Columns

Rachel Arndt ’10: Four years in footnotes

Discovery and David Foster Wallace

I1 like being able to look at the steps I’ve taken after I’ve reached2 an answer3. I am selfish in my nostalgia4. There is no one way5 to do things. To look at each action as the potential6 for human behavior in its most natural form: to look at education as something living and growing, as opposed to simply an end7 to reach.

[The sentences from the opening paragraph are edited versions of sentences that appeared in my Brown application essay, written October 2005.]

1. According to contemporary (literary) wisdom, “I” is not the author of fiction and is, rather, the narrator, a character, an explicitly false person. Forward: The “I” of nonfiction is the writer, but the writer is a character formed by her own writing. This character is a translation, continuous yet aggressive in her push for independence. This is the writer’s tendency to write herself away, even when that undoing is irrational, contemptuous.

The professor’s nonfiction class was the start of everything: I learned about scaffolding, this marvelous trick used to form writing and then taken away, stripped piece by piece from the writing’s façade, until the writer’s truest intentions are what remain. I stopped being able to write standard academic essays. The necessary response became clear: Literary Arts, not English. And now, with Midwestern hands, I continue to write driven by the inspiration (I do not like that word; there is no other word) of my thesis adviser, that poetic master whose words — both written and said — will always be enough.

I came to college to find the nature of words and those created by them. The creations were revealed to be the writers. I was satisfied
with language.

2. By the time I reached the end of David Foster Wallace’s “Authority and American Usage,” I fell into a foreign void but lacked surroundings and pointed out that the void, in all its profound emptiness, must be contained. I set out in search of boundaries. I set out reading DFW’s essays, his fiction, his speeches. I was learning how to write.

But perhaps it is the reason behind the discovery of DFW that made the discovery itself so astounding, awesome: It was in the third class I had taken from my favorite professor at Brown, an English professor who, draped in skirts and glasses and encouragement, is one the primary reasons I love to write. And certainly the main reason I know how to write (though this statement is dripping with too much self-confidence for any writer (it’s cyclical) to stand behind).

A reader wished publishers would put extra pages at the end of books so he wouldn’t know when the ending was about to erupt. But, I asked, wouldn’t you just look for the last page of text? Or maybe the book would end with repeated parts of itself. You’d know the ending because you’d recognize the story folding in on itself in repetition. But I’d keep going, I said: “Infinite Jest” is stories and one tells of an Entertainment so powerful that the viewer is left unable to do anything, ensnared in the Entertainment. And this, I answered (to a question never asked), is why the greatest books must end.

3. My plea to learn grammar — that nitpicker’s code, that pesky yet lovable creature — was answered in Spanish. I learned about indirect object pronouns, the preterite and the indicative, the temporal difference between “has” and “had” and my favorite mood, the subjunctive. If I were to learn grammar again, I’d
choose Spanish.

So I chose Spanish. I returned to Brown from a semester in Barcelona and found myself wary of, and weary from, translating life into numbers, drawing graphs and plotting intersections to solve problems of free-market economics. Economics is valuable. The mathematical translations are oddly beautiful. But when I first noticed myself thinking in Spanish, I could no longer force away my love of language. Or: I could not stop writing myself into being, a task that relies on language and words and translation. The necessary response became clear: Spanish, not economics.

4. I don’t think I’ve collected or thought enough thoughts to know nostalgia. But let me go back to the sweaty summer day when I reached the end of “Infinite Jest” or the month when I finished reading “Ulysses” and became a former editor, and I’ll tell you if I’m humbled or stubborn.

5. According to some theories, the stream of consciousness cannot be translated to the page because it cannot be fully represented with language. To capture the rate and rhythm and multiplicities of possibilities of possibilities of possibilities &c. of thoughts is the mind’s task alone — not the writer’s. The mind is too chaotic for the word. (M. asked me why it mattered that words are just symbols. She asked why we can’t just enjoy reading a book because it is a great book. I had no good answer but to continue writing.)

Writing all moments is impossible. Knowing all moments is impossible. I read DFW and convinced myself otherwise. My writing, already too-much, took on unnecessary and boring layers, digressions long severed from their roots. My nonfiction would swing its pendulum and declare the arc too mathematical. Eventually weight ripped the string from its anchor, and my tales of truth jumped into imagined scenes of tiny angels practicing postmortem dentistry.

And that is not real but it is real because I thought it. So here, where I mean to explain the impossible task of thinking through writing, I end up mirroring the extension, or spreading out, or flattening, the pinpoint moment.

6. Learning to write nonfiction is a poetic version of learning to read. Learning to read the newspaper is not learning to read.

And those who write the newspaper? They are in the wilderness of the newsroom. Still, the nagging paradox: Wilderness requires a lack of people to fulfill its definition. The map tells you, “You are here,” which undoes the scene: You are not in the wilderness.
How, then, can the newsroom be a wilderness? It is why wilderness can be called wilderness, even when you are in it, pack straps digging into shoulders. It is
immensely far from our quotidian wanderings and so crucial to a successful, intelligent and thoughtful society. Working at The Herald was a daily trek in and out of the wilderness, a translation from the guts of the newsroom (the candy drawers and editors’ tendencies) to the campus and beyond the odd beauty of straightforward, informative linguistic communication.

7. The presses rumble less today, thrust fewer editions into the dim night-morning, the hazy light that makes perceiving depth a chore.

Four years ago I thought about newspaper circulation as much as I thought about the loveliness of the word “disintegration.” I think about disintegration a lot now: disintegration by hand, by shredding, by biting, by time, by washing, by machines. The word tastes decadent. The word is a process, and, therefore, demands our attention.

I wrote and edited my work and wrote and then edited. This was my stint at The Brown Daily Herald. Putting together the campus’ sole independent source of news everyday was tiring and fun and beyond worthwhile. Thank you, 119, for teaching me how to write by teaching me how to edit.

Sometimes we measure in column-inches, and by quantifying we mechanize. A reflexive duty, a byproduct of watching.

After all, I go on imitating. As the great footnoter himself wrote: “It’s funny what you don’t recall.”

Rachel Z. Arndt ’10, from Chicago, was senior editor of The Herald in 2009.