Dear David Foster Wallace

Please disregard the last letter I sent you in February of 2004. Let’s pretend it got lost in our respective campus mail systems. Let’s pretend it’s 2004 again and I’m not trying to use your generous response to my previous letter from the previous fall as some sort of springboard into a myopic groveling for a letter of recommendation.

Please do this with me now. Pretend, I mean.

8 Feb 2004

Dear David,

I’m delighted to hear from you and thank you for taking the time to respond. The fact that you remember the abysmal paper I wrote in your class in enough detail to feel bad about saying all the things you were totally justified in saying is incredibly endearing to me. I’ve been teaching just long enough myself now to understand a little bit of what you expressed, and there are few things more disheartening than witnessing someone self-implode right there on the page in front of you, especially since the deed has already been done and there isn’t a single thing you can do about it. Pomona must have dizzying highs in this regard, I’d imagine, chock-full of incredibly bright and overachieving people. I hope you don’t take that the wrong way. I really, truly don’t.

See, a lot of things are still on a knife’s edge for me both personally and professionally. I am applying for full-time teaching jobs here in the Portland area and think I am getting close enough now to securing one that I need to worry about what having a tenure-track gig will want from me. I might have even jinxed myself by passing on a very tempting and generous offer to teach at the community college back in Normal. They flew me out and bought me drinks. I reconnected with good friends still living there. I stood at the base of Watterson Towers and took the time to really look up. I even took a jaunt through that brick and mortar tampon box of Stevenson Hall, where they had moved permanent faculty into the offices where they had us graduate TAs tin-canned, three to an office (guess who moved into my old haunt? Ricardo Cruz!). And I’m pretty sure I saw Doug Hesse on the staircase (but I wasn’t sure it was him because it was a Saturday and he was at least a full floor below me; besides, I didn’t have anything thoughtful prepared to say to him even though I definitely should have because he played a crucial role in helping me finish my degree). It was all so very nice, and that’s why it was incredibly difficult to turn down the job when they offered it not once but twice. I’m probably going to feel bad about that for a long, long time.

I’m sharing this with you because I’m fascinated with how you might perceive capital-P Possibility when it presents itself, and how this might differ (that is, if it differs at all) from capital-O Opportunity. I have drippy, 18th century style ideas about these kinds of things, where I want to believe an open path will lead me to happiness and enlightenment. Something I’ve only recently began to seriously consider is how Possibility b/w/and/or Opportunity could lead to misery and ignorance, and I’m deathly afraid of being either miserable or ignorant.

I’m sorry for being mealy-mouthed (old habits die hard), but what I’m trying to get at is this: do you think those things we might call “opportunities” are somehow similar to the Greeks’ notions of capital-F Fate? In other words, are opportunities optional?

I worry about these things a lot right now because I seem to have a number of opportunities on my plate and it’s impossible to ingest them all. And I’m paralyzed by this because our culture tells me I can—and must—gorge myself. Granted, my opportunities are very very average (this job over that one, minty-fresh over tartar control, filtered over unfiltered) and they can’t honestly be considered to be the same sorts of opportunities you have, but I’d like to have the baseline conversation about the nature of Opportunity and Reward and what those things mean in our culture.

Because I’m coming to think more and more that Opportunity leads far more frequently to Ruin than Reward. And I’m also thinking this is something terribly hard for people to think about, because Reward is what seems to keep us open to Possibility and Opportunity in the first place.

Let me try to say this (—ahem—now a third time, sorry) more succinctly: is Opportunity a curse?

I’m not trying to be abstractly philosophical here. I really want to know the answer to this. And I am asking you because I think you have important things to say about this, even if you choose not to say them.

Rephrase/add: especially if you choose not to say them.

Because there are two moments I recall from a very brief conversation in your office back in spring 1997 that I’d like to officially take back right now.  The first was what I’d consider a Possibility, in that I deliberately brought a 1st printing ed. of Infinite Jest into the conference, knowing that there wouldn’t be an appropriate time to foist it upon you, and yet I did it anyway.  I even used the word “fanboy” when I did it.  What a total fuck I must have looked like that afternoon.  And so I take that back.

The second is what was very clearly a missed Opportunity, in that after you graciously signed and doodled the title page, you pulled a copy of someone else’s book from your sparse shelves there in Stevenson and offered to lend it to me.  That book was Stacey Levine’s first collection of fiction, My Horse and Other Stories, and instead of humbly accepting the copy like I should have, I refused it by saying that I would be moving soon and almost certainly wouldn’t be able to return it.  I was way too wrapped up in my own headspace to realize then that you weren’t offering me a book; rather, you were inviting me to a conversation, and I pretty quickly declined.  I couldn’t see that back then, so I hope you’ll let me take that moment back.

Stacey’s book is right here, on my own thin little office shelf in my own box-shaped classroom building.  I think I’m ready now.  What do you say?




One response to “Dear David Foster Wallace

  • lena

    Not too late to start that conversation.

    I hadn’t heard of the… event (we’ll call it an event because I don’t like the “D” or the “S” words). I spend the weekends not plugged in to any news networks or things of the like. I wish I wasn’t at work.

    I’m sorry it hit you hard.

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