Columns > Published on February 1st, 2022

The David Foster Wallace Trap

David Foster Wallace wrote Infinite Jest, and he trapped himself in pretty spectacular fashion.

What does that mean?

Caught Up

If this can happen to him, it can happen to you.

Before you get all caught up, yes, I know David Foster Wallace had some problems. I know he was a complicated man. Nobody is looking to make light of DFW’s hard row.

I won’t force you to agree that there was a better way out for David Foster Wallace. That's a deeply personal question that nobody living can answer.

For now, just be willing to ask the question: Was there, perhaps, a way out of the trap?

Because after we ask that question, we can ask another, better question that’s relevant to you right now, today, here.


Wallace wrote Infinite Jest in 1996, and it’d be his last completed novel.

Here’s Wallace in 1997, the year after Jest came out:

A lot of my problem right now is I don’t really have a brass ring, and I’m kind of open to suggestions about what one chases.

After reading about Wallace’s work on the novel that would become The Pale King, you have to ask whether Wallace couldn't find the brass ring because he’d written Infinite Jest, and he was still looking up.

He was looking for the brass ring somewhere on a level above one of the greatest literary fiction novels ever.

Not that anyone asks for advice on getting stuck, but if you asked me, trying to write something better than Infinite Jest is a great way to go about it. 

This is the trap. One of the greatest novels ever written is a wonderful reading experience, a sea change in publishing, and for its author, it's a trap.

Why Do Something So Unfun?

Wallace was NOT having fun while he worked on The Pale King.


I am tired of myself, it seems: tired of my thoughts, associations, syntax, various verbal habits that have gone from discovery to technique to tic.

Wallace also compared writing The Pale King to “trying to carry a sheet of plywood in a windstorm.”

Reading some of Wallace’s thoughts, you get the impression that he was bored, tired, and being pretty harsh with himself. He was battling the book as much as he was writing it. And he blamed himself.

You get the impression that Wallace might’ve felt like The Pale King was what he SHOULD write, not what he wanted to write.

In a letter to Don DeLillo, Wallace writes:

I do not know why the comparative ease and pleasure of writing nonfiction always confirms my intuition that fiction is really What I’m Supposed to Do, but it does, and now I’m back here flogging away (in all senses of the word) and feeding my own wastebasket.

This writer's trap, this fighting to screw a book together, works like a spider's web. The more you struggle against it, the more tangled you get. The harder you fight, the worse it gets.


I think he didn’t want to do the old tricks people expected of him,' Karen Green, his wife, says. 'But he had no idea what the new tricks would be.'

If you blew everyone's mind with your last book, your options are to accept that the next one won't do the same, or you can try to blow everyone's mind again.

Which makes your situation much, much worse.

It changes the conversation in the writer's head from the one they had on their first book: "Wow, this is turning out really great!" to one that's more negative, more loaded: "If this doesn't turn out great, I've let everyone down."

You want to impress people with your work, but there's a difference between trying to do something good and trying to avoid something bad. Those two things hit different for the writer.

Why You Need to Hear This

Your only value isn't as a producer of words.

Let’s do this serious. Let’s turn the chair backwards and straddle it, and let’s you and me talk.

What we're really talking about is a combo of depression and writerly ambition.

When you start cataloguing the writers who ended up dead because of depression way too young, it’s goddamn nightmaric.

And a lot of writers, like Wallace, will consider changing their medication or stopping their treatment because, in some way, they feel like their sadness is at the core of who they are, as writers. Maybe not as people, but as writers.

A lot of writers will question whether, if they treat their depression, they’ll still be creative.

If writers get stuck, they want to change something up, and that's not always a positive change.

Which is putting your work, your output, above you, the person. It's valuing your work more than you're valuing yourself.

And I’m tired of that, man. Just fucking…I want that to stop.

It's About You Now

I don't mean to pick on David Foster Wallace. I mean to drive it home: If this can happen to him, it can happen to you.

If he can't write his way out, what chance do you have?

The Question: What If You're Struggling Right Now?

If you're down in the hole, and if your only companion is your novel, consider: You can try to heave your novel out of the hole, use your last energy to push it out into the world. But your novel isn't going to rappel down and rescue you once it's topside.

If you get out, and if you leave your novel behind, you can get help, and you can always come back and rescue your novel when you're healthy, well-equipped, and you've got some people to lend a hand. 

Stay With Us

Here’s something David Foster Wallace said to his students:

It’s going to take me, like, two weeks to learn everyone’s name, but by the time I learn your name I’m going to remember your name for the rest of my life. You’re going to forget who I am before I forget who you are.

Give me another 50 years of that Wallace, of that man, even if we don’t get another 50 years of Wallace the writer. 

And that’s what I want you to hear: While I love reading your books, I wouldn’t choose your books over having you around a bit longer.

Your only value isn't as a producer of words.

Stick around with us.

Get Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace at Amazon and Bookshop 978-0316066525

Get Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression by Nell Casey at Amazon and Bookshop 978-0060007829

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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