Thank You, David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace died ten years ago today. He once joked that his midlife crisis at twenty didn’t bode well for his longevity, and he was right. He ended his life at forty-six. It was enough years to become a celebrated avant-garde novelist and postmodern experimentalist and to fill a 1,000-page reader. He seemed to compress life into fewer years.

A youth jock turned collegiate nerd, he took to math and philosophy, but could teach himself nearly anything. He taught others to read and write. He loved language, like his mom, who once reflected that “David seldom met a word he didn’t enjoy playing with, making it jump through flaming hoops and perform feats of derring-do.”

He had the presence of a soft-spoken, unshaven friend you’d binge a season of The X-Files with, at your place of course (his televisual addiction forced him to ban the TV from his own house). Surprisingly well, he seemed to balance the roles of jock and prof. With the makings of a cult hero, he was beloved by pop audiences who voiced their praise by spawning sales numbers in the millions, as he was simultaneously celebrated by lit critics who spoke sonorous laudations into public radio mics. He was a man of divergence.

I speak as if I knew him, but I didn’t. I never met him. He was gone before I ever read his mammoth novel Infinite Jest. Gone before I listened to hours of his audio and video interviews. Gone before I belly-laughed through his essay about traveling aboard a Caribbean luxury cruise liner for the first and last time. Gone before I came to appreciate his self-conscious awareness of a soul living in an age of American culture roughly similar to my own experience.

Robert Penn Warren once said, “Any act of pure perception is a feat, and if you don’t believe it, try it sometime.” DFW tried it, he fell in love with it, and the perception he offered in both fiction and non-fiction was nothing sort of sublime. He lived with a sense of pure awareness of the visible world around himself. It was the gift he wielded and the curse he bore. He could see past facade into the hollow world of society and past self-protective Kevlar into the fleshy world of his heart with similar clarity. He was perceptive of addiction and depression, seeing brokenness with the kind of clarity and transparency that eventually becomes a crushing curse in the absence of a savior.

Wallace was one of the most sensitive souls of a generation raised on pop-TV, a man who could step back from his pure addiction to the screen to explain the corrosiveness of the habit on the soul. He came to see that a diet of sarcasm was a diet of poison, and that a whole generation raised on Letterman and the Simpsons and SNL (“that Athens of irreverent cynicism”) were toxified until everything in life was rendered down to the butt of an insider joke. In cynical culture, the beauty of nature disappears like a green screen.

Wallace could feel the sandpaper of sarcasm rubbing on his nerve endings, as he would say sometimes, a man with a super-sensitivity to pop media. Or perhaps, as I would prefer to say it, he felt the rub of mass commercial entertainment on the nerve endings of his soul. He warned us about TV’s “sheer ability to deliver pleasure in large doses.” And he called it a problem, a spiritual problem.

David Foster Wallace articulated, perhaps better than any Christian author or preacher, the challenges of life in the digital age. DFW is the Neil Postman for my generation, even if most Christians have never heard of him.

So when a publisher approached me to write a full-length book appreciation of Wallace, I knew that such a work would be incredibly fun (but I also knew that no one would read it). But DFW does inspire me to labor hard at perception in articulating the challenges of the media age he predicted long ago. In recent years, as my attention has turned to mass media and digital technology, Wallace feels like a cobelligerent in aims — not in the ultimate end (I don’t believe) of delighting the soul in God, but in the place of cobelligerents against the influence of excessive media on the soul.

In a real sense, the life and words of David Foster Wallace provided the genesis that later became my new book — Competing Spectacles (April 2019), about how the Christian soul best navigates the age of pervasive digital media. The spectacles of this age are so good, so thrilling, so captivating, that they threaten to take our eyes off eternal realities. By glutting our eyes, we starve our souls.

The new cover ties into my previous book, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You.

Wallace would snark. He’d call the cover “Kafka-esque” maybe, some realized nightmarish dream of eye-totalizing in an age of visual addictions, a life banned from sleep and blinking only to fill itself on the visual without end. I’d probably say his snarky observation was a good precursor for the book. I would try to convince him to say something like it on the back cover.

But as the new book goes through final edits this week, it prompts me to stop and thank God for a man who, no matter where he was as in his relationship with Christ (and his eternal state remains a mystery to me), was acutely and articulately sensitive to our media bombardment and its influence on the soul.

If DFW were alive today, I would write him a personal note to thank him myself — for what his writings and perceptions have meant for me, a man looking to others who have better articulated the weight of the media age on the undisciplined will. In many ways Wallace leads the way, not to the conclusion, but to a path out of the depths of the problems with a clear map of the costs and consequences of a world in which only a Savior could prove sufficiently redemptive.

On days like the ten-year anniversary of his passing, I am reminded of the great debt I owe to a man of my generation I never met but for whom I feel led again to say out loud: Thank you, David Foster Wallace.

Offline in August

For over a month I’ve been looking forward to “August Sabbath,” as my wife is calling it, a break from a lot of things. For the family it’s a break from a very busy season we’ve moved through. It feels like we’re finally able to breathe again. We’ll be traveling together a little and be hanging out more together and spending more time with friends. Personally, I’ll be taking a month-long break from online media consumption, personal email, and personal social media — an intensive media detox.

At the same time, I’ve had a lingering idea for a book that keeps percolating and coming back to me in the quiet moments of my days. It’s the kind of thing I want to just sit down and write, which I’m planning to do in August, with the aim of writing a draft of the first 10,000 words to see what emerges. Generally, it will again center on the inherent tensions we feel when we’re walking out our life in Christ and our nerve endings rub against the digital age and the technological advancements proliferating around us. It’s an amazing time to be alive, and it poses innumerable challenges to our souls. I was hoping by this point we would be inundated by authors capable of connecting biblical priorities into the challenges of the tech age, but I’m honestly not seeing them. So, I guess I’ll press into what I’m seeing myself. It may be the first book I write and scrap. Who knows? The Lord knows. What I DO know is that this type of writing is always therapeutic to me as I work out perplexing questions in my own life. I write to get things off my mind, and that will be the immediate fruit of the labor in August.

Speaking of books, the cover for my next book is done and again it looks great (hat-tip to Josh Dennis at Crossway!). The new cover will tie in with iPhone Guy on the previous book. I think the pre-order page at Amazon will be up in September. This next book is specifically about the tensions we feel in our call to live Christ-centered lives in a very loud media-centered age. It’s my most heavily researched book, page-for-page, a 120-page essay that communicates a heavy burden I didn’t have time to address in 12Ways. The book is due out in April 2019. I’ll share more when I return.

Also, the second edition of The Joy Project is now out, too, a joint effort from DG and Cruciform. It’s now titled: The Joy Project: An Introduction to Calvinism (with Study Guide). The content and the narrative arc are identical to the original 2015 version, but the language has been sharpened from beginning to end. John Piper kindly put his foreword on it. New endorsements from J.I. Packer and others have been added. The subtitle has been made clearer, and the new study guide makes the whole thing more useful for personal meditation and also in Bible study groups, which is where the book has found a happy home. Key to this revision were the many pastors who purchased the book in bulk, and who reached out to help shape this new manifestation of the book to better fit how they were using it in their local churches, namely in getting started classes and information tables, church bookstores, and really anywhere were a short introduction to reformed soteriology was useful. For individual paperbacks, check Amazon. For single and bulk purchases, check Cruciform.

As always, I appreciate your prayers and support. I get to do what I do because so many of you support me, and I’m deeply grateful to God for each of you. Thank you!


Thank you

I want to take a moment to share some thoughts with my readers.

A year ago my book launched: 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You.

  • I knew it was too Christian to get wide play in the mass market.
  • I knew it was too self-critical to lure in readers seeking self-affirmation.
  • I figured it was too theological to get admired in our evangelical climate.
  • I figured a large Christian magazine would give it 2/5 stars (it got 3!).

And none of that matters.

None of it.

Because none of it dissuades me from writing the books I want to write. Theologically robust. Self-critical of the reader (and the author!). Exegetical. Journalistic. Investigative.

And here’s why it all works . . . YOU!!

YOU shared the book online and offline. You held it up from pulpits. You reviewed it. You bought cases to hand out to friends, care groups, and kids. You made it spread. You made it impossible to ignore. Major denominations and campus ministries promoted it at conferences and in journals. It got selected as the free audiobook of the month by christianaudio. The book is now licensed to 9 international publishers for translation.

And that’s because of you.

In the publishing market, plagued by its razor thin margins, many authors face tremendous pressure to cave to editors aiming at pop appetites. I don’t. I write the books I want to write, in complete freedom, because (1) I have a publisher that believes books should be better than what the mass market wants, and that authors are better when they fear God more than the market’s silence. And (2) I have readers who share my vision of God and vision of the world.

My promise to you: I refuse to become a professional author. I only write books when I must. Maybe one more, two, four — who knows? But I know I will never ask my busy wife to edit, or for you to read, any book not driven by an urgent need to share with you a necessary message yet unpublished.

So I continue plugging away. Writing as a deeply grateful author, looking back on an amazing year. The abundant grace God has given to me comes in many ways through you, and I don’t take it for granted. I look forward to the future, and want to thank you for your role in that future.



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**.”

How I Research Books

I’m grateful for several recent emails from writers and pastors asking how I used research in writing 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You. First, thanks for pointing out all the research. This new book is my most ambitious investigation to date, and hopefully a pattern I can use for future book projects on technology and media.

On my process, here are some quick thoughts for the interested in the form of a public email.

Once I have a serious idea for a book project, which is about every week, my process begins. (My wife said last night: “If I had a nickel for every time you bring me a new book idea . . . .”)

But about 95% of my book ideas die for some reason or another, many of the better ideas simply get turned into longform feature articles for DG.

Once I settle on a workable book idea (like smartphones), and after a three-month process of evaluation with my wife, friends, and publisher, I’ll begin by reading about 50 articles and studies (mostly non-Christian ones) to get a general sense of the broader cultural conversation on the topic. From this, and from a biblical worldview, I’ll pen a very basic outline for the book based around questions to answer and a central thesis. This becomes my book proposal.

Once I get the publisher’s thumbs up, I first inspect-read the ten best books in the field I can find, usually by non-Christians. After this point I’m ready to begin drafting paragraph seed-thoughts within 1st drafts of the chapters.

The book begins to grow organically.

In the next six months, my goal is to produce chapters with ~four detailed paragraphs, ~four related points of interest in seed form. Once these major paragraphs are all written for every chapter and the intro and outro, it goes out for initial review at the conceptual level. At this point my goal is to have a 6,000-word draft of major fragments.

Once I see cohesion in these seed paragraphs and I like the way the chapters are organized and structured, and based on early confirmation from others, then I can begin using these paragraphs to “hook” my present and future research discoveries. This is why I have to get seed paragraphs down asap. These paragraphs may move around in the book, but they comprise for me a framework matrix, a skeleton of ideas, for me to pin the bulk of my research work, which is yet to come.

My writing is always driven by curiosity. I want to learn, grow, and know things myself. And because I love to tackle massive problems and get my arms around as many tricky issues as possible, and to get myself in waters too deep for me, I cannot manage full-throttled research until this point. I must have a matrix of core ideas around me. Only now can the bulk of my research, the other 80%, ensue. Once the governor is taken off my research (because I now have places to pin relevant discoveries), those seed paragraphs grow quickly into subsections, with refinements to my own thinking, and with confirmation details (sources, texts) now getting applied to particular sentences as footnotes.

Those growing seed paragraphs will begin asking me questions, showing me gaps in my own thinking, they will help frame my interviews, and they will prove themselves in value simply by helping me decide what WILL NOT fit in the project.

At some point in the process, maybe half way through writing the first draft, I dedicate two weeks to reading Scripture cover-to-cover, merely looking for anything and everything related to my theme.

Again, it all grows organically, refinement happening all along. Meditation, writing, deleting, editing, refining, rewriting, rethinking, course-correcting — it’s all happening all along the process as I labor towards cohesion.

It’s amazing how much content you can net if you take your time to slowly read and think and watch for online articles. I must write books in my free time (weekends), so my projects cannot progress quickly. I’m confined to think of book projects in a three-year pace, which actually seems to be the right amount of time to thoroughly think through one significant issue to sufficient depth.

And since pastors often email me this research question, I should note that this same principle I use for chapters is useful for developing future sermons. I’ve heard Mike Bullmore encourage pastors to make folders for each sermon several months out ahead, and then keep your eye out for illustrations and points, and seed paragraph ideas you have, that you can intentionally file away for future use.

For me, creating an early framework by which you can process everything else you later encounter is vital to a large research project. And of course there’s no substitute for patience with a project. Don’t rush it, wait, watch, read, be clear in your mind what you’re looking for, discern what you read online, and know where to put things as you come across them in life.

I wish everyone could read the web with a three-year research project in view. It brings incredible clarity to your priorities.

This is a great question, thanks to everyone who emailed me.


PS: As for specific research sites, I really don’t have any secrets. JSTOR articles and The New York Times appear a lot in my research. Pew Research, too. Lots of books, many of them by non-Christians. Honestly, one of the greatest helps are my online followers who, once they know I’m working on a book project, will email me hundreds of related links and leads during the process.

More Important to Writers than Orgs and Outlines (On Writing)


I listen to a lot of podcasts but few are more consistently good than Longform, a series for serious journalists and non-fiction writers. The most recent episode featured Kathryn Schulz, a staff writer for The New Yorker who wrote “The Really Big One,” an article about the Cascadia fault line which won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize. Host Max Linsky asked her about how to find good stories, tell good stories, and what’s more important than outlining. Here’s a transcribed bit from the end of the conversation.

(Source: “199: Kathryn Schulz,” [June 29, 2016]).

Max Linsky: You sent this tweet: “A mere million years into my career and I have finally figured out the secret of writing: Find a killer story.” At this point in your career, a million years in, what are you looking for in a story? You are in a position here, it feels like, where you can kind of write about whatever you want.

Kathryn Schulz: I am looking for stories, which is a shift for me. I am always drawn to ideas. I notice big, abstract things in the world and so I have always registered ideas, and now I find that I am very interested in stories. I would love nothing more than — this will never happen — I dearly wish that my next book were going to be just a yarn, like The Perfect Storm. I’m not kidding. I actually think that book is incredible. So part of me, I have got an eye out for a really wonderful yarn.

The story of Louie Tamale was a great yarn, and I was so happy to find it, and I would love to tell some more of those. . . . The risk of something like that earthquake piece as you get a little taste of, for instance, how much more people like to read about natural disasters than literary criticism. And it is easy to be seduced by that. And I know I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to go chasing things that I think are kind of hot stories.

Linsky: Why?

Schulz: Oh, because there is so much else in the world. And because part of what make a story beautiful is the fact that you are dying to tell it and that alchemy, the story that you are dying to tell, in my case doesn’t always, or even often, line up with the kind of obvious popular story or great story. And, again, I don’t mean this disparagingly. I am grateful for other people who tell those stories well. But I think it is distracting.

I am glad that there are people at this organization who crunch the numbers on what stories get the most hits, because I would like for The New Yorker to survive and remain economically viable and so on and so forth. But I don’t want to become that person. I don’t want my own choices to be dictated by what I think is going to fare well with other people. I am interested in the things that I would love to write either because they land squarely in the stuff-Katherine-is-obsessed-with category or because they push the boundaries of what I feel like I know how to do.

Linsky: Those feel in slight tension to me. The stuff you really know well and the stuff you don’t know at all.

Schulz: Absolutely, sure. I mean I will tell you, frankly, I have never written an easy book piece, but it is easier to write a book piece [book review] than any other kind of piece, for a very simple reason, which is you don’t have to explain what you are doing there on the page. You are on the page because someone else wrote a book and you are writing about it. I don’t have to justify my presence of mind taking up room in the magazine.

Every other story you need to explain: What are we doing here? Why are we learning a piece of history from 1909 in nowheresville frontier Wyoming? You have to kind of justify your existence. In every story you have to figure out: What am I arguing here?

For a long time I thought my problem as a writer and why I was so slow and everything, took so long, was I didn’t outline and if I only knew the order the piece was going to go in, I would write it much better. And so I started outlining and it still was a disaster and took forever and I realized, no, the issue isn’t outlining. The issue is you have to do the very hard work of stepping back and thinking: What is it about? Truly, what am I claiming here? That’s the guiding light that is going to pull you through the piece? Not like this section and then that section and then that section. You needed to know that at some point. You have to put things in order, but order is irrelevant if there is not a worked out, coherent idea that you know you are writing about.

Linsky: Do you think it is only recently that you have been able to take that step back and see that consciously?

Schulz: Well, it takes various forms. I mean, like a lot of things I think we all have the same revelation over and over. I always know that I need to figure out what the heck I’m writing about, and not like this is interesting because x, y and z, but, literally, this is the heart of this piece and I can articulate it for you in a sentence. That is hard work and it just takes time.

I would say that the thing that I am figuring out now is how to use reporting in service of idea driven writing, of rich and linguistically interesting writing. For a long time those things felt intention to me. I love to report, but then I had all this material and I couldn’t figure out how to marry it to the kind of writing I like to do. And I think that is what I am trying to sort out now.

Linsky: You say it is hard work to do that thinking and to figure out what the story is about. How do you think about that work? What is that work?

Schulz: It is literally thought. It is the work of the intellect. I never experienced this more clearly than while writing the book where I could feel it. It was a muscle I had worn out. You are just trying to figure out: Ok, I am writing about wrongness, truly what would be the logical structure for a book like that? What is the claim? How then do you lay out the idea? Why do you decide to put x chapter first and y chapter next?

And those are questions about logic, and they are intellectual questions, like even in something a “straightforward” as a book piece.

Part of this is an issue of length. I really admire Dwight Garner, one of the daily book critics of the New York Times. That man can write a one-thousand-word piece about a book and it doesn’t need a lot of structure and it doesn’t need a grand claim. He is very witty and all he is doing is telling you what the book is about and how it works and he is smart about literature and it is a pleasure to read.

I am often working to the tune of 5,000 words. And if you are going to convince someone to stick with you for that long, you damn well better be making a point. And my job is to figure out what that point is. And it is shockingly hard. I mean it really is like: Why this book? Why does it merit attention when the 99 other books in my TBR stack, my “to be read stack,” are getting ignored right now. And what am I trying to say about it? And am I making a deep point about literature? Am I making a deep argument about literature? I don’t know how to explain it better than to say that it is actually the work of thinking, of trying to clarify first for yourself and then for your reader an idea . . .

And maybe you never even see that stuff in the piece. Maybe it is scaffolding that drops away because once as a write you know what you are writing about. You don’t need to hit the gong. The gong sounds all on its own, if you do your work right. But you have got to know what it is.

Linsky: Does that work get easier?

Schulz: I don’t think so. I keep waiting for it to. I wish it did. I think some things about writing get easier. I have gotten better at “murdering my darlings.” I can let go of stuff quicker when I realize it is in my way. I can iterate a little bit faster. I have gotten better at realizing when I actually do need to just go think. But the thinking itself, it can’t get easier, because it is bespoke every time. You are not thinking in the abstract, like lifting a 20-pound weight this week and a 25-pound weight next week. You are thinking about a particular thing and so it is always novel. If it were the same answer as last week’s answer you would be writing a boring piece. You would have already written it. So, no, I think it is just really hard every time.