Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing

I became curious about Bryan Garner after reading DFW’s long piece in Consider the Lobster about usage of the English language wherein he reveres Garner as a genius. Apparently the two met twice in real life but carried on an epistolary friendship along with scattered phone calls. The second real life meetings was the one captured in this book— Garner interviewed him in LA for an hour about writing and language. (The first meeting DFW brought his mom—a huge Garner fan—and his dad along, but Garner never even bothers to call DFW’s mother by name in his intro, all while mentioning James—his dad—as a philosophy professor. ARGH.) The conversation recorded here proves DFW’s charm and humor and smarts, conveying words of writerly wisdom while making my heart hurt from our loss of him. (Garner includes a weird bit about being disturbed by the way DFW signed books, crossing out his printed name with an editing mark, which apparently signaled a suicidal mind in the handwriting analysis books he read as a kid.)

I love that Wallace considered himself a journeyman of writing, someone skilled at a craft from having worked his way day-in and day-out, honing, struggling, showing up. He revealed that his process for writing the long form non-fiction essays took him about six months with obsessive notes and several drafts before he figured out what it was he wanted to say.

Random thoughts on writing:

  • “The reader cannot read your mind.”
  • Learn to pay attention in different ways, such as the exercise where you take a book you like, read a page 3 or 4 times, put it down, try to imitate it word for word to feel your own muscles trying to achieve the effects of the text. It will be in your failure to duplicate it that you learn what’s going on.
  • “The writing writing that I do is longhand… the first 2 or 3 drafts… I can type very much faster than I can write. And writing makes me slow down in a way that helps me pay attention.”
  • “One of the things that the college drummed into me is, ‘Welcome to the adult world. It doesn’t care about you. You want it to? Make it. Make it care.'”
  • How to write effectively is more a matter of spirit than of intellect or verbal facility. “The spirit means I never forget there’s someone on the end of the line, that I owe that person certain allegiances, that I’m sending that person all kinds of messages, only some of which have to do with the actual content of what it is I’m trying to say.”
  • “The average person you’re writing for is an acute, sensitive, attentive, sophisticated reader who will appreciate adroitness, precision, economy, and clarity.”
  • Bryan asked him what writers he admired. “You mean writers I think are models of incredibly clear, beautiful, alive, urgent, crackling-with-voltage prose? William Gass, Don DeLillo, Cynthia Ozick, Louise Erdrich… here’s a weird one, though: one of my very favorites is Cormac McCarthy.”
  • “If you spend enough time reading or writing, you find a voice, but you also find certain tastes. You find certain writers who when they write, it makes your own brain voice like a tuning fork, and you just resonate with them. And when that happens, reading those writers—[it] becomes a source of unbelievable joy. It’s like eating candy for the soul.”
  • “And I sometimes have a hard time understanding how people who don’t have that in their lives make it through the day… Lucky people develop a relationship with a certain kind of art that becomes spiritual, almost religious, and doesn’t mean, you know, church stuff, but it means you’re just never the same.”
  • Necessary tools: OED, Roget thesaurus, and a usage dictionary like Garner’s Modern American Usage. “It’s like if all of English is a treasure and this is the chest that it’s in.”
  • “A good opener fails to repel… it’s interesting and engaging. It lays out the terms of the argument, and, in my opinion, should also in some way imply the stakes.”
  • “The general rule of thing is you use the very smallest word that will do in a particular situation…[and] there’s this thing called ‘elegant variation.’ You have to be able… In order for your sentences not to make the reader’s eyes glaze over, you can’t simply use the same core set of words, particularly important nouns and verbs, over and over and over again. You have to have synonyms at your fingertips and alternative constructions at your fingertips. And usually, though not in the sense of memorizing vocab words like we were kids, but having a larger vocabulary is usually the best way to do that. The best. Having a good vocabulary ups the chances that we’re going to be able to know the right word, even if that’s the plainest word that will do and to achieve some kind of elegant variation, which I am kind of a fiend for.”