In 2005 American author David Foster Wallace gave arguably the best commencement address ever to Kenyon College in Ohio. This speech is titled, “This is Water”, and I’ve pulled out four excellent excerpts of this address that relate to creating art. There is also a link below to hear the address, and is a revealing insight into how Foster Wallace came to understand his own courage and creativity. He talks about how to think and what to pay attention to in your creative life. “This is Water” features his comments on suicide, which were widely speculated upon after he took his own life only three years later in 2008. He is well known for his book “Infinite Jest” and was nominated for a Pulitzer in 2011. Listening to this speech today with your headphones on is highly recommended.
The reader walks away from real art heavier than she came to it. Fuller. All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can’t be for your benefit; it’s got to be for hers. What’s poisonous about the cultural environment today is that it makes this so scary to try to carry out. Really good work probably comes out of a willingness to disclose yourself, open yourself up in spiritual and emotional ways that risk making you look banal or melodramatic or naive or unhip or sappy, and to ask the reader really to feel something. To be willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow. Even now I’m scared about how sappy this’ll look in print, saying this. And the effort actually to do it, not just talk about it, requires a kind of courage I don’t seem to have yet. … Maybe it’s as simple as trying to make the writing more generous and less ego-driven.
Foster Wallace was aware of how ego lead to being trapped, or “getting inside your own head” that he goes on to articulate…
Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.” This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. They shoot the terrible master.
He gives us an alternative to the “rat race” and how really paying attention to other people can help with your creativity on a super simple, day to day level…
But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
Do you have a favorite David Foster Wallace quote? We’d love you to share them in the comments below.
[Header image: “Untitled” by Miss Miller]