Self-consciousness & the writer


In ‘Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace’ a subject that comes up with regularity is self-consciousness and in particular its detrimental effects on the writing process. How true, I thought each time it was mentioned. How very, very true. Of course, David Foster Wallace had just written, if not The Great American Novel, then at least a huge one thousand page American novel. It was on the bestseller lists and he was on the cover of Newsweek amongst other major signifiers of fame. So the pitch of attention aimed at him was huge and the attention was of course, personal. It might have begun with the book but it sought the man who had written it and he was on the road appearing in bookstores, giving readings, signing books, being ‘the writer’.

The curious thing is however, and I think he makes this clear many times over in his marathon conversation with David Lipsky, is that ‘the writer’ is not the man. The man, or woman if that is the case, can be hauled out on a book tour, interviewed, photographed, lauded or damned but that is not the writer.  For David Foster Wallace being ‘outed’ as the man behind the writer was discomforting. He found thinking about himself too much, his reasons and purposes, the sources of his material to be a disquieting; a disturbance to his thinking.

This problem of self-consciousness is one of the themes of ‘Infinite Jest’ and it affects his characters whether they are tennis athletes or recovering addicts. This brought to mind a time in my life when for a curious set of reasons I was persuaded to play pool for the team at my local pub in Stoke Newington. I had been playing a lot of pool and so my game had improved quite a bit. This was in 1979 or 1980, the pub had one pool table and a jukebox and most of the clientele were Irish labourers. To get a game on the table you put a coin on its edge then when your turn came you put your money in the slot and played the winner of the previous game.  I’m not sure how this system evolved but it was the same in pubs all over London and the UK. What it meant however was that a good player, a bit like a prize fighter, could stay on the table beating all challengers and, another advantage, only paying for one game.  So that winter and spring with ‘The Green Fields of France’ by The Fureys alternating with ‘Brass in Pocket’ by The Pretenders on the jukebox I might manage to stay on the table for three or four, sometimes five games. There was one particular night when I unknowingly beat the star players of the pool team and was promptly recruited. The first game in the tournament was to be played in another pub in Dalston. It was a serious business this and the names of the players and their opponents were duly chalked on a board having been drawn by lots. There were at least two Paddys listed, a Jimmy, a Tommy. My name Jo, even without its masculine ‘e’, did not look out of place there, but when it was time for me to take my place at the table a ripple of interest spread out, gathered force and came back at me greatly increased in force and magnitude. It was rare, very rare back then for women to play pool. Everyone in the room was looking at me, everyone that is, except for the man I was playing, who darkly muttered something about having to play a woman.

The happy unselfconscious ease I’d had before was gone. I blew it. I blew it for myself and I blew it for the team. Quietly, without a word from either myself or them I left the team. The lesson there was that I could play well when it didn’t matter, but when it did, I went to pieces.

My sense of self-consciousness had become so loud and troubling and destructive at the point I was writing my first novel I came up with the notion of pretending I was someone else. This someone else had to be very different from me, he had to be a man; a tall man with dark hair who was handsome and supremely confident. Did he constantly worry that was he was writing was complete nonsense? Did he think he’d never find a publisher for it? Hell, no. Did he worry that readers would judge him as a human being if he wrote anything morally or ethically unclear? Was he being apologetic, or self-censoring? Hell, no! Was he a risk taker? Was he clear about his aims for the book? Absolutely.

I’m not quite sure how I performed this mental trick of thinking myself into another consciousness but somehow it worked, and eventually the book came out. The problem with this was that he, that supremely confident chap with a double first from Cambridge, had gone and there was just this little female person in his place. Of course, David Foster Wallace was a 6ft 2in man, but he still suffered from this thing, this awful, hateful self-consciousness. Maybe the key point here is to do with depression and the idea that when the writer is writing, they are not themselves, they become invisible. Or the world goes away. The mind becomes so engaged with the business of the fictional world they are able to forget themselves. Whereas the rest of the stuff, ‘the fuss’ as David Foster Wallace put it to describe his book’s reception, is the complete opposite.

Other aspects of this idea of self-consciousness and depression seem to tie in with the idea of confidence. I’ve only just realised that while I have been writing this very short essay something; either confidence or faith has been flickering off and on, off and on. When I speak of faith here I mean faith that writing this has meaning, faith that another person will read it and may get something from it, faith that I am not writing nonsense.

I suppose the faulty light bulb of confidence is bound to be set off when exploring this topic, to try to write about self-consciousness is, in a sense, to peel off one’s skin and inspect what’s beneath. Writers are just human beings, if you cut out their hearts and leave them on a table then the cat is just as likely to eat them, as was rumoured to be the case with Thomas Hardy’s.