As a teacher and writer of nonfiction, I devoured the late David Foster Wallace’s recently released creative nonfiction syllabus. Salon, which published it, called the document “mind-blowing,” evidently referring to its tough-love language.
In this blueprint for a night class he taught at Pomona College once a week in Spring 2008—so roughly six months before his death, presumably when he was already suffering from deep depression—Wallace prosecutes a rigorous, distilled aesthetic. He builds toward it in his opening “Description of Class,” which notes that “nonfiction” means it corresponds to real affairs but that creative “signifies that some goal(s) other than sheer truthfulness motivates the writer and informs her work.”
This purpose may be “to interest readers, or to instruct them, or to entertain them, to move or persuade, to edify, to redeem, to amuse, to get readers to look more closely at or think more deeply about something that’s worth their attention. . . or some combination(s) of these.’’ He continues, going deeper:
“Creative also suggests that this kind of nonfiction tends to bear traces of its own artificing; the essay’s author usually wants us to see and understand her as the text’s maker. This does not, however, mean that an essayist’s main goal is simply to ‘share’ or ‘express herself’ or whatever feel-good term you might have got taught in high school. In the grown-up world, creative nonfiction is not expressive writing but rather communicative writing. And an axiom of communicative writing is that the reader does not automatically care about you (the writer), nor does she find you fascinating as a person, nor does she feel a deep natural interest in the same things that interest you. The reader, in fact, will feel about you, your subject, and your essay only what your written words themselves induce her to feel.”
The apparent acid that Salon responded to in “whatever feel-good term you might have got taught in high school,” I read, instead, as an attempt to emphasize his own hard-won understanding. It’s not just that along the line Wallace got his ears bored off by some undergraduates’ essays, though there’s a whiff of that. In the recent Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace and Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing, Wallace discusses how in college he “snapped to it perhaps late,” thanks to his teachers, that the world “doesn’t care about you. You want it to? Make it. Make it care.”
Hearing on Sunday of Judith Kitchen’s death, I felt a pang of loss. I’ve only recently become a fan. Last June I read her Brevity essay “On the Farm,” a consideration of two archival photographs—a girl with chickens, a child with her father in a cornfield—and modeled an essay on it. And I read her celebrated essay “Blue,” a segmented lyric that moves from her father’s, mother’s, and brother’s blue eyes to her children’s to her high school geometry class.
Then, in August, I read her essay collection that opens with “Blue,” Distance and Direction. It’s one of my top books of 2014.
Kitchen’s essays here verge on poetry. Moments from memory; how memory works. The world’s beauty. Her father’s image and his memory everywhere. And grief, loss, regret. Might you wish for more connective tissue? Maybe. Yet how neat to be given bright shards instead of always the mirror’s entire, dutiful brown frame too. Did Distance and Direction wholly achieve the author’s aim as art. Yes, surely. These essays make you want to be more alive yourself—to notice as much—and to write with such clarity and meaning.
Here’s a paragraph just before a space break in “Displacement”:
“If it is going to rain, it will rain the cold, spiraling rain of the seacoast. Blinding rain that will wash in from the sea in a shroud of fog. The day will close down. The streets will be dark with the words of the sea, dark with the blood that has yet to be shed in a time that surely will be.”
Note the rhythms, the simple diction, the precision. The passage’s culmination, that mysterious final sentence, soars beyond mortal power.