The Writer’s Transition

One benchmark in a writer’s maturity is facing the harsh reality of his or her reader. It’s a really important moment, and for many writers this will not happen until college (or later). Good editors are especially valuable because they help an author come face-to-face with these unforgiving realities. But every writer must reach this point of maturity. What follows is a transcribed fragment from something said by the late David Foster Wallace, at the time a creative writing prof at Pomona College, speaking in San Francisco in 2004:

“This will sound really nasty, but when you’re teaching undergrads, they’re not generating literature. Most of them are coming out of a high school experience where they were taught a model of writing that is fundamentally expressive. That is: ‘We want you to write, therefore anything you write is good. It’s good because you did it.’

Well, I’m making it sound cruder than it is, but it’s a big problem, especially with bright undergraduates — shifting them from a mode of expressive writing, where every reader is your mom, to communicative writing where you assume a busy adult [reader you’re trying to reach] has her own interests and time commitments. How are you going to make it worth it for this person to read your stuff?

You can start talking about that as early as freshman comp.

My experience is that it’s a heavy headtrip to students, the terror of suddenly realizing: You know it’s not good just because I did it, and the reader isn’t automatically interested in what I’m interested in. And how, in fact, am I going to make this interesting? As a discipline it’s really, really interesting. . . .

There’s nothing wrong with self-conscious writing. The trick with students is to make them realize that the consciousness they’re conscious of is simultaneously less and more interesting than they think it is. The two lethal kinds of students are the paralyzed ones who think anything they could have thought up has no interest to anybody else. And then there’s the other side, who are literally unable to imagine a reader not being as entranced with their stuff as they are. Both types of students can make good writers after a few years, but they both require a delicate combination of bedside manner and boot in the a**.”

Do We Self-Deprecate from Security Or Insecurity?

I’m to my chin right now in David Foster Wallace, returning to some of my favorite interviews with the late novelist as I research a pair of projects. Once on air he was asked to explain why he was so quick to self-deprecate in his non-fiction essays (e.g. quick to remind the reader that he’s not a specialist or a journalist, just an observer of the given topic). This trend of self-deprecation now in social media is a pretty common one, and I don’t think they are disconnected. Here’s DFW’s explanation to radio host and lit critic Michael Silverblatt, a fragment from May 15, 1997:

“When it comes to the constant self-consciousness and apology in my essays, it is how I head off criticism from you [a critic] by acknowledging that I can get there first, and deprecate myself so that you don’t get a chance to do it. It’s very much of a piece with a certain kind of insecurity — what to me seems like a very American insecurity that I have fully internalized — where I am so terrified of your judgment that if I can show some kind of hip, self-aware, self-conscious judgement of myself first I am somehow defended against your ridiculing or parodying me. To the extent that I don’t think I’m the only person who suffers from that, it may be effective, but a great deal of it is expressive stuff, a tic about my own psychology. I think my work would be better if there wasn’t so much of it in there. Because it really is manipulative. It’s acting out of terror of another’s judgment and so trying to look as if no one can possibly come up with a criticism of me, of how I appear, that I haven’t gotten to first.”

The Music of God’s Providence

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“He bringeth forth in measured harmonies the course of time.” That’s Augustine’s translation of Isaiah 40:26 [“Qui profert numerose sæculam”]. Accurate or not, it got Augustine thinking about God’s providence, the precision of time in music, and God’s soverein orchestration of the cosmos.

Here’s Augustine, writing Jerome in a letter (AD 415):

For not in vain has the prophet, taught by divine inspiration, declared concerning God, “He bringeth forth in measured harmonies the course of time.” For which reason music, the science or capacity of correct harmony, has been given also by the kindness of God to mortals having reasonable souls, with a view to keep them in mind of this great truth.

For if a man, when composing a song which is to suit a particular melody, knows how to distribute the length of time allowed to each word so as to make the song flow and pass on in most beautiful adaptation to the ever-changing notes of the melody, how much more shall God, whose wisdom is to be esteemed as infinitely transcending human arts, make infallible provision that not one of the spaces of time alloted to natures that are born and die — spaces which are like the words and syllables of the successive epochs of the course of time — shall have, in what we may call the sublime psalm of the vicissitudes of this world, a duration either more brief or more protracted than the foreknown and predetermined harmony requires!

For when I may speak thus with reference even to the leaves of every tree, and the number of the hairs upon our heads, how much more may I say it regarding the birth and death of men, seeing that every man’s life on earth continues for a time, which is neither longer nor shorter than God knows to be in harmony with the plan according to which He rules the universe.


Augustine of Hippo, “Letters of St. Augustin,” in The Confessions and Letters of St. Augustin with a Sketch of His Life and Work, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. J. G. Cunningham, vol. 1, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886), 527–528.