David Rakoff INTERVIEW (2010)
David Rakoff (1964-2012) was a writer, humorist, and frequent contributor to This American Life. He is the author, most recently, of Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish: A Novel—published posthumously. Our conversation, below, was about his second-to-last book, a collection of essays, titled Half Empty.
BW: You sent me four stories from the new book—"Isn't That Romantic?" "The Satisfying Crunch of Dreams Under Foot," "All the Time We Have," and "Dark Meat". Can you describe the rest of the book overall?
DR: The collection is a little more personal than my previous collections of essays. Though, of the personal essays in this forthcoming book, even those are more in the familiar essay territory as opposed to strict memoir. The familiar essay is this 19th-century term for personal essays that begin in the personal and then move to the universal. Usually titled, "On…” such and such, like "On the Pleasures of Hating," "On Spiders," "On Fear.” They touch on the writer's passions and thoughts on a given subject—Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt in its most classic form—and Anne Fadiman, who was recently at the American Scholar, sort of revived the form.
Perhaps I'm fooling myself, but the hope is that even the personal stuff in Half Empty is less memoir and says something a little more universal. I guess the example would be with the essay I sent you, "All the Time We Have," which talks about my therapist's dying. I would hope that it would somehow touch on the experience of what happens when your doctor, your caregiver, the person who's supposed to be taking care of you, actually dies. Maybe I'm larding it with more meaning than it actually has. Maybe it's just a somewhat melancholic little story about someone whose therapist dies. But that's sort of the hope.
The story, "The Satisfying Crunch of Dreams Underfoot," is about me briefly being in a movie and then having to go back to my publishing job and then administer a literary contest for the author of the book that was based on the movie. My hope is that it said something about bitterness and being charitable.
“Dark Meat” was a researched story about pork and secular Jew's love affair with pork.
"Isn't it Romantic?" was truly meant to be an exploration of the notion of creativity and what it takes to make art and just sort of tolerating oneself while one gets the work out, as opposed to the very romantic and lovely notion of bohemianism as it's portrayed in culture, which is as a sort of tortured, carnal, lovely hanging out. In fact, art takes the opposite of hanging out and you have to stay home and do your work. It's lonely and it's sad and it's hard but that's what it takes and, P.S., it's not mining coal so one should be grateful if one gets the chance.
BW: What do you think explains the enduring romanticism is of the bohemian lifestyle?
DR: I think the romantic myth of bohemianism is hardy for a variety of reasons. One, it does seem more fun to be creative and bohemian than to work in an office cubicle and spend your days getting someone coffee and doing their filing. I can say from personal experience—it's true, it is more fun. I did work in an office cubicle for decades, and I was really bitter about it. It is more fun to be creative. I think another part of it is, there's an undeniable sexiness to the creative life, at least in theory, not particularly more in practice. But you know there's a certain carnal and erotic subtext to that kind of life.
And there is also attendant to the myth of bohemianism that artists and creative types are subject to a different and laxer moral code, that one can behave oneself in a different kind of way, which I think is bullshit. I think that it was something that was started by a bunch of artists a long time ago so that they could shirk certain responsibilities. It doesn't cut a lot of ice with me and I don't have a lot of patience for people who fancy themselves artists but who behave like real shitheads. I think it's crap. And it always seems to involve mistreating their girlfriends, their wives, their boyfriends, and skipping out on checks, and just not being responsible human beings. I place great store in people who are reliable and responsible. And does it mean I'm less creative? Possibly so but no, I think you have to do both.
BW: Who do you think the writer—we could talk about other kinds of artists but since you're a writer, we'll just keep it to that—is accountable to with their work?
DR: I don't think they're accountable to people with their work. I think they're accountable to people with their life. And that's a personal thing. I think a writer is accountable to the people in their life the way anybody is accountable to the people in their life. That's all I meant. In terms of one's work, one's accountable to nobody. You don’t owe anybody anything beyond trying your hardest and doing your best. But you've got to pay your bills, you've got to be kind to people, you've got to do favors, you've got to be a reliable person, but that's an entirely personal sphere. That has nothing to do with the artist as artist.
BW: You made a remark in a previous interview I read from you which made me think that when you're writing, especially in this form, it could be said your work is at least accountable to memory.
DR: I'm absolutely dependent on memory because my work is peppered with movie references and it jumps from place to place. So I try to be as truthful as possible in that memory. But because I know that the nature of memory itself is so fragile and so malleable, I don't even go certain places in my writing. I don't write about my family. I don't write about friends. I do have a family. So if I need to people them in a certain story then I will do that. But it's a very dry and clinical use of them. I don't tell what they're thinking. I don't even really reconstruct events that could be misconstrued in a certain way. I think that's pretty important for a variety of reasons. One is, I don't want to use people's stories that I don't really have a right to; it’s not my family's fault that I became a writer. I also don't want to have to dispute my versions of things so I just don't put them out there.
I also don't want to be known for the particulars of my biography more than for the way I use language. And that seems very important to me. So if I became the product itself, if my life became the product that I was selling, that would seem to me to be a real problem.
BW: Isn't that hard when you're writing such personal stories?
DR: Yeah, and it's not for me to say whether I've been successful in that regard. But whereas the stories are personal, it's a very controlled revelation. People don't really know about my family, they don't know about my love life. They don't know a lot of stuff about me. They don't know about my friends. I guess every memoirist or personal essayist is controlling their revelations. I mean, it's not like posting drunk messages on your Facebook page for any of us, I suppose. But I think I do play it a little closer to the vest. And I don't think the particulars of my biography, such as they are, are all that interesting.
BW: And yet people are interested in your stories.
DR: And again I would hope that it's because of the way I use language, but it's not for me to say. I don't know.
BW: I've heard you reference your use of language a lot in this conversation.
DR: I guess it’s because I'm feeling a little prophylactically defensive about this next book because it is somewhat more personal. So I'm probably just working on my talking points.
BW: Well let's talk about your use of language then. Where did you learn to talk?
DR: Well whenever my vocabulary comes up, I bridle a little bit. Because, for a variety of reasons, I don't think my vocabulary is all that great. I mean, I overuse words; there are some words I simply don't know.
But also I like words. I like words because it's like using more spices in your cooking or more colors in your painting. I just like words. I am also a homosexual and I don't really respond to that sullen kind of guy writing. Spare writing really has to be pretty fucking awesome for me to really twig to.
There's another piece in the book, called "Shrimp," and it's about having been tiny. I was very, very small until college. I didn't really grow until my sophomore, junior year of college. And as a result, because I was so small, I had to develop other ways of manifesting my presence in the world, and that was through talk, through conversation. So it also must be, on some level, an outgrowth of my lack of growth, of the fact that I was so tiny.
BW: In "Isn't It Romantic?" you describe writing as being really difficult; but you just said that, at a very young age, you'd already learned to talk well. What was it like to be “of-age” as a talker but not writing yet?
DR: They're similar, talking and writing, they both use words. And I guess it's nice to think that all those years of talking and talking well were the brewing process. But they’re different acts for some reason. Talking is easy. Writing requires work and massaging and finessing and doing and thinking and it's slower and I still find writing tremendously difficult, just tremendously difficult. I love having done it, obviously, and I don't find it so difficult that I don't do it, although I haven't written anything in quite a few weeks. I turned in the copy edit of the book this week and that felt like busywork, but I haven't sat down and actually produced something for a long, long time. And the more time that elapses the greater the sense of dread. It requires much more thought to write. I've had occasionally good luck with talking something through into a tape recorder and then transcribing that and then using that as the body of something. But writing just seems immediately freighted. The minute you sit down, you just want it to be good. And it can't be good the first time. It has to be bad.
BW: “Writing is rewriting” or however the expression goes?
DR: Yes, I'm sure there are some writers who put things down on the paper immediately and it's fantastic.
BW: Do you really think that?
DR: No. Although, apparently there's a manuscript of The Importance of Being Earnest that has very few corrections on it. But who knows whether, in fact, it’s his original manuscript? It wouldn't surprise me a bit to find out that someone like Oscar Wilde had actually disposed of the earlier, marked-up manuscript and posited this one as the first one. But, you know, he's also a bit of a genius. So who knows?
BW: It seems like learning to write is initially a process of learning to overcome a kind of fear of having a terrible first draft.
DR: Yes, I think that's absolutely true. I think before that, it's learning to read and just learning to take in the world. But I think you're absolutely right, it's about tolerating yourself, turning off your editor voice while you just try and create something, which is intensely difficult to do. I'm not good at that, just sitting with yourself and churning out this bad work and getting to the end of a first draft and then working from there.
BW: There seems to be a situation in modern culture, perhaps a result of the rise of independent publishing technology, where many consider themselves writers who don’t pay much attention to it as a craft.
DR: And I think that’s somewhat attributable to the incredible popularity of memoir, that the details of one's biography trump notions of craft and that your story is what's really important and not the way you tell it. And it sounds elitist of me, I suppose, but writing is a craft and it does require some vigilance about the way you employ language. It's not just about what happened to you and what you know. I think the thinking is that anybody can write, and anybody can do it, with work. But I think that the general thinking in the culture now is that anybody can do it straight out of the gate and all you have to do is tell your story. And I just don't agree.
BW: I remember something Etgar Keret said, another contributor on This American Life who writes short stories. He’s is very upfront about the fact that his is “a good story, poorly told.” I happen to think he's a better stylist than he gives himself credit for but he seems to be kind of shameless about promoting that as a way of thinking about writing. Do you think that's an unhealthy perspective to have?
DR: Well it goes back to something that my father once said. He took that old aphorism, “if something's worth doing, it's worth doing well.” And he reversed it and said “if something's worth doing, it's worth doing badly.” Which is basically about the nobility of amateurism. It means that you will derive great pleasure and real solace and sustenance from doing something just because you like doing it. Do it with your own passion and if it's not good, who the fuck cares? That's fine. You’ve gotten something out of it and that's great. I think there is a nobility in that, something even great about that, and moral and important. But we live in such fame- and renown- and celebrity-obsessed times that not everything one does has to be public or validated publicly or paid for. There’s a lot of stuff one can do in your apartment that will be creative and beautiful and enrich your life, and no one needs to know about them. No one needs to pay you for them. Not all creativity and not all activity and not all life has to be public. So, I don't tweet. I don't have a blog. I don't have a website. And occasionally you'll come across people who say things like, “Well if you don't do it, you'll never have an audience, no one is going to know who you are, no one's going to care.” I can't help feeling that really, if that's the referendum on whether one gets an audience—constant updating of one's quotidian activities—then who wants an audience?
BW: But you have crafted a career for yourself making certain things about yourself public. How do you decide which things are going to be useful or worth putting out into the public sphere?
DR: There are things I know I'm never going to talk about that are just never on the table. Friends, family, sex, love, they're just never on the table.
BW: But the things that are on the table. Why are those things on the table? What's the usefulness of those things?
DR: They're never used for the experience themselves. I'm not talking about the reportorial boondoggles that I go on, say, where I'm going to a wilderness camp because I'm sent to do such a thing. I'm talking about my life, when I use something from my life. First of all I never go and have an experience just to write about it unless I'm going to write about it. I never go into a personal experience in that kind of bad faith. Which helps. It's very freeing to know that I'm never going to write about my friends, that I'm never going to use that aspect. I didn't go visit my dying therapist in the hospital in order to write about him. I went because he saved my life and he was dying and that's what one does. I don't think I betrayed that experience or cheapened it by then writing about it after the fact. Again, it's not for me to say.
BW: But your gut feeling about it is that you didn't?
DR: My gut feeling is that I didn't. There are there are pretty strict guidelines in my gut and I think I adhere to them for the most part.
BW: So then the stories that make it to print, which are then public…I guess what I'm hearing is that there's more like a message to those stories.
DR: The hope is that they're about something larger than just themselves. Message seems a big word, like I'm prescribing something, or I'm telling people how they should think or live or something like that. I'm probably secretly or not-so-secretly bossy enough to be that kind of person. But I hope it doesn't come out so much in my writing. I have to say, my last book was a bit of a jeremiad against stuff and consumption. Although, I mean, look around you. There's no shortage of stuff in this apartment. But the hope is that it's not just a personal story and that maybe there's something in there that can transcend the boundaries of itself. Do I have an agenda beyond being thought of as a good writer? No. I guess I clearly would like to be seen as a good person in the writing, or not a greedy person, someone who knows their place, I suppose. I think creating of any sort and putting it out there is a personal ad of some sort.
BW: You said earlier that writing is different from talking. How do you approach writing for print and writing for radio?
DR: On the radio it has to be leaner and it has to be more fun and funny and entertaining. On the page, you can be more boring and tangential. When you're talking to someone, when it's only your voice, you're leading them in the dark along a string and if you have them let go of this string then they're lost to you. Radio has to be a lot more linear and a lot leaner and a lot quicker. So it's more of a difference of quantity as opposed to a difference of kind. The other thing is, my speaking voice and my writing voice are very similar. I speak in a somewhat schoolmarmish manner and I write in a somewhat schoolmarmish manner. They're not completely different, the way we're speaking here and the way I sound on the page, I think.
BW: Are there any pieces in Half Empty that would lend themselves to being performed?
DR: If they were cut down in a rather ruthless manner. I'm going to have to perform some of them on book tour and find a way in which to make them palatable to a listening audience, as opposed to a reading audience, and that will require some cutting.
BW: The first instance where I came across your work was the poem you wrote for the "Frenemies" episode of This American Life. Are you going to write more poems?
DR: Well I liked doing the frenemies poem. And I liked very much a Christmas poem that I did for This American Life as well. They're really fun to do because they're kind of a puzzle about the rhyming scansion and the rhymes; and you want them to be good, but you also want to tell a story. It's crossed my mind—maybe I could do a bunch of things like that: interconnected stories that were done in rhyming. I do need a project for the next book. I don't know that I would be able to convince an editor to do such a thing.
Editorial note: Rakoff’s next—and last—book was a novel written entirely in rhyme.
[Transcript edited for length and clarity.]