David Foster Wallace: Early Footnotes
He had two passions growing up, words and tennis. It was the latter that took up most of his attention. David Foster Wallace was born into a literary family, with a mother who was an English teacher and a father who was a philosopher. His parents were eccentric nerds who relished word games and would read the dictionary for fun.
When he was twelve, Wallace made his earliest known foray into writing, and tied for first place in a local poetry contest. That’s right, the king of lengthy prose made his writing debut as a poet.
According to a profile of Wallace in the New Yorker, the poem was about a polluted creek near his home. The piece featured some pretty bad rhyming couplets, including this one: “Did you know that rats breed there? That garbage is their favorite lair.” Yet, he won and the first prize came with $50, which he used to fund his true hobby and pay for tennis camp.
Eight years passed before Wallace produced any other serious work. In that time, he continued with tennis and started college at Amherst, studying to be a philosopher. But the same mental and emotional problems that would cause him to commit suicide years later started to chip away at him in these years. In his sophomore year, he up and left Amherst and moved back home, citing a “midlife crisis,” which he attributed to the realization that he did not want to be a philosopher after all. So, at twenty years old, he turned to fiction.
“Until then, Wallace had seen novels primarily as a pleasurable way to get information,” according to the New Yorker. “But he realized that fiction could order experience as well as philosophy could, and also provide some of the same comfort. During this time, he wrote several short stories, one of which was published.”
The published story was called The Planet Trillaphon and appeared in the Amherst Review. It illustrated his overwhelming depression in molecular detail, full of run-on sentences. “Every electron is sick, here, twirling offbalance and all erratic in these funhouse orbitals that are just thick and swirling with mottled yellow and purple poison gases, everything off balance and woozy,” he wrote in the story.
What a fitting start for a fiction writer who came closer than most to expressing the full human condition in his work, all with proper citations. Soon after this piece was published, he signed up for a creative writing class at Amherst and began plugging away at his first novel while still in school.