Tuesday, June 25, 2013

David Foster Wallace on Giving Advice

Earlier this month Jonathan Mayhew somewhat mysteriously withdrew from the "advice business". As someone whose livelihood depends on it, I'm looking forward to hearing what his reasons are. But this passage, which I just came across in David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, offers a pretty good take on the issue.

This remains largely theory, but my best guess as to his never dispensing wisdom like other dads is that my father understood that advice—even wise advice—actually does nothing for the advisee, changes nothing inside, and can actually cause confusion when the advisee is made to feel the wide gap between the comparative simplicity of the advice and the totally muddled complication of his own situation and path. ... If you begin to get the idea that other people can actually live by the clear, simple principles of good advice, it can make you feel even worse about your own inabilities. It can cause self-pity, which I think my father recognized as the great enemy of life and contributor to nihilism. (208)

Wise words, to be sure. In defense of giving advice I can only say that this is really a criticism of the way people take it, not the way people give it.

In any case, I always tell my seminar participants that they will not learn what I have to teach them by believing what I say, but by doing as I say. While my advice (my approach to writing) is certainly reducible to a few simple principles, this does not mean that I deny "the totally muddled complication of [a writer's] situation and path". Clarity is possible, but only by repeated application of the advice (not repetitions of the advice itself) over weeks and weeks of actually writing. The advisee, perhaps, chooses to see a "wide gap" because he or she despairs over what is really a long road. It is by turning my advice into something you have to do, not just something you have to feel is true, that it becomes sensitive to the complexity of your situation. The advice is not supposed to change you. Your actions are.

1 comment:

Andrew Gelman said...

Looking back at good and bad choices I've made in my own life, I think that some well-placed advice could've made a big difference.