People probably get tired of me going on about my obsession with writers named David. I have a tendency to be a broken record with things I love. Sedaris. Foster Wallace. Rakoff. I recently read books by a Farley and a Lipsky that were both also excellent (though to be fair, the Lipsky book was a transcript of a conversation with Foster Wallace…)
A year ago today, David Rakoff died, so I hope you don’t mind if I let my record skip a little longer…
I met David Rakoff once, in February 2011. Just for a minute, at the end of an event in Brooklyn. I hadn’t read his books yet, I’d only heard a few of his pieces on This American Life, and his rhyming couplets stuck in my mind – mainly because I hate rhyming couplets, and yet the two poems I’d heard him read on TAL were beautifully crafted and erudite. They were touchstones of how to live gracefully in this awkward and fragile human world. At this event, I was ogling Ira Glass (like you do), trying to get a picture, and I didn’t take the time with David that I should have, that I would have if I had already fully immersed myself in his canon the way I have since. But while Ira was running around, trying to get something done, David looked at me fully, he was present with me. I had the strangest feeling that he would have gladly been a friend and mentor to me, if only I had asked.
Little did I know at the time. Once I read his books and listened to more of his TAL work, I often thought of writing to him, of telling him how much I identified with his work, but I procrastinated. And now it’s too late. When I read that he died last year, I burst into tears, and then kept bursting sporadically throughout the day. I felt like I knew him, even though of course I didn’t.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, about how nonfiction writers who insert themselves into their work shape who they want you to see – so that you can feel like you know them, like they understand you as no one else ever has or ever could, like you could really truly be friends. That’s a gift, though a somewhat disingenuous one. Who knows if these writers truly are what they say they are…well, I guess that could be said of anyone.
The thing about the Davids is this: Foster Wallace is just brilliant. He elevates me, challenges me, and yes, seems to worry about the same things I worry about as far as what it means to be human, or lonely, or connected. He had so much roiling inside him, no matter how much he struggled, it seems like it just couldn’t NOT get written. Sedaris was born into a family just begging to be written about, which is not to diminish his talent, because he uses his own special alchemy to embellish his familial lore into art.
But David Rakoff is me. He had to fight for his words. He wasn’t born into a goldmine of stories, though I suppose being gay – and a Canadian in America – gave him some inherent material. But this is the man who said, “Writing is like pulling teeth. From my dick.”
I so perfectly identify with that sentiment, relevant body part or not. It seems like David got a later start in his writing because he was afraid to try for many years. He had to go out and find stories, he put himself in weird situations, he did things he didn’t want to do. He forced himself to experience, and grow. Often the endgame was disappointment or indifference. But he tried.
I live in “afraid to try.” I’m still working on getting to “tried.” I admire the journey he took from one to the other. I get it so hard.
That’s what it seems like he did, anyway. That’s how he presented himself, or a facet of himself. And if he exaggerated that part…well, he made himself completely human. I wanted to know him better. I don’t know if that’s dark magic or not, but if only I could get that kind of emotional truth right.
People always tell me I’m too hard on myself. Someone suggested that I imagine a child, or a pet, or something that I would always treat gently, and try to treat myself like that.
I am on the fence about babies and I have never had a pet, so instead I imagine David Rakoff. I think he might have been a little hard on himself too. And he is certainly someone who deserved to be treated with generosity and kindness. In the minute I met him, he gave that to me.
Writing is like pulling teeth. But when I get frustrated and want to give up and find a nice 9-5 job and never, ever think about being creative again, I think of David, who can’t write anymore. I imagine taking up the torch for him. I can’t pretend to be a fraction as smart or witty as he was. But I can continue to make myself better, to strive to get where he was, and to honor him by emulating him, by writing the kind of stories he might have written.
Anyway, that’s just how I feel. Go read his new book, it’s all rhyming couplets, and I’ve heard it’s amazing. I’m putting it off, delaying the gratification, but you should buy it.
The world misses you, David.