David Foster Wallace’s Advice on Ambition—and the Danger of Perfectionism

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Master of the footnote, whose maximalist writing style (with long winding, multi-clause sentences) resulted in intimidating 1079-page novels like 1996’s Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace wrote essays, short stories and novels that gave a jolt of passion and creativity to the literary world. While he tragically took his life in 2008, after years of battling depression, what Wallace did leave behind were his thoughts—preserved in interview transcripts and recordings, and of course, his written work.

 

The same year Infinite Jest was published, Wallace went on WNYC radio to speak with Leonard Lopate, where the conversation ranged from why Wallace resists reading his own book reviews to his personal protest of the Infinite Jest book cover to learning more as a teacher than as a student.

Halfway through the interview, Wallace discusses the act of writing itself, “how marvelous it seems when it’s in your head and how unperfect it seems when it comes out.” He continues:

“You know, the whole thing about perfectionism.

The perfectionism is very dangerous, because of course if your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything. Because doing anything results in—it’s actually kind of tragic because it means you sacrifice how gorgeous and perfect it is in your head for what it really is.”

Though Wallace admits he’s “really struggled” with this for a couple of years, in the case of Infinite Jest, he notes: “The book isn’t perfect, but I also know that the book is exactly the best I could have done for the three years that I was working on [it].”

It’s something to consider the next time you find yourself in a writer’s block or similar creative rut; don’t let yourself be your worst enemy. And keep in mind: the concept of perfectionism is dependent on pre-determined rules. What we think of creativity today, however, is often breaking these rules.

(Last year, the team at Blank on Blank worked with an animator and PBS Digital Studios to bring the archived interview back to life through animation and some nice music. For the entire 30-minute interview, the audio is available to stream and download on WNYC)

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