window into his mind"

By Alicia Dietrich

First pages of a handwritten draft of 'Infinite Jest' by David Foster Wallace.
First pages of a handwritten draft of 'Infinite Jest' by David Foster Wallace.
Bonnie Nadell, longtime literary agent of David Foster Wallace, shares her thoughts on what scholars can learn from Wallace’s archive about his creative process:

Organizing David Wallace’s papers for an archive was not a task I would wish on many people. Some writers leave their papers organized, boxed, and with careful markers, David left his work in a dark, cold garage filled with spiders and in no order whatsoever. His wife and I took plastic bins and cardboard boxes and desk drawers and created an order out of chaos, putting manuscripts for each book together and writing labels in magic markers.

But what scholars and readers will find fascinating I think is that as messy as David was with how he kept his work, the actual writing is painstakingly careful. For each draft of a story or essay there are levels of edits marked in different colored ink, repeated word changes until he found the perfect word for each sentence, and notes to himself about how to sharpen a phrase until it met his exacting eye. Having represented David from the beginning of his writing career, I know there were people who felt David was too much of a “look ma no hands” kind of writer, fast and clever and undisciplined. Yet anyone reading through his notes to himself will see how scrupulous they are. How a character’s name was gone over and over until it became the right one. How David looked through his dictionaries making notes, writing phrases of dialogue in his notebooks, and his excitement in discovering a wild new word to use.

We want readers to see how he thought because how he thought was unique and beautiful and precise. So anyone looking through his drafts and even his books will see the levels of thinking that went into every sentence and every page. The corrections on Infinite Jest for the paperback edition even after a master copyediting job, David’s love of language in his dictionary and in his notebooks, and how he deconstructed other writer’s stories and sentences so he could teach his students how to write better and how to read better. The archives are a window into his mind, and I really think scholars and readers will appreciate seeing that for the first time.

Comments

Mel
Reply

David Foster Wallace…….genius, sensitive, animal lover, caring……..what an acquisition. I am SO excited that my son’s college will have this- can’t wait to see it- although I know I will see it through tears……..

Andrew McDonald
Reply

Discriminating between whether a writer is ‘look ma, no hands’ or is more meticulous as a craftsman is merely a conceit of the critics and needn’t be addressed in any way by the materials here. Those moments when a writer ‘opens himself’ to the flow of sentences arriving not from the intellect but from some place far more mysterious are equally important to craft and to literature generally.

Dana Robert Hamby
Reply

Harry Ransom Center is the new mecca for a post-Wallace generation of writers, to be sure. With as little irony as can be helped: may David jest in peace.

Jute
Reply

I’m a big Wallace fan, but I’m afraid I don’t understand the constant hagiography and near-mystical fascination surrounding his practice as a writer. Surely lesser writers revise their works, as indicated in their extant holograph manuscripts; surely less-than-iconic writers scrupulously take notes, record dialogue, names, and outlines for scenes; surely Wallace’s excellence is accentuated by these documents, but not in any way *confirmed* by it, as if the work itself doesn’t suffice…

Exile
Reply

Can you not put hi res close ups online for those of us who can’t travel across the world to see this exhibition?

Alicia Dietrich
Reply

For “Exile”: Check back on the blog tomorrow.

dinariraqi
Reply

Harry Ransom heart is the new mecca used for a post-Wallace creation of writers, to be in no doubt. With as small irony as can be helped: may David jest in calm.
Iraqi Dinar

سعودي كول
Reply

This is such a nice addition!!!

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